Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Are Herbal Supplements Safe for My Pet?


Pet Column for the week of January 20, 2003


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Herbal supplements are now being used in veterinary as well as human medicine to alleviate a variety of problems and conditions. While herbal supplements can be used safely and effectively, it is very important to use them wisely.

Dr. Ellen Paul, a veterinarian in Urbana, Illinois, and lecturer at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, has had advanced training in herbal supplements and says, "People often treat their pets with herbal supplements when conventional therapy stops working or when they do not want to use conventional drugs."

However, Dr. Paul advises pet owners to use caution. Little research has been done on herbal remedies in animals. Knowledge about the effects of these substances on pets is extrapolated from data for humans or is based on anecdotal reports. "The most difficult obstacle is figuring out a dosage for pets, since most human drugs are dosed for a human weighing 150 pounds," says Dr. Paul. "The dosage must be adjusted for the smaller body size."

Another problem that can occur with herbal supplements is variation in the quality of ingredients among brands. Since herbal supplements have become so popular, the number of brands and distributors of these products has increased dramatically. No controls are currently in place to ensure a standard of quality. The best way to ensure you are getting a good product is to buy a brand that you know. To find a reliable brand, you might also want to consider discussing brands with a veterinarian who is familiar with herbal supplements.

"Unfortunately, people using herbal supplements often forget that just because a product is 'all natural' does not mean that it is not toxic," says Dr. Paul.

There are some specific guidelines that should be followed before giving an herbal supplement to anyone, human or animal.

� Pregnant or nursing mothers should not take any herbal supplements except those specifically recommended by a doctor or veterinarian.

� Aromatherapy oils should not be used for cats and should never be given orally.

� Tea tree oil should be used cautiously because it can cause inflammation when used at full strength. It should never be used for cats.

� Ephedra has caused deaths among people who are abusing the supplement, but it can be useful in pets when properly dosed. It should never be used for pets with high blood pressure.

"I commonly use herbal supplements for arthritis, cancer, seizures, stomach and intestinal problems, liver problems, urinary and skin problems, and problems with the immune system," says Dr. Paul. "Herbal supplements can also be used daily for support of the body."

The biggest problem with herbal supplementation is that most people don't know how to use these products. Most veterinarians do not have experience with them and usually recommend avoiding them altogether.
"With the right knowledge these products can be used safely," says Dr. Paul.

"As with any drug, it is advisable to consult with a veterinarian who knows about herbal supplements before using them. Any drug or herbal supplement could cause an individual allergic reaction, so be sure to monitor your pet carefully after giving the supplement for the first time."

In the event of an herbal supplement poisoning, contact the Animal Poison Control Center (888-4ANI-HELP [888-426-4435]) and your local veterinarian immediately.