Mother Earth Living

Herbs for Respiratory Problems

Learn how you can treat your pet's breathing problems.
By Randy Kidd, D.V.M.
September/October 2002


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Far too often we limit our approach to disease and health to strictly Western medical ways of thinking. In Western medical terms, lung diseases are evident when the patient has difficulty with breathing (asthma, for example) or when he coughs, wheezes, and hacks.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), using a more holistic approach, believes there is a connection between the lungs and the skin. In addition, according to TCM, the lungs are the “officials” in charge of controlling the vital energy of the whole body, extracting qi from the air during respiration and transferring it into the blood. Lungs are also the “upper lid” of the body, opening to the outside, and they are therefore our gateway to outside “pernicious” factors that contribute to disease.

When viewed this way, any disease of the lungs will thus affect the entire body and its energetics. Furthermore, any time the lungs are affected, the skin is also susceptible; and conversely, when skin diseases occur, consideration should be given to correcting any problem that might exist in the lungs. Finally, a holistic approach to health will include ways to help maintain healthy lungs, so that all those pernicious buggers out there have a more difficult time invading our pets’ bodies.

The holistic approach

From a practical standpoint then, the truly holistic herbalist first selects herbs that will alleviate the ongoing symptoms, but she also looks beyond those to herbs that will support qi and help cure possible underlying causes. I’ve found herbal medicines are often more helpful for specific lung diseases than Western drugs. For one thing, many of the infectious lung diseases in animals are caused by viruses. Whereas many herbs are active against viruses, no antibiotics are. In addition, there are several herbs that enhance qi as well as having broad-spectrum antibiotic activity. Finally, there are a few herbs that are effective for skin problems as well as lung conditions.

A cautionary note: What appears to be a chronic respiratory problem in pets may not be; it may be a heart condition instead, or something else entirely. Congestive heart problems and severe heartworm infestations often cause pets to cough, and without a good physical exam, neither you nor I can tell the difference. There are also some metabolic problems that may lead to respiratory congestion, and these need to be ruled out before treatment begins.

The best respiratory herbs

Whenever I am presented with a true case of respiratory disease, the first herbs I recommend are mullein and licorice root.

Mullein (Verbascum spp.). Mullein leaves are specific for the respiratory tract with many healing actions: expectorant (helping remove mucus), antispasmodic (easing coughs), and demulcent (soothing to irritated membranes). In addition, mullein acts as a non-narcotic painkiller and is mildly sedative—helping a pet sleep through the worst bouts of coughing. And, mullein is considered a lung tonic, working to keep the pernicious factors away from the respiratory system as well as helping it heal. Mullein is a mild-tasting herb that most pets take readily in the form of a tea. Mullein’s healing actions can also be accessed by smoking the leaves or breathing in the vapors from hot tea. Mullein is an herb to consider using as a tonic tea throughout the fall months, when the weather changes are most stressful to the lungs. And interestingly, one of the little-known traditional uses for mullein was to help alleviate itchy, scratchy skin problems—making the herb’s connection to TCM complete.

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Licorice root is an anti-inflammatory, an expectorant, and it soothes irritated membranes—definitely good medicine for bronchitis and coughs. In addition, it has some antimicrobial activity to help fight any bugs that might have instigated the symptoms. Because most animals like the taste of licorice root, it can be added to any herbal concoction to enhance palatability. Finally, and perhaps most importantly from the perspective of holistic medicine, licorice acts as an adaptogen—it supports most of the body systems.

Additional herbs to consider for conditions involving the lungs include the following.

Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum). Used as an addition to any herbal anti-cough “recipe”—in addition to being a good antitussive (cough suppressant), anise tastes good enough that it is found in many over-the-counter cough medicines.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is an excellent herb for respiratory problems of all ilk, including allergies and asthma. It encourages expectoration of phlegm and eases spasms of bronchial passages.

Expectorant herbs are indicated for wet-sounding, hacking coughs that often involve an overproduction of mucus. Expectorants include marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), and aniseed. Demulcent herbs soothe mucus membranes, and these include licorice root, mullein, marshmallow leaf, and flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum).

Other herbs

For problems of the respiratory system that are likely due to bacterial or viral infections, consider echinacea (Echinacea spp.), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and thyme.

Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a good herb to round out the holistic approach to respiratory health. Since early times, nettle has been used to treat coughs. It is especially indicated for allergic conditions that affect either the skin or lungs. Finally, it’s an excellent tonic for the entire body and especially the blood-forming systems, supplying copious amounts of vitamin C and iron. Since the plant makes an early arrival in the spring, nettle tea is the ideal springtime, whole-body tonic.


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.


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