Features March 2003 Issue

Effective Healing Herbs for Canine

The five 'golden rules' of safe and effective herb use for dogs.

-By Gregory L. Tilford

Unlike conventional drug therapies and surgical interventions, effective herb use does not focus on suppression or removal of disease symptoms. Instead, the herbalist begins his work from a more holistic perspective, one that starts with identification and correction of underlying issues and external influences that cause or contribute to illness.

To clarify this, let's look at urinary stones and the methods by which they are treated.

Herbs should not be used to suppress a symptom. For best results, herbs should be one part of a treatment plan that improves the dog's total health.

It is well known that many types of stones result from systemic imbalances between urine pH levels and excess minerals in the urinary tract. There are various types of stones; some occur in an acid pH environment while others occur in an alkaline pH environment. Virtually all cases of stones are strongly influenced by diet and the body's inability to effectively eliminate waste.

Aside from surgery, conventional approaches include reduction of calcium, protein, or other elements from the diet that are thought to contribute to the stones. However, from a holistic perspective, this approach leaves a very important question unanswered: Why is the body unable to properly utilize food and eliminate waste?

From a holistic standpoint, it just doesn't make sense to reduce calcium, protein, and other nutrients that are important to canine health - to do so may predispose the dog to malnutrition. Therefore, the holistic caregiver's first course of action is not to cut out important nutrients from the dog's diet, but to improve the quality and digestibility of the food the dog eats. Why? Because stones do not represent the totality of the problem; they only represent a symptom of an imbalance that stems from poor food metabolism.

So instead of focusing on the stones themselves, the holistic caregiver begins a regimen of higher quality meat, highly digestible calcium, and digestive enzymes and probiotic supplements (bifidus, acidophilus, etc.) that will help improve digestion and elimination.

Once nutritional measures are put into play, herbs can be useful at assisting the body in its efforts to expel the stones and reestablish healthy balances. For example, dandelion and yucca root may be used to aid the body in absorption of nutrients and the elimination of excess waste. Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis), a mucilage-rich herb that helps lubricate and protect mucous membranes in the urinary tract, may help ease the passage of crystals and small stones. Couchgrass (Elytrigia repens), cornsilk (Zea mays), and other types of astringent herbs might be added to the regimen to reduce inflammation and open up urinary passages. Echinacea might also be useful toward stimulating the immune system and helping to knock down bacterial infection.

However, it is very important to know that before any of these herbs can be used at an optimum level of efficacy, diet must be improved. This applies to the use of herbs against any type of imbalance, which leads us to the number one golden rule of effective herb use...


1. A good diet always comes first.

The goal: A happy dog who is free from itching, infection, or imbalances.

Your dog's body requires good, fully digestible, nutritionally complete food in order to function as Nature designed it. When used at their greatest potential, herbs are used to call upon healing energies and resources that are already in place - meaning that if a dog is on a diet of bargain basement Brand X kibble, the herbs you feed have few tools to work from.

Simply put, herbs work in concert with the quality of food that goes into it. They cannot replace a good diet, nor can they supplement a poor one. Without quality nutrition, herbs are holistically useless in therapeutic applications; don't waste your time and money on them if you pay $10 for a 40-pound bag of dog food.

2. Herbs generally do not serve well as direct replacements for conventional drugs.

Although herbs can sometimes be used as alternatives to conventional drugs, it is important to remember that their greatest potential rests within the holistic context by which they are applied. When herbs are used from the same allopathic perspective as one would use a drug, their greatest healing gifts are not employed.

For example, licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra, an herb I touted as a potential alternative to anti-inflammatory drugs in the December 2002 issue of WDJ) can sometimes be used as a somewhat weak replacement for corticosteroid drugs. However, using licorice in this capacity without first considering the actual causes of a dog's ailments is really no different from using an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug.

If you wish to use herbs effectively, start with diet, not by focusing on suppression of symptoms.

3. More is not necessarily better.

Although herbs tend to be more forgiving than most drugs in terms of safety and potential side effects, this does not mean they can be used without care and common sense. Some herbs are very powerful medicines, and if misused can lead to serious health problems.

Read books, talk to experts, go to seminars and classes to learn about herbs. Find out where your comfort boundaries exist with their use before you use them. If you have any doubts about which herb to use, how much, and how long, consult a holistic veterinarian that is familiar with the use of herbs in your type of dog.

4. Until you are familiar with herbs and how to properly select, prepare, combine, and portion them for use in your companion, it is best to use reputable herbal products that are formulated specifically for dogs.

By doing this you not only will save time and money, but also will draw from years of experience and expertise. There are dozens of quality herb products in the marketplace that have been formulated by people who are experts in the use of herbs for animals. These products are not only formulated for optimum efficacy, but are fine-tuned to the nuances of the canine body. Use them.

5. If you wish to pursue an alternative solution for a serious health problem, don't waste time trying to figure out a self-administered solution. Consult a holistic veterinarian immediately.

Many of the letters and calls I get are from pet owners who are either frustrated with conventional medicine or who think they cannot access or afford the advice of a holistic veterinarian. My advice to all of you is this: If you truly love your dogs as I do, and if you recognize the precious gifts of happiness and healing they bring to you everyday, you owe it to them to provide the food and holistic care they need.

On the surface, the expense of a holistic veterinarian and a natural diet may seem unreasonable. But really, providing your companion with quality nutrition and holistic care is not as expensive as you think - especially when you learn that much of what your dog needs may already be in your refrigerator and spice cabinet.

Hundreds of holistic veterinarians are in practice throughout North America and can be accessed through the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, which maintains a state-by-state database of all of its members. Many of these very special vets can help you get started on a path to canine wellness on the telephone, and when you factor in the money you will save by reducing veterinary costs, you will soon realize the value of health maintenance versus disease intervention.

Just remember: It all starts with how willing you are to look at the bigger picture of your dog's health.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "What To Do."


Greg Tilford is a well-known veterinary herbalist, lecturer, and author. He serves as a consultant and formulator to hundreds of holistic veterinarians throughout the world, and is CEO of Animal's Apawthecary, a company that develops herbal products specifically for use in animals. He is author of four books on herbs, including All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets (Bowtie, 1999), which he co-authored with his wife, Mary.


Comments (0)

Be the first to comment on this post using the section below.

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In