Fom the perspective of a holistic practitioner, the eyes are much more than a functional mechanism that creates images on the brain. An animal’s eyes function as indicators of their inner health—collectively, they are one of the primary indicator organs, and at the risk of waxing far too poetic here, they are the open windows to an animal’s spirit and soul.
Native Americans talk about the plants they believe are “sentinels,” and organic farmers speak of “indicator” plants. Sentinel plants are those some Native Americans believe were sent by the Great Spirit to scout out an area of the earth that has been previously disturbed by man, to see if it is safe for future plants to set root there. An example of an indicator plant is mullein (Verbascum spp.), a healing weed that grows in proliferation in areas recently bulldozed.
Eyes as signs of illness
As sentinels, runny or red eyes are often the first noticeable symptom of an oncoming illness, and the severity of the illness may be projected onto the eyes by the amount and character of the ocular symptoms.
Runny or red eyes are often the first noticeable symptom of an oncoming illness, and the severity of the illness may be projected onto the eyes by the amount and character of the ocular symptoms.
The eyes may reflect or indicate disease conditions in other parts of the body. For example, many generalized diseases (canine distemper is just one example) cause secondary ocular symptoms. Upper-respiratory problems may cause tearing of the eyes, and infections of the nose (rhinitis) may extend into eyes and sinuses surrounding them. Autoimmune conditions may be implicated in eye problems, and genetic flaws can also contribute (a genetic lack of tear ducts, for example). Tumors can locate in the eyes and surrounding tissues. And, cataracts—whether caused by metabolic problems (such as diabetes) or as a result of old-age changes—will cause gradual loss of sight and possibly tearing and/or redness.
Finally, the eyes have become my main way to assess the current status of an animal’s spirit. An animal in pain looks at you through eyes that don’t quite have the vitality or feel-good spirit seen in a healthy animal—I try to describe them as “foggy” or “not-quite-in-focus.” And, when an animal is in the process of its final journey, you know those final steps are imminent when you look into an animal’s eyes and nothing seems to be there.
When we view the eyes as more than just the seeing part of the animal’s “clockworks,” we can appreciate that for many of the eye symptoms that occur, we need to think deeper than just the eyes themselves. At the same time, most of the simple eye conditions are easily and effectively cleared up with herbs. In fact, for most of the eye cases I see, I recommend herbal medications first, because they usually work as well as Western medicines, and they are definitely better for viral diseases. (Herpes viral infections may be the most common infectious eye condition seen in cats.) Herbal medicines also cause far fewer adverse side effects.
Before I talk about the herbs that enhance eye health, one word of caution. True eye diseases are not something to fool with. If you suspect a serious problem, or if your treatments haven’t offered relief after three or four days, see an expert, preferably a certified veterinary ophthalmologist.
Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), an anti-inflammatory, astringent, and anti-catarrhal, is an excellent remedy (used for centuries as an eyewash) to ease discomfort and help prevent excessive tearing. It can also be taken internally as a tonic for the eyes, and it is rich in vitamins C and A, excellent antioxidants to help prevent damage to the eyes. If the eye is infected, eyebright should be combined with antimicrobial herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.), taken internally, and Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium) and/or goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), which can be taken internally and/or used externally as eye drops.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) provides important nutrients that nourish the eye and enhance general visual function. Bilberry contains bioactive chemicals (anthocyanidins) that help prevent damage to the structure of the eyes. It has been used to protect against age- and diabetes-related changes including macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) contains bioflavonoids that are helpful for organs—such as the eyes—that are rich in connective tissue. Ginkgo’s antioxidant properties protect cells and their membranes, and it enhances cellular metabolism and blood circulation. Ginkgo and bilberry are taken internally—all herbs are best offered as a fresh or dried herb, sprinkled atop your pet’s food. If capsules or tablets are used, adjust the dosage given on the product label for the weight of the animal. (Assume that, for the sake of the product label, a “normal” human weighs 150 pounds.)
Several herbs have been used as eyewashes. Many of these are antimicrobial as well as being anti-inflammatory and soothing to the eyes. Although I have never observed problems when using any of these herbs as eyewashes in my practice, many of them have been reported as causing allergic reactions in a small number of people. Use with caution, and for the first-time application, use a very mild infusion or tea. Herbs to try:
• Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
• Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
• Oregon grape root
• Elder (Sambucus nigra)
• Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
• Self heal (Prunella vulgaris)
Of these, my favorites are eyebright, calendula and chamomile. I add goldenseal or Oregon grape (these can be used interchangeably) whenever I suspect an infection. Many herbal eye-drop formulations can be found in commercial products, either human or animal-oriented. Simply follow directions on these—usually a dropperful, applied to the eyes three or four times a day.
Some critters are more than a handful when you are trying to get drops into their eyes. Try a compress, soaked in the herbal tea and then applied to your pet’s eyes for several minutes, several times daily. To make a hot herbal compress, simmer 1 teaspoon of the herb or herbal mix you have selected (fresh or dried—or use several drops of the herbal extract per pint of water) in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Cool the infusion to a tolerable temperature, soak a clean cloth or piece of sterile cotton in it, and partially wring out the cloth or cotton so it isn’t dripping. Apply the warm, wet compress to the eye for 10 minutes, four to six times a day. An alternative, easy-to-use method is to warm a chamomile tea bag in water and use it as a topically applied compress to the affected eyes.
Wash your hands both before and after the treatment. If you use a cotton ball, throw it away after removing the compress; if you use cloth, wash the compress in detergent and hot water (with chlorine bleach added if possible), separate from all other laundry, before using it again. Always be very cautious when using warm liquids around your pet’s eyes. The skin of the eyelid is thin and tender and can burn easily.
For any mild eye infection or inflammation, my preferred medicine of choice is herbal. I do recommend, however, that any and all eye conditions be viewed as possibly involving other areas of the body and/or deep-seated ailments.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for ten years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.
Information provided in “Pet corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.