People have been using herbs as a treatment for illness since the earliest days of human history, and it’s only logical that this treatment modality should also be used for our animals.
How effective a herb is depends on many things – the part of the plant used, the age of the plant at harvest, and how it is handled after harvesting.
In many cases, no studies have been done into the use of a particular herb in animals, so safety isn’t guaranteed. Also, plants and herbs are the basis for conventional drugs, so it’s quite possible that a large dose of a herb can also have some undesirable side effects, similar to an overdose of the drug.
One example of a herb that is very dangerous to pets is pennyroyal. This can be used as an insect repellent, but it is very toxic to dogs and cats, so should never be used. White willow bark contains salicylates which can ease pain and reduce fever. The bark was used to make the drug aspirin.. We all know that aspirin is very bad for cats – this is because of its salicylate content. Willow bark is therefore also very harmful if given to cats.
The other potential problem with herbal medicines are that they may interfere with the workings of more conventional medicines. For example, bitter melon will increase the duration of action of insulin, playing havoc with regulating your pet’s diabetes.
There are, however, some herbs which are very beneficial to our pets. Echinacea has no known toxicity, and acts as a non specific immune stimulant. Although it is non toxic, you do need to take care if your pet has an auto immune disease.
Marshmallow is effective in managing coughing, and also is a general immune stimulant. Licorice is an anti-inflammatory and can help in cases of skin inflammation and inflammatory bowel disease. Take care with this herb if your pet has any problems with his heart, liver or kidneys.
Ginger soothes the digestive system and can help with travel sickness. You can get too much of a good thing – a high dose can lead to dullness and lethargy, and it’s also not considered safe during pregnancy.
Milk thistle is a tonic for the liver, and St John’s Wort can be calming and helps ease nervous conditions such as separation anxiety.
Because there are so few clinical studies into the use of herbs in animals, and also because of the possible interaction with other medications, it’s important that you only ever use herbs with the guidance of a trained veterinary herbalist. Many veterinarians use herbs in conjunction with other natural therapies, particularly acupuncture, and they can also combine the use of herbs with conventional treatments for your pet’s illness.