In recent years, the use of nutraceuticals and herbal supplements have made it into the mainstream. Advertisements claim that these natural and alternative remedies may boost immune system function, improve memory and mood, help you lose weight, and support many other benefits.
Veterinary medicine has begun to include some of these supplements for pets as well. But can we be sure about the safety and effectiveness of these treatments?
The Positive Side
Advocates of these alternative therapies remind us that medicines have had plant sources for centuries and that one-quarter of our prescription medications today still do. Additionally, many of our synthetic drugs once had a plant source. Plant-based medications have been effective and dependable for generations.
Herbal remedy proponents believe these alternative medicines work synergistically and have greater effect than traditional prescriptions, which generally contain concentrated extracts. They claim that plants contain many nutrients and chemicals that interact with the active ingredient, making it easier to be used by the body. Miraculous cures have been credited to remedies, such as echinacea and ginseng, where traditional treatments have failed.
Called nutraceuticals because of their whole food makeup and relative safety, the Food and Drug Association does not regulate these treatments. They are considered nutritional supplements rather than drugs. Some holistic veterinarians believe that they contain beneficial nutrients that would be available to animals in a natural environment but not in processed pet food.
The Negative Side
Not all veterinarians endorse herbal remedies. Some aren’t confident of their safety because they are not extensively tested, approved, and regulated by the FDA as prescriptions drugs are. They argue that there is not enough information on their long-term effects and that scientific evidence of their effectiveness is lacking. Most evidence comes from pet owners who are not trained in noting side effects or identifying other possible causes for a positive response. They also note that dosage guidelines have not been established, so users are forced to use trial and error to find the right dose.
And one fact that proponents see as a positive, opponents see as a negative. A whole plant contains many different chemicals, and naysayers argue that the effects of a neutraceutical are more unpredictable than that of a single active chemical from the plant, and could cause more side effects or render the remedy less effective.
The terms “natural” and “herbal” do not always translate into “safe.” Some veterinarians are concerned that pet owners might believe the same supplements that are good for them will also be good for their pets. For example, garlic is a safe pest repellent and can be used as a cardiac treatment for animals in small doses, but it can cause anemia in pets if used over the long term. Nutraceuticals can also interfere with prescription medications or cause allergic reactions in pets.
A Partial List of Available Nutraceuticals
Glucosamine and chondroitin
These are perhaps the most well known and commonly prescribed nutraceuticals for animals. Glucosamine comes from shellfish tissue, and chondroitin is derived from animal products. They help to rebuild joint cartilage and offer relief for animals suffering from arthritis and joint pain.
Echinacea is an herbal immunostimulant. It is said to boost the body’s natural response to help pets fight off infections, diseases, and even cancer.
This thick-leaved cactus provides soothing itch relief for humans and animals alike when applied to the skin as an ointment. It is also believed to help heal cuts and prevent infection. Aloe is not easily stored. The most effective way to use it is by breaking off a leaf and applying the juice directly.
This vitamin is a powerful antioxidant, which many say can slow the aging process, repair body tissues, and even help prevent cancer. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that vitamin C treats hip dyplasia, arthritis and urinary tract problems. It can be found in most fruits and some vegetables. It is also available in pill form or as a liquid that can be mixed into your dog’s water.
This is a very popular herb. It is used to improve memory and brain function, and is said to expand the blood vessels in the brain and increase circulation. Some veterinarians are using it to treat animals with cognitive dysfunction, which is similar to human dementia.
This supplement is said to protect liver cells from toxins and even help to reverse liver damage. It is given to pets with hepatitis and other liver afflictions.
St. John’s Wort
This herb is popularly used as a treatment for depression in humans but serves as treatment for viral infection and neural disorders in holistic veterinary practice.
The bark of this tree is used as an aid for pets who suffer from digestive problems and constipation. It has also been used as a cough suppressant and has been boiled down into a paste, cooled, and then applied to the skin as a poultice.
These examples are only a few of the hundreds of nutraceuticals available. Some may be appropriate for your dog and others may be dangerous. Your veterinarian is the best source for information in helping you understand nutraceuticals. If you request, he can also refer you to an alternative veterinary specialist.
Source: Adapted from the American Animal Hospital Association