Pet Corner: Pet Skin Problems

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Herbs can help treat your pet’s hot spots

Before I began practicing holistic medicine, our golden retriever, Rufus, suffered through several miserable summers, itching and scratching a spot of