Herbal Therapy in Veterinary Practice

Herbal therapy at a glance

Herbs are plants that contain ingredients with active therapeutic properties. An herb may be used in various forms, including teas, granular extracts (Chinese medicine), fresh herbs, dried herbs, oils or tinctures. It may be commercially available as a loose herb, capsule, tablet, liquid extract, lotion or cream. Herbal therapy is the use of herbs, either as single products or in combination with other herbs, for medicinal purposes.

Herbal therapy in veterinary medicine
Herbal therapy has been used for thousands of years in many human cultures. A tremendous amount of clinical experience has been obtained by these cultures regarding which herbs work well for which conditions, and how they are best administered. An estimated 75 percent of the world’s population still relies upon herbal medicine for basic health care. Because early civilizations placed significant emphasis on the health of horses and cattle, the history of veterinary herbal treatment parallels its history in human therapy.

The American Veterinary Medical Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association consider the practice of veterinary herbalism to be the practice of veterinary medicine. Because of the differences in physiology between animal species and humans, and the potential for harm if herbs are administered inappropriately, only a properly trained veterinarian should prescribe herbal treatments. Herbal treatment must only be administered after an accurate diagnosis has been made. In many cases, referral is not necessary, but should be considered for the herbal management of very dangerous, refractory, or delicate conditions.

Species receiving herbal therapy
It was not until the late nineteenth century that veterinary medicine turned from herbal treatments to conventional pharmaceuticals. While significant research exists for the use of herbs in veterinary medicine, most treatment protocols used in dogs, cats, horses and ruminants are based solely on clinical experience or research data that has been obtained from work with laboratory animals and humans.

Treating conditions
Herbal approaches have been developed for the management of almost all conditions that currently challenge conventional veterinary medicine, including epilepsy, chronic kidney failure, chronic lameness, hormonal disorders, behavioral disorders, allergic skin disease, liver failure, and inflammatory bowel disease. Other herbs may simply support the normal function of healthy organs by acting as “tonics.”

Combining herbal therapy with other treatments
As a complete and well-developed system of medicine, herbal therapy is effective as the sole form of treatment for most conditions except those requiring surgery, and is used that way by skilled practitioners. Herbal therapy can be combined with other forms of treatment if the appropriate precautions are taken. Some herbs are very potent, and caution must be used when combining them with other treatments such as drugs, homeopathic remedies, and acupuncture, since these treatments can either potentiate or negate the effects of each other. Trained veterinary herbalists have the knowledge and skill to understand the interactions between different forms of treatment and to interpret the patient’s response to therapy. If your pet is receiving herbal treatment from a practitioner other than your regular veterinarian, it is imperative that both individuals are kept updated about the ongoing treatment in order to provide optimal care to your pet.

The benefits of herbal therapy
Herbalists hold the view that their treatments, using whole plants or their extracts, produce improved outcomes and fewer side effects than many pharmaceutical products. Clinical and laboratory research shows that plants may support the normal function of the liver, kidneys, heart, and immune system; reduce inflammation and improve blood flow through damaged tissues; normalize smooth muscle contraction; promote the differentiation, aging and death of tumor cells, and eliminate pain. In many cases, herbal medicine can eliminate the need for chronic medication. The components of herbal formulas may act synergistically to give greater positive effects than would be possible when used individually. Such synergistic interactions between herb constituents have been repeatedly demonstrated in laboratory research on both single herbs and herbal formulas.

A safe treatment
The success of herbal treatment will vary according to the age of the patient, prior treatment history and diagnosis. When high quality herbs from reputable sources are used, dosages are more consistent and the outcomes are more predictable. Particularly when herbal therapy is being used to treat serious disease, ongoing monitoring of the patient’s symptoms and any laboratory abnormalities is required. If the wrong herb or the incorrect dosage is given, the patient’s condition may worsen. In the hands of a knowledgeable veterinary herbalist, adverse reactions are uncommon and usually short-lived, but may still occur. Caution should be used when treating pregnant animals, if other therapies are being used, or if the animal is very ill.

The cost
Comprehensive herbal treatment involves a thorough history taking and physical examination, followed by a patient assessment and formulation of a treatment plan. It rarely involves a single visit, and costs will vary according to the specific condition being treated, the herbs required and the response of the patient. In general, veterinary herbal therapy often proves less expensive than conventional medicine.

For more information
Visit the Alternative Veterinary Medicine website at www.altvetmed.com. General information about herbs and herbal treatment issues can be found at www.ars-grin.gov/duke , www.herbmed.org and www.consumerlab.com

This client information sheet is based on material written by Steve Marsden, DVM ND MSOM LAc DiplCH AHG; Shawn Messonnier, DVM; and Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH (http://www.petcarenaturally.com/). © Copyright 2004 Lifelearn Inc. Used with permission under license. April 3, 2007.