Pet Corner

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Milk thistle is a powerful herb for liver problems.

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 veterinary medicine is used, we have no magic bullet
for liver malfunction: As is the case for humans, 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 prevention and treatment,
working to support your pet’s largest and, I would argue, most
important organ system.

Your animal companion’s 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
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 Goes Wrong

Liver problems can be caused by many conditions — environmental
toxins, stress, genetics, infections, ingestion or absorption of
poisons — but often it’s hard to identify the culprit.

Many symptoms characterize 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 have become
quite 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 psoriasis, but also rashes,
dry and peeling skin, and slow-healing wounds. Liver abnormalities
also can make arthritis pain worse.

Liver Care

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 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

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 abnor-malities, immune dysfunctions and hormonal

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 seeds’ active ingredients are not soluble in water, so teas are
not effective. For sick pets, administer a tincture or capsule,
adjusting the manufacturer’s recommended dose (which is calculated
for a 150-pound human) for your pet’s weight.

For liver problems, the best approach is prevention
through a healthy lifestyle.

• Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) has similar, if not equal,
benefits for liver diseases. But save the artichoke hearts for your
dinner table — the medicinal benefit lies in the leaves, not the

Artichoke acts much like milk thistle, but 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

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.

Promising Partners

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 strengthens the immune system. Barberry root
(Berberis vulgaris) and Oregon grape root (B. aquifolium) contain
antifungal and antibacterial agents that 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 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a
holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website,, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.

Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace
the advice of a qualified veterinarian.

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