Before I retired from my holistic veterinary practice, I relied almost exclusively on herbal antibiotics for pets. There are several reasons for this, and I think it is more important to understand these reasons than to try to learn each and every herb that has ever been used for its antibiotic properties. (There are literally dozens of them.) The litany of reasons not to use synthetic antibiotics has filled whole books, but for this article, I’ll just list a few of the major ones.
Synthetic antibiotics kill off health-enhancing bugs as well as those that cause disease. A pet’s body is a complex organism that, in a healthy condition, provides a balanced environment for billions upon billions of microorganisms, most of which play an important role in the pet’s overall health. Synthetic antibiotics are as unselective as a shotgun blast; they kill the good-guy bugs as well as the ones that cause disease.
In the few short decades that synthetic antibiotics have been on the market, dozens of pathogens have developed resistance to one or more of them, and the number of resistant strains is rising exponentially. In fact, experts acknowledge that there’s no way technology can keep up with the bacteria’s ability to mutate and develop resistance. What this means is that the more antibiotics you use today, the more you run the risk that your vet will not be able to treat your pet’s future infectious diseases with any antibiotic.
Antibiotics eliminated from the body during treatment have become a huge environmental problem, and as more and more antibiotics contaminate our water and food supplies, even more resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria are created.
Natural Pet Health: Herbal Antibiotics for Pets
Because there are dozens of herbs that have proven antibiotic activity (either germ-killing or germ-inhibiting), I try to select an herb for its other properties as well as its antibiotic value. If I can find an herb that helps ailing organ systems as well as having antibiotic properties, then the patient is doubly rewarded. Some examples of these herbs follow.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). One of many herbs containing the biochemical berberine—in addition to being immunostimulatory, it has antibiotic activity against many bacteria and fungi. Goldenseal is especially good for use in any inflammatory condition involving the mucus membranes, and it’s also good for gastrointestinal and liver problems. Wild goldenseal has been harvested to the brink of extinction; be certain the product you use has been organically grown—or a good substitute herb is Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium).
Mints (Mentha spp.). There are several mints; most have similar actions. The two most popular mints are peppermint (Mentha ×piperita) and spearmint (M. spicata). They have calming effects on the gastrointestinal tract.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Chamomile is a wonderful calming herb with mild sedative, antispasmodic and carminative (relieving stomach gas and pain) activities.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis). Calendula has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal activity. It also is very effective for healing wounds. It acts as a general tonic and as a liver stimulant when taken internally as a tea or tincture.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Use it externally to treat all sorts of wounds. Taken internally, the herb aids the liver, upset stomachs and poor digestion. It is one of the best herbs to treat fevers, making it a good choice for treating mild colds and viral infections.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Thyme is a good cough remedy, combining its expectorant, antispasmodic and antimicrobial activities for the effective treatment of asthma and chronic or acute bronchitis. It is also useful for treating bellyaches and sluggish digestion. Thyme is also strongly antiseptic, used as a poultice or salve for treating external wounds.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Licorice root is my herbal substitute for cortisone, and I use it whenever an anti-inflammatory medication is indicated. Furthermore, licorice is an herbal adaptogen, a substance that works with all the body’s systems and helps them return to normal whenever they are stressed or “out of balance.” In addition, licorice is a mild antimicrobial, inhibiting the growth of some bacteria and viruses.
Herbal Pet Antibiotics: Pros
Herbs are readily available (and often free for the picking or digging).
Herbs are multitalented healers: Herbal antibiotics are typically effective against bacteria, viruses and fungi; synthetic antibiotics usually have a limited range of effectiveness, and many only affect one specific category of bacteria.
Many of the herbs effectively enhance the immune system.
There are so many herbs with antibiotic potential, you can easily switch from one herb to another if the patient’s disease is not responding to the first one.
Because herbs are natural substances, there is no environmental toxic waste when they’re used.
Herbal Pet Antibiotics: Cons
Herbal antibiotics tend to act slowly, and they may not be as effective against specific germs as synthetic drugs. While this usually doesn’t create dire consequences, there are times when fast-acting antibiotics are more appropriate.
Some herbal antibiotics (such as goldenseal) can kill the beneficial bugs as much as synthetic antibiotics do. Whenever I prescribe any of these, especially for prolonged periods, I recommend adding probiotics, such as yogurt or cottage cheese, to the pet’s diet.
Some antibiotic herbs have become so popular that they are rapidly disappearing from the wild. You can avoid becoming a part of this problem: Be aware of which plants are threatened, and use substitutes whenever possible; or buy only from cultivated, organically grown sources.
Herbal Antibiotics for Pets: Tips for Safe and Effective Use
If your pet needs prescription antibiotics, here are some guidelines for effective use:
• Use according to the prescription and for as long as the prescription indicates—even though you may see positive results before then.
• Help your pet maintain a healthy immune system.
• Whenever possible, use herbs as antibiotic alternatives.
• Supplement your pet’s diet with beneficial bacteria whenever antibiotics are being used.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. He has retired from his holistic veterinary practice and now lives in eastern Kansas.
“Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.