I get more calls from Western-trained veterinarians asking about alternative treatments for liver conditions than for any other problem. But whether traditional or alternative veterinarian medicine is used, there is no magic bullet for liver malfunction—the best approach is prevention through a healthy lifestyle.
Nutrition, exercise, and elimination of toxins and stress are key. And herbs can play a crucial role in both prevention and treatment, working to support your pet’s largest and, I would argue, most important organ system.
The liver performs hundreds of functions, including filtering and detoxifying chemical and bacterial impurities in the blood. It also processes most food, converting nutrients and synthesizing proteins; manufactures bile, which helps your pet digest fat; and prepares toxic material and waste products for elimination. Finally, the liver is a huge storage bin for several nutrients such as glycogen (a sugar source for quick energy), vitamins and iron.
When something’s wrong
Liver problems can be caused by many conditions—toxins, stress, genetics, infections, poisonous substances—but often it’s hard to identify the culprit.
There are many symptoms of liver dysfunction. A well-known indicator is jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes). Your veterinarian can analyze liver function by testing for liver enzymes in the blood, but many liver problems are advanced by the time jaundice appears or liver enzymes in the blood are abnormal.
Earlier indicators to watch for include persistent gastrointestinal imbalances (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, bloating, bad breath, excess gas, and abnormal stools); lethargy; anxiety; itchy, watery, swollen, or red eyes; itchy or draining ears; and skin problems—especially acne and psoriasis, but also rashes, dry and peeling skin and slow-healing wounds. Liver abnormalities also can make arthritis pain worse.
Fortunately, many herbs can help treat liver problems, and some of these are actually better than anything Western medicine has to offer. What’s more, herbs can be used no matter the cause of the liver problem because most liver-specific herbs are both protective and regenerative; most have a broad-based sphere of activity, so they help many organ systems that in turn support the liver; and, unlike many drugs, they don’t stress or damage the liver when metabolized.
Whether for prevention or treatment, adding one or a few of the following herbs to your pet’s health regime is a good idea.
• Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a powerful plant with beautiful purple flower heads and prickly leaves mottled with white. Although all parts of the plant are edible, the seeds contain the highest concentration of medicinal properties. They’re readily available from herbal suppliers and health-food stores, either as whole or ground seeds or in capsule or tincture form.
Milk thistle works by increasing bile flow; strengthening and stabilizing cell membranes (especially important for cells that have been exposed to toxins); acting as a potent antioxidant and slowing the inflammatory response; and stimulating protein synthesis to rebuild liver cells damaged by disease.
I use it to support an overall protocol for healing whenever I suspect diseases of any kind in the liver or gallbladder, or problems such as gastrointestinal upset, skin irritations, blood-clotting abnormalities, immune dysfunctions and hormonal abnormalities.
Because milk thistle seeds are extremely safe to use and readily accepted by almost all pets, I recommend them as a general tonic—add a pinch of seeds to your pet’s food a couple of times a week. The active ingredients of the seeds are not soluble in water, so teas are not effective. For sick pets, administer a tincture or capsule, adjusting the recommended dose for your pet’s weight.
• Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) has similar, if not equal, benefits for liver diseases. But don’t use artichoke hearts for liver protection—the medicinal benefit lies in the leaves.
Artichoke acts much like milk thistle, but it has a bit more cholesterol-protective action (which is more important in humans than in animals), and I often combine the two herbs because of a possible synergistic effect. Capsules containing dried, ground artichoke leaves are available from health-food stores. You can open a capsule and sprinkle the contents on your pet’s food or administer it as you would other pills several times a week as a good general liver tonic.
• Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is another liver-friendly herb that pets seem to gobble up. In addition to its liver-protective qualities, turmeric has shown anticancer, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory activity as well as the ability to decrease intestinal gas. It also helps the cardiovascular system by inhibiting platelet aggregation and interfering with cholesterol absorption.
Turmeric is a great herb for sprinkling on food a few times a week because animals seem to relish its taste. You can give it alone or as part of the mix of herbs known as curry powder.
I often include other supportive herbs in liver preparations to round out an animal’s care and to capitalize on any synergisim. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is one herb I often include for its adaptogenic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-anxiety qualities as well as its taste. Licorice is also an antioxidant and helps relieve intestinal irritations, especially ulcers. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a mild tonic and bitter that helps increase bile flow. It also has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) supports the kidneys, increases bile flow, and mildly fights germs. Barberry root (Berberis vulgaris) and Oregon grape root (B. aquifolium) contain antifungal and antibacterial agents that activate macrophages and enhance the immune system and digestive secretions.
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 substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.