As caregivers to our pets, we take great pride in wagging tails, thick fur, and sparkling eyes. Equal in intensity is our worry when they limp, cough, or scratch so hard that they draw blood. We may fret for a day before visiting the veterinarian. Often, we leave the vet’s office with an optimistic prognosis, a prescription for a salve or other remedy, and the expectation of a quick return to normalcy after a few days of home care.
Stocking a pet medicine chest with ingredients for a calendula compress, echinacea tea, and other preparations makes caring for your dog or cat’s minor ailments as easy as treating a child’s scraped knee with antiseptic and a Band-Aid. Herbal remedies may not cure your fretting, but they can help you—and your pet—feel better.
Here, we’ve compiled a list of ten common ailments, herbal remedies used by some veterinarians, and instructions for making them. However, any treatment should be used cautiously. Work with your veterinarian, the person who best knows your pet’s health condition. For more information, consult the reading list below or contact the American Veterinary Medical Association (1931 N. Meacham Rd., Ste. 100, Schaumberg, IL 60173-4360), which last year officially recognized the importance of botanical medicine and other complementary therapies in veterinary care.
Unless otherwise specified, use these recommended dosages for liquid preparations to be taken internally:
• 1/2 teaspoon three times daily for cats and dogs weighing less than 20 pounds;
• 1 teaspoon three times daily for dogs weighing between 20 and 40 pounds;
• 1 tablespoon three times daily for dogs weighing more than 40 pounds.
Dogs and cats have protective pads on their toes, but they still can pick up thorns, burrs, or other foreign objects. If your pet is limping, examine its paws. If you can see a foreign object embedded, pull it out with tweezers. (If it’s deeply embedded, bathe the paw several times a day in a warm solution of 1 teaspoon salt in a cup of water to draw the object to the surface so that you can remove it.)
After you’ve removed any foreign matter, wash the skin with soap and water to prevent infection. Check the wound site every day. Swelling and/or an oozing sore are signs of infection. You may want to give your pet some echinacea tea to help its immune system fight off the infection; see the guidelines below. When the oozing has stopped, keep the wound clean by wrapping it in a calendula compress. Calendula preparations are widely used in Germany to treat slow-healing wounds.
Echinacea increases the ability of immune-system cells to attack foreign invaders and fight infection. Humans use it to fend off colds and flu. A small amount of echinacea can also help your pet recover from a minor infection that accompanies a wound.
To make a tea, boil a cup of water and pour it over 1 teaspoon of dried (1 tablespoon of fresh) echinacea roots or leaves. Steep, covered, for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid into a jar and let it cool. Make a fresh infusion daily. Alternatively, you may dilute 3 drops of echinacea tincture in 1 teaspoon water (9 drops of tincture in 1 tablespoon water), then use the dosage guidelines above.
Fill an eyedropper with the recommended amount of tea or diluted tincture and squeeze it into your pet’s mouth. Administer the tea three times daily for no longer than seven days. If the infection shows no signs of improvement or gets worse after several days, call your veterinarian.
If your pet resists taking liquid echinacea preparations, try capsules: 1/2 capsule three times daily for cats and dogs weighing less than 20 pounds; 1 capsule three times a day for medium-sized dogs; and 2 capsules for dogs weighing more than 40 pounds. Just open the capsule(s) and sprinkle the powder into your pet’s food.
Applying calendula flowers to cuts and wounds to help them heal is a centuries-old tradition; scientific studies have shown that calendula preparations reduce inflammation and promote the growth of healthy new tissue.
Calendula tea is made exactly like echinacea tea, but you don’t need to strain it. While the tea is cooling a bit, cut some terry cloth into strips long enough to wrap several times around the paw. When the liquid is comfortably warm, dunk a strip of towel into the liquid, wring it out, and wrap it loosely around the paw over the wound. (Wrapping it tightly could cause more pain.) If your pet will allow it, keep the compress against the area for 15 minutes, refreshing it in the warm liquid halfway through this period. Repeat twice daily for as long as a week.
When animals fight and bite, they can get puncture wounds, most often around the face, neck, and chest. Punctures may not look serious, but the damage done by a cat’s narrow teeth or a dog’s strong bite can cause considerable soft-tissue damage beneath the victim’s skin.
When your pet has been bitten, let it calm down before assessing the damage. (If it appears extremely agitated, you may need to have your vet check that it hasn’t been more seriously hurt.) If the skin has been punctured, clip the hair away from the wound. Remove any loose hairs, then carefully bathe the area with warm soapy water.
