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Natural Supplements: Using Them Safely
and Correctly Can Help Your Pet Get Better
In 1997 I started using natural therapies in my practice as I became a more integrated doctor. Practicing in Texas I was seeing many allergic pets who really didn’t get better using conventional drug therapy. By incorporating natural therapies into my treatment regimen I immediately started seeing unbelievable results!
In addition to the great results I regularly see with natural therapies in my patients, one of the nice things that attracted me to this type of pet care is the relative lack of side effects. It’s rare to see any side effects using supplements in the care of my patients. Yet it’s been reported in human medicine that side effects of drugs is one of the leading causes of illness and death in people (I’m sure the unreported statistics are similar in veterinary medicine!)
While many pet owners think “natural” equals “safe,” this is not always true. There are some supplements (such as ephedra) that can be extremely toxic and even fatal if not used properly. This article will explore some of the more commonly used supplements, as well as any side effects that may occur. As always, the best way to incorporate natural therapies into your pet’s treatment regimen is to do so under proper veterinary supervision, as this will also decrease the chance of any side effects.
Keep the following points in mind as we discuss these supplements:
- "Natural" does not automatically mean "safe"
- Most supplements are safer than prescription drugs for long term control of medical problems
Examples: NSAIDS vs. joint supplements, choline vs. Anipryl or anticonvulsants, Fatty acids and antioxidants vs. corticosteroids, olive leaf extract vs. antibiotics.
- Sometimes conventional medications are safer than supplements
Examples: coventional deworming medicines vs. wormwood/ black walnut/ pennyroyal oil; decongestants/bronchodilators vs. ephedra.
- Sometimes species differences make natural therapies potentially toxic: tea tree oil/volatile oils/white willow bark with cats and small dogs.
- Natural therapies may show interactions with conventional medications that could be toxic.
Examples: White willow barkwith NSAIDS, ephedra with cardiac drugs, decongestants, and asthma medications drugs, ginkgo biloba with high dose fish oil.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fatty acids, especially oils from coldwater fish, have been recommended in people for lowering triglycerides, reducing secondary cardiovascular disease (and probably primary disease,) decreasing heart arrhythmias, decreasing blood pressure, and improving rheumatoid arthritis. They are also possibly helpful in preventing stroke and treating cancer, allergies, and mild depression. Since fish oil taken for many months can lower vitamin E, most products contain added vitamin E.
In pets, fish oil may be beneficial for heart disease, cancer, allergies, arthritis,kidney disease, and autoimmune diseases. I use high doses (2-4 times the label dose) in my patients and most can have their conventional medications lowered.
Side effects of fatty acid supplementation are rare. Fish oil may decrease platelet aggregation and prolong bleeding time. Contamination of fish meat (not oil) with methylmercury can occur. The human literature reports that fish oil may slightly increase LDL (bad) cholesterol although this does not seem to be common or of any significance in most cases. The human literature also reports multiple cases of bleeding (in the brain) when high dose doses is combined with ginkgo. I have not seen any side effects in my patients except the very rare case in a few dogs that smelled fishy.
Milk thistle is a well-known liver tonic. Milk thistle extract provides liver protection by stabilizing the cell membranes of the liver cells, aids in detoxification of toxins (especially those absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract,) stimulates protein synthesis and regeneration of damaged liver cells (actually helping the diseased cells to heal,) and also acts as an antioxidant.
Milk thistle is one of my favorite supplements for just about any disease, as the liver is involved in all disease processes. Many of my holistic clients like extra liver support during treatment with any conventional medications, including when they administer monthly heartworm and flea medications. Milk thistle is very safe to use and I’ve never seen any side effects from its use. Based upon general safety guidelines in people, it’s probably best not to use it in pregnant animals without veterinary supervision. According to some herbalists, long term use can result in depressed liver function unless chronic liver disease is present. Milk thistle is not recommended for use in normal pets but rather those that have diseases of the liver or affecting the liver.
Echinacea is among the best known supplements and has been touted in people for helping in the recovery from a variety of illnesses, especially the cold and the flu. Echinacea is usually prescribed as an immune-boosting supplement for pets. I use it for a number of disorders, especially bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, and chronic diseases of any organ. It’s also one of my favorite supplements for pets with demodectic mange.
Echinacea is generally considered safe when used under supervision. In the older literature, there is a warning not to use this herb for certain immune disorders (autoimmune diseases, diabetes) and disorders with diminished immune systems with low white blood cell counts (feline leukemia and immunodeficiency diseases.) However, echinacea has been used in these instances without obvious harm. Generally, echinacea is not meant for long term use and most doctors limit its use to a few months at a time.
Garlic is a favorite herb used by many pet owners to control fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, and other insects. While many of my clients swear by the ability of garlic to control fleas, and while I have no problem recommending its use, controlled studies have shown garlic to be ineffective as an insecticide. Garlic also has show antimicrobial and anti-cancer properties. Garlic can cause anemia in dogs and cats due to the presence of S-methyl cysteine sulfoxide and N-propyldisulfhide. Therefore, it should not be used in pets with anemia. As a general guideline, 1 clove of garlic per 10 pounds of body weight for dogs (and 1/2 clove per cat) can usually be fed safely each day. If you use garlic regularly (as a general food supplement,) it would be wise to have your pet's blood checked every few months to make sure anemia is not occurring.
Ginkgo is a well-known and popular herb that has a number of uses. It is best known as a supplement that may improve cognitive disorder in aging people and pets, particularly in those with mild dementia (Alzheimer’s in particular.) While its ability to prevent blood clots can be beneficial in certain cases, a well-known side effect of ginkgo is increased and potentially serious bleeding problems. In people, bleeding (including fatal brain hemorrhages) have been reported when ginkgo was combined with high doses of fish oil or other anticoagulants.
Nutritional supplements to help aging, arthritic joints are probably the most commonly used forms of natural therapies by people as well as pets. Each manufacturer selects from a variety of ingredients to include in a proprietary formula. In general, most of the various ingredients designed to heal damaged cartilage and reduce pain and inflammation are pretty similar (although the quality of nutritional supplements varies, which is why I encourage pet owners to seek veterinary advice when deciding what supplement might be best for their pets.)
In general, the most commonly prescribed joint supplements contain glucosamine, chondroitin, and/or hyaluronic acid. These ingredients are very safe. There has been one report of a dog developing signs of diabetes when given the incorrect dose of a glucosamine supplement; the signs resolved when the correct dose was given. Testing on diabetic dogs with glucosamine did not reveal any harm or increase in blood sugar. In general, owners should not notice side effects in pets when using supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin, and/or hyaluronic acid according to label instructions.
The following supplements are often used in pets and are generally considered very safe:
This nutrient is very helpful in pets with cognitive disorder and seizures. It is very safe for use in pets; very rarely it has caused hyperactivity/hyperexcitability that goes away after the supplement is discontinued or the dosage reduced.
An amino acid that is helpful for pets with any gastrointestinal disorder. It is very safe for use in pets, although there is a theoretical concern in seizing patients due to increased glutamate levels (I’ve never seen this in practice.)
These healthy GI bacteria and yeasts are useful in any sick pet and any pet taking medications, including nonsteroidals, antibiotics, and corticosteroids. Probiotics are very safe for use in pets and no side effects have been reported.
After using integrative therapies in my practice for the last 7 years, I am convinced that in most cases nutritional supplements are less expensive, less toxic, and more effective than conventional medications. However, natural does not always mean safe, and you should never start your pet on supplements without the knowledge of how the supplements work and if they interact with conventional medications. Using supplements under veterinary supervision is the best approach to properly treating any disease in your dog or cat.
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