For Your Pet: Herbs for the Gastrointestinal System


Try herbs to help soothe your pet’s gastrointestinal problems.

Photo courtesy of S. Clotfelter

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Louis Pasteur, the author of the germ theory of disease, once said, “It’s not the germ, it’s the soil.” Pasteur meant that the microorganism isn’t the major disease-causing problem; we need to look for the problem in the environment where the “bugs” grow. Nowhere is this more important than in the gastrointestinal (GI) system. I’ve found that nearly all of the acute and chronic diseases of a pet’s stomach and gut can be corrected by paying attention to the GI environment.

Slippery elm is my favorite herb for soothing the gut. 

We know that the billions of microorganisms living in the normal gut are actually necessary to maintain a functionally healthy intestinal environment. Alter this normal flora of the gut, and you create problems. You can alter your pet’s intestinal environment by suddenly changing his food—by giving him foods he’s not accustomed to or foods too rich in proteins, fats, carbohydrates, or sugars. These sudden changes may cause transient diarrhea or even temporary vomiting.

Chronic problems of the gut are basically the same song sung in a slightly different key, so to speak. Chronic GI diseases are still due to an alteration in the normal intestinal environment; the difference is that the key to many of the gut changes comes from causes not directly related to a change in a pet’s diet.

Herbs for chronic GI problems

I am seeing so many cases of chronic GI disease (referred to as chronic bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or “leaky gut” syndrome) that I think it will become the “designer disease” of this decade. What would we expect, after all, when we use so many antibiotics and steroids in traditional veterinary practices? My holistic program for chronic GI problems includes several steps, detailed below.

Step one: Soothe and heal the gut. My favorite herb for this is slippery elm (Ulmus rubra). For chronic gut problems, I might use it for three or four weeks initially, then take a week off and repeat as necessary. (The herb is so effective as a coating agent that there’s some concern it might prevent proper absorption of nutrients with prolonged use.) Another demulcent herb for coating mucus membranes is marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis).

Step two: Reduce inflammation. Anti-inflammatory herbs include wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Wild yam is an excellent anti-inflammatory used to soothe intestinal and arthritic diseases. It also aids the function of the liver. Licorice root is an anti-inflammatory used especially for gastritis and peptic ulcers. Also, antioxidants are important to counter the excess production of free radicals. I use high levels of vitamins C, E, and A, combined with antioxidant culinary herbs such as basil (Ocimum basilicum) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).

Step three: Re-establish normal gut flora. Remove potential toxins from the pet’s food—use an organic food source that doesn’t contain synthetic preservatives, pesticides, herbicides, or meats that contain antibiotics or hormones. Increase the fiber in the diet by adding cooked oatmeal, brown rice, and/or cooked wheat to your pet’s food. Start out with about a teaspoon for every ten to twenty pounds of animal and work up gradually to at least a tablespoon per ten pounds. Also, provide a healthy source of good-guy bugs—acidophilus—which is easy to provide with a dollop of unsweetened yogurt atop your pet’s food.

Step four: Diminish the overabundance of yeasts. Herbs that contain berberine are ideal here—try barberry (Berberis vulgaris), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), or Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium). These are antimicrobial herbs, effective against bacteria and yeasts. They also aid liver activity and the immune system.

Step five: Enhance the immune system. In my mind, it’s hard to beat echinacea (Echinacea spp.) as an herb to help balance the immune system.

Leaky gut and allergies

Yeasts are single-celled critters that occur in small numbers in the healthy gut. In the normal, healthy gut environment, they’re kept in check by the good-guy bugs of the gut’s normal flora. However, antibiotics are a potent knockout punch for these good-guy bugs, and yeasts go on a growth and reproduction spurt whenever we take antibiotics. When yeasts are allowed to proliferate, they create an initial disease state that may be barely noticeable—headache, lethargy, malaise, sore joints, low-grade fever, and other signs of allergic response such as skin and ear problems.

Yeasts are insidious in action, and as they continue to slowly grow and flourish, the above symptoms become more pronounced. Eventually their threadlike filaments (called mycelium) penetrate through the gut wall to create leaky gut syndrome. A leaky gut allows larger-than-normal particles of food and food wastes into the bloodstream—these particles instigate an allergic response that settles in the gut but ultimately extends into other tissues.

Symptoms of leaky gut syndrome include persistent and chronic, often intermittent, diarrhea that can be blood-tinged or black from upper intestinal bleeding. Some animals also vomit. Since the gut has initiated an allergic response, your pet will often have other signs of allergies: arthritis, ear infections, skin problems, or vaginal infections.

With a leaky gut, you may get temporary remission of symptoms by changing your pet to another type of food; however, the symptoms return when the animal has had enough time to develop an allergic response to the new food. As long as the yeasts are present and the gut is “leaky,” your critter will eventually become allergic to any food you try. Fix the gut, and your pet will ultimately be able to eat almost any food.

Gastrointestinal stimulants

Occasionally, the aged critter will have a sluggish digestive system that simply needs to be kicked up a notch. My favorite gastrointestinal-stimulant herbs include cayenne (Capsicum annuum), ginger (Zingiber officinale), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), and turmeric (Curcuma longa). Since the liver is an important component of digestion, I typically would add milk thistle seeds (Silybum marianum) to the herbal recipe.

Note here that I haven’t included any bitters, those herbs commonly used by humans to encourage their digestive juices. I expect the bitters might work equally well on pets, but good luck getting dogs and cats to swallow them. I’ve learned never to say never, but most pets hate the taste of bitters. Furthermore, the key to the success of the bitters is a reflux action between the taste buds and the stomach—so it doesn’t do any good to hide bitters in a capsule or deep in a favorite food.

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 “For Your Pet: Herbs for the Gastrointestinal System” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.