Watch for signs of infection as described under “Tender paws”. If they appear or if the pet treats the wound gingerly itself, give it echinacea tea, tincture, or capsules according to the guidelines above.
As our dogs and cats age, they slow down much as humans do. An old battle wound may act up; arthritis can set in. Some common causes of animal aches and pains include osteoarthritis, a degeneration of joint cartilage and bone caused by poor nutrition, disease, or hereditary factors; hip dysplasia, a hereditary condition that causes lameness and pain in the hind legs; and elbow dysplasia, which often occurs as the result of a poorly healed fracture or other injury.
Although these conditions are irreversible and a veterinarian will need to diagnose the problem, you can help relieve your pet’s pain by applying a compress made of a washcloth or hand towel moistened with warm water to the affected area.
Another effective treatment is a cream containing capsaicin, the compound in hot peppers that causes their pungency. It blocks a protein called substance P from relaying pain messages from nerve endings to the brain. Repeated applications of a capsaicin cream to the painful area may lead to desensitization, pain relief, and reduction of inflammation. Apply the cream with gentle circular motions, massaging it through the fur onto the skin. Start with just a little bit and check the site after four hours for an adverse reaction, such as skin irritation.
Antisocial behavior is as prevalent among animals as it is among humans, and even the most well-behaved pet can have a bad day. When offensive behavior is the rule rather than the exception, consider obedience training, going back to the basics (relearning “no”, for example), or correcting environmental conditions that may be upsetting your pet, such as constant loud noise.
Several herbal preparations also may help. All except valerian may be given internally at the dosages recommended above for no more than two weeks at a time; valerian should be given for no longer than a week. You may prefer to use these remedies as a preventive measure only. For example, if your pet is hyperactive when company comes, try giving it some valerian tea when you know you’ll be having guests.
Irritability: Chamomile is a mild sedative that is recommended for irritable pets and for dogs with a tendency to whine and snap. To ensure that your pet is not allergic to chamomile, give it only a fraction of the recommended dose and wait four hours to see whether it shows signs of adverse reaction. Make a tea of fresh or dried chamomile flowers just as you made echinacea tea.
Hyperactivity: Studies have shown that valerian root depresses the central nervous system and relieves muscle spasms. It is especially helpful for a dog that tends to become overexcited or suffers from anxiety when it is separated from you. However, it’s not a cure; don’t use it for more than one week. Make a valerian root tea, following the directions for echinacea tea.
Chewing: When your pet chews the life out of the arm of a sofa or another of your possessions, you may wonder whether the two of you were meant for each other. Hot peppers may save the sofa and your sanity. Try applying a dash of pepper sauce to the spot where your pet has been chewing; test a bit on a small area first to see if it will stain. Or try hot pepper flakes or powder, which you could later vacuum up.
Common in both cats and dogs, periodontal disease is caused by a buildup of bacteria that destroys the cement that holds the teeth and gums together and, over time, causes teeth to fall out. Bleeding gums, bad breath, drooling, painful chewing signified by dropping food, loss of appetite, and loose teeth are signs of periodontal disease.
Prevent periodontal disease by giving your pets a good diet and hard, durable toys to exercise their teeth on. If periodontal disease has set in, your veterinarian may advise corrective surgery. Recovery is painful and uncomfortable. Either of the following treatments can help a pet during the recovery period.
Simmer 1 teaspoon dried chopped echinacea root in 1 cup water, covered, for 10 minutes, then steep for 1 hour. Strain and gently swab the decoction on the gums twice a day for no longer than 10 days. If the swelling or infection doesn’t subside, check with your veterinarian.
Make a tea of 1 teaspoon dried, powdered goldenseal root and 1 pint of water, let cool, and strain it. With a syringe or turkey baster, squirt all of it gently over the affected area and out of the mouth. Do this twice daily for ten days.
Milk intolerance, allergies, chronic pancreatitis, roundworms, colitis, infections, or poisoning may all cause diarrhea. At the first sign of diarrhea, withhold food for twenty-four hours, then feed your pet a bland meal of rice and unseasoned hamburger or chicken. If diarrhea continues for longer than two days, consult your veterinarian. Painful or bloody diarrhea requires immediate attention.
A preparation made from slippery elm powder can soothe an irritated intestinal tract. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved it for this use for humans.
Slippery elm soother
1 rounded teaspoon dried, powdered slippery elm bark
1 cup cold water
Combine the powdered bark and the water in a pan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Turn down the heat and continue cooking over low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool. Give cats and small dogs 1/2 to 1 teaspoon every 4 hours; medium-sized dogs, 2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons every 4 hours; and large dogs, 3 to 4 tablespoons every 4 hours.
