You can hardly turn on the television any more without seeing an ad for an herbal supplement. Advertisers tout claims that herbal products can do everything from improving memory to improving your mood to helping you lose weight. Like most events in human medicine, this movement has carried over into veterinary medicine, and a number of herbal supplements are now available to animals. Along with the benefits of herbal treatments, however, have come questions about the safety and effectiveness of "natural" or "alternative" therapies.
The case for Nutraceuticals
Proponents of alternative treatments point out that the difference between herbal and prescription treatments is not as large as we think. Medications have been derived from plants for at least 3000 years, and 25 percent of our prescription drugs still are. Many of the drugs that are now synthesized originated from plants at some point. Clearly, plant-based medications can be dependable and effective.
One advantage that proponents see to herbal medicines is that they contain materials from the entire plant. Traditional prescriptions generally extract and concentrate one active chemical from a plant, which some advocates of alternative medicine see as a waste of valuable nutrients. Plants can contain sugars, minerals, proteins, and a host of other chemicals that interact with the active chemical in a variety of ways--they may concentrate or intensify its effect, they may make it easier to digest or absorb, or they may lessen its harsh or toxic side effects. Supporters of herbal medicine feel that medicine is most effective in its natural state, when it contains all of these chemicals, rather than after it has been processed. They argue that because they are natural and unprocessed, herbal remedies like echinacea and ginseng have been able to achieve "miraculous" cures where traditional medicines have failed.
In fact, due to whole-food make up and relative safety, herbal medicines are often considered more of a nutritional supplement than a medication--the Food and Drug Administration labels them as "nutraceuticals," and does not regulate them as drugs. Many holistic veterinarians see nutraceuticals as extension of an animal’s natural diet, adding to the nutrition animals should be getting from their environment but aren’t getting from their processed pet food.
The case against Nutraceuticals
For all their advantages, however, herbal and natural remedies are not the solution to every problem, and they are not endorsed by all veterinarians. Some doctors feel that there isn’t enough data available about their safety. While prescription drugs must be extensively tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA does not regulate nutraceuticals. Opponents of herbal medicines argue that they haven’t been taken by enough animals or for a long enough time for us to really know their long-term effects. They also argue that the proof of their effectiveness is more anecdotal than scientific. That is, the evidence of what nutraceuticals can do comes more from pet owners who have seen positive results in their animals than from scientists who have performed controlled tests, and most pet owners don’t have the training necessary to note all side effects and recognize other possible causes for a positive response. Also, dosage hasn’t been formalized for nutraceuticals. While guidelines have been established to let veterinarians know how much of a prescription drug to give to a 12-pound cat, for example, versus a 60-pound dog, no guidelines have been established for natural remedies. Veterinarians, herbalists, and pet owners have to work from their judgment and experience to determine how much of an herbal remedy to give and how to give it.
Another disadvantage that opponents see to nutraceuticals is their complexity. They argue that the effects of a single active chemical from a plant are more predictable that the effect of all the different chemicals that are in an entire dried plant. These extra chemicals could potentially cause unnecessary side effects in animals, or make the active ingredient work less effectively. Neutraceuticals can contain varying amounts of the active ingredient. When products like glucosamine have been tested in the past half of the products contained a mere 40% of the ingredient that they tout on the label. Two of the products contained a meager 10% of the ingredient compared to the label.
Some veterinarians are concerned that people tend to equate the terms "natural" and "herbal" with "safe." Though they aren’t recognized as drugs, herbal and natural remedies are used for a drug-like effect, and they can potentially cause the same reactions and complications prescription drugs can cause. Pets could be allergic to them, for example, or they could interfere with other prescription medications. Some veterinarians also worry that people might assume that the herbal supplements that are good for them are also good for their pets. White willow, for example, which is used as a pain reliever for people with arthritis, cannot be metabolized by cats and can be fatal. Tea tree oil, which is used to heal cuts and skin problems, is healthy for dogs but can be toxic for cats if they lick it off their skin. Garlic, which is a safe pest repellent and cardiac treatment for animals in small doses, can cause anemia (a decrease in red blood cells) in animals if used for a long period of time or given in doses that are too large. Situations like these could make it dangerous for pet owners to treat their own pets with nutraceuticals.
The best way to address the issue of natural supplements for pets is to become informed about what treatments are available and how they can be used. Following are some of the treatments currently being used by veterinarians and pet owners to treat animals:
Glucosamine and Chondroitan--These may be the most well known and commonly prescribed nutraceuticals for pets. They are not herbal supplements: glucosamine is derived from shellfish tissue, and chondroitan is derived from animal products. They are given to animals suffering from arthritis and joint pain, in order to rebuild the cartilage and thicken the joint fluid that cushions and protects joints.
Echinacea--A well-known immunostimulant. It is said to improve the immune system and help pets fight off infections, diseases, and even cancer.
Aloe--This thick-leaved plant is used for animals much like it is for humans, as a soothing, itch relieving ointment that is applied directly to the skin. It is also said to help heal cuts and protect them from infection. As aloe breaks down quickly and is hard to store over time, the best way to use it is simply to break a leaf off an aloe plant.
Ginger--Chinese medicine has been using this root for centuries as an anti-inflammatory and an aid for stomach problems. Ginger is said to help animals with car sickness and digestive problems like gas and diarrhea.
Vitamin C--This vitamin, which is considered a powerful anti-oxidant, is abundant in most fruits and some vegetables. It is also available in pill form and as a liquid that can be mixed into a pet’s water. Anti-oxidants are said to help combat the aging process and slow damage to the body’s tissues, as well as to help prevent cancer. It has also been suggested that vitamin C can help treat hip dysplasia, arthritis, and urinary tract problems.
Milk thistle--Pets with liver problems such as hepatitis may be given this supplement. It is supposed to protect the cells of the liver from toxins.
Saint John’s Wort--Though it has gained fame in human medicine as a treatment for depression, this herb is used as a treatment for viral infections and neural disorders in alternative veterinary medicine.
Ginkgo--Again, this herb has attracted a great deal of attention in human medicine. It is said to work by expanding the blood vessels in the brain, thereby increasing blood flow. People take it to increase their memory and improve their brain function, and some veterinarians are using it to treat animals that exhibit cognitive dysfunction the animal equivalent of senile dementia.
Slippery Elm--The bark of this tree is used as an aid to the digestive system for pets that suffer from constipation and upset stomach. It has also been used as a cough suppressant and a poultice (an herb that is boiled down into a paste, cooled, and applied to the skin).
Talk to you veterinarian
These examples only scratch the surface of the nutraceuticals that are available for animals. It can be difficult to know which alternative medicines are appropriate for your pet and which ones may be dangerous. Always talk to your veterinarian before you treat your pet with a natural remedy. A veterinarian is the most knowledgeable and accessible resource you can find to help you understand nutraceuticals. She will be able to tell you which herbs can interact with your pet’s prescriptions, which herbs can interact with each other, and which are safe and effective. If you need more information, your veterinarian can also help you contact a specialist in alternative veterinary medicine. Armed with information and your veterinarian’s advice, you will be able to make an informed decision about natural supplements for your healthy pet’s future.