Hawthorn Herb Improves Cardiac Function in Older Dogs
Older dogs in need of a general tonic will benefit most from this herb.
by Gregory L. Tilford
As a traveling, lecturing herbalist, I often hear the question of whether herbs might be helpful in treating old or debilitated dogs with chronic disease.
My answer: Yes – especially when used to supplement a good, natural diet and to strengthen or “tonify” the body’s natural healing functions. When used in this capacity, we refer to herbs as herbal tonics.
Unlike most conventional drugs, tonic herbs do not suppress or replace natural functions in the body. Instead, they serve to improve the body’s efforts to stay healthy. Tonic herbs are neither drug-like remedies nor foods, but stand somewhere in between, providing supplemental measures of support that help bridge the gaps between what a body needs from diet and what it needs in terms of specific, added support.
Most tonic herbs do their work by providing special nutrients, enzymes, and other chemicals that the body needs to bring deficient or overtaxed organs and systems into higher levels of efficiency.
Hawthorn (Crataegus species), a tonic herb that has been used for centuries to improve cardiac function and output, is a classic example. Hawthorn does not initiate any immediate changes in heart function, but does so very gently over time, without adding stress or interfering with other body functions. Hawthorn helps support the heart and cardiovascular system in ways that no food or drug can.
Preventative heart tonic
Hundreds of scientific studies have validated hawthorn’s usefulness as a heart tonic.
It is well known that hawthorn dilates both coronary vessels and vessels of the brain, helping to increase circulation and the transport of nutrients and oxygen throughout the body.
It accomplishes this in a very effective and unique fashion: while it acts to dilate major vessels, it also increases blood flow from the heart to compensate for any reduction of arterial blood volume. In other words, it helps the body push more blood around by increasing cardiac output and decreasing blood flow resistance in the arteries, i.e., more blood flow at less pressure. This has been shown in studies performed with dogs, especially when used in small doses over an extended period.
Hawthorn also serves as a blood pressure regulator. Although the mechanisms of this activity baffle herbalists and scientists alike, the herb tends to gently elevate low blood pressure, and decrease high blood pressure. This is really quite amazing, especially when we consider the fact that hawthorn does this while increasing cardiac output. By helping with dilation of coronary arteries and strengthening heartbeat, hawthorn improves blood circulation without adversely effecting blood pressure.
Another well-documented benefit of hawthorn is its ability to steady and strengthen a weak or erratic heartbeat – such as that of elderly or energetically challenged dogs. In human applications hawthorn has been used as an alternative to antiarrhythmia drugs like digitalis, and to improve the effects of that and other cardiac drugs.
Hawthorn is also a great antioxidant. It scavenges free radicals that rob the blood of oxygen and may lead to various forms of vascular disease. Herbalists also use the herb to lower blood cholesterol.
All of these activities are largely attributed to a vast assortment of flavonoid constituents held within the berries, leaves, flowers, and twigs of hawthorn. Although flavonoids are also found in many other kinds of fruits (especially raspberries, blueberries, and other red or blue fruits), hawthorn is an especially rich source.
Studies have shown that flavonoids are essential in maintaining disease resistance and the integrity of smooth muscle tissues throughout the body. Some studies even suggest that hawthorn may help prevent myocardial damage in situations where the heart muscle is subjected to physiological stress. This means that animals such as race horses or working dogs who are constantly under cardiovascular stress will likely find preventive benefits from daily supplements of hawthorn.
And to top everything off, hawthorn is very, very safe. In fact, in the hundreds of animal studies that have been conducted with this herb over the past 100 years, hawthorn has shown extremely low toxicity in every animal tested. I place the risk of hawthorn berry toxicity on about the same level as that presented by rose hips, raspberries, or blueberries. In other words, I consider them all as medicinal foods.
It stands to reason that this cardiovascular tonic is useful in the daily care of any older dog, but especially those who suffer from chronic heart problems such as arrhythmia, congestive heart failure, postsurgical dysfunction, or other cardiac anomalies that have weakened the heart’s ability to pump blood.
I consider hawthorn to be strongly indicated in virtually any case where damage to the heart muscle has resulted from heartworm infestation, bacterial or viral infections, or protracted chemotherapy.
I also find hawthorn useful in cases of renal failure, especially in early stages of the disease. When combined with ginkgo biloba (for small capillary circulation) and herbs that improve urinary function, hawthorn may be useful for getting more blood and oxygen into renal arteries and smaller vessels of the kidneys. This, in theory, is thought to slow degeneration of whatever healthy tissue remains in the diseased organs.
As a daily supplement
When combined with a good natural diet and other tonic herbs, hawthorn will act exactly as an herbal heart tonic should – to fill the special cardiac needs in the golden years of an animal’s life.
Other tonic herbs can be used in combination with hawthorn to round out the supplemental needs of older animals. These might include ginkgo or yarrow (for strengthening capillary walls and improving blood supply to the kidneys and extremities); garlic (for added antioxidant and immune system support); alfalfa and red clover (to nourish the blood, increase appetite, and raise energy levels); dandelion leaf (to assist in the removal of excess water); and oat tops (as a nervous system tonic).
In the natural pet product industry, the berries of hawthorn are the most commonly used part of this plant. This is probably because they make such palatable medicine. However, the flowering branch ends (leaves, flower buds, twigs, thorns and all) are fine medicine too, and can be clipped into small pieces and brewed into a decoction (a simmered tea). However, unlike the berries, the “twig tea” tastes awful!
If you are lucky enough to have a hawthorn tree near your home and a dog that likes red fruit, you can pick the ripe berries and feed them as tonic treats.
Or, when the berries become fully ripe, they can be picked, dried on a clean sheet of paper, and ground with a mortar or pestle (be forewarned that they burn out small coffee grinders!) into a coarse powder. The powder can then be added to your companion’s diet at a rate of one teaspoon per pound of food fed each day.
If your pup won’t eat the berries either way, try making a tea (with about a teaspoon of dried berries and a cup of hot water) and pouring it over his food. If that doesn’t work, you can use gel caps wrapped with expensive, imported Brie cheese (just kidding!). Better yet, you can use a liquid hawthorn tincture (one-half tsp. for small dogs; one-half to one tsp. for larger dogs). Alcohol-free, glycerin-based tinctures are quite sweet and easiest to feed.
-Greg Tilford is a well-known expert in the field of veterinary herblism. An international lecturer and teacher of veterinarians and pet owners alike, Greg has written four books on herbs, including All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets (Bowie Press, 1999), which he coauthored with his wife, Mary.