Head shaking, constant ear scratching, and smelly discharges from the ears are signs that your pet has an ear disorder. Cats and dogs alike can contract ear infections from allergies, ear mites, or trapped grass seeds, among other causes. Dogs with flopping, furry ear flaps are more likely to get ear disorders than cats or dogs with erect ears.
A calendula flush will help keep ears free of discharge and reduce irritation. Use it once or twice a day. You may cut this recipe in half for smaller animals.
1 cup warm distilled or filtered water
1 teaspoon calendula tincture
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Combine the water, calendula, and salt in a glass. With an ear syringe or dropper, gently and quickly squeeze some of the liquid into your pet’s ear, holding the syringe at the entrance to the ear canal, not inside it. Avoid making squirting sounds, which might scare the animal. After instilling some liquid into the ear, gently rub it, then stand back and let your pet shake its head. Then do the other ear. Your pet may even begin to look forward to this treatment.
This flush is especially suitable for floppy-eared dogs that love the water. Use it once a week during swimming season, more often if your pet swims daily.
Mix the juice of half a lemon in 1 cup of warm water. Syringe the ears as described for the Calendula Flush, blot the excess moisture from the inside ear, and gently swab out just inside the ear opening with a cotton swab.
Ear mites are tiny, annoying pests that invade pets’ ears and cause them to scratch incessantly. One way to prevent them from taking up residence is to thoroughly shampoo its head, ears, and tail at least once a week. If mites haved already moved in, yellow dock, an astringent, may kill them.
Dilute 3 drops of yellow dock tincture in 1 tablespoon of distilled or filtered water. Instill 1/2 dropperful in the ear canal and massage gently. Let the animal shake its head, then blot the opening with cotton swabs. Repeat the treatment once every 3 days for as long as 3 weeks.
Skin irritations are common in both cats and dogs. You may notice small white scales, large brown flakes, or red patches underneath the fur. Scabs, crustiness, even pimples or blisters between toes can show up. Skin problems may be caused by a poor diet, an invasive parasite, exposure to pest-control chemicals, or an allergy.
Red blotches: Acutely inflamed, irritated patches of skin, or hot spots, have a variety of causes, including moisture. To soothe them, clip away the hair, then give your pet a bath with a nonirritating soap about once a week. Dry the skin thoroughly with a towel, then dab the affected area with tea; it contains tannic acid, which helps dry up moisture.
Between baths, you can smear the afflicted area two or three times a day with the gel from a piece of fresh aloe vera leaf. Stop if your pet objects or persists in licking it off. Commercial preparations of aloe vera gel are available in health-food stores.
Just as in humans, infections of dogs’ and cats’ upper respiratory tract cause runny noses, sneezes, sore throats, and coughing. The two that infect cats, however—feline viral rhinotracheitis and the similar but less serious feline calcivirus—require a veterinarian’s care.
Kennel cough in dogs (contracted from other dogs) causes inflammation of the voice box and windpipe. For this and other less serious infections that result in coughing, an herbal cough syrup containing wild cherry bark and horehound will help coat and soothe the throat. It is available in health-food stores and has dosage guidelines on the label; reduce the dose according to your pet’s size. On the other hand, acute bronchitis, pneumonia, and foreign bodies in the airway all cause acute coughing that will require a veterinarian’s help to overcome.
If your pet has a deep, hoarse cough or a sore throat (you can tell whether your pet has a sore throat if it reacts when you touch that area from the outside), try giving it mullein tea (made just like echinacea tea) once a day for as long as a week. Humans use mullein to bring up phlegm and soothe a sore throat. With a small dropper or ear syringe, squirt the liquid into your pet’s mouth.
When you stroke your cat and sparks fly, you know it’s just static electricity. Humidifying the air with a room or furnace humidifier will make everyone in the house more comfortable. Applying an oil conditioner when you bathe your pet can reduce static and restore shine to dry hair. For a medium-sized dog, mix 1/4 cup olive oil and 2 teaspoons dried or 2 tablespoons fresh sage (adjust amounts according to the size of your pet); massage the mixture through the fur and onto the skin, then rinse with warm water and dry with a towel. For really dry hair, cover your pet with a warm, wet towel for about five minutes before rinsing.
The following two books offer useful, easy-to-understand information about a variety of approaches to the care and treatment of animals.
Pitcairn, Richard H., D.V.M., Ph.D., and Susan Hubble Pitcairn. Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1995.
Schoen, Allen M., D.V.M., and Pam Proctor. Love, Miracles, and Animal Healing: A Veterinarian’s Journey from Physical Medicine to Spiritual Understanding. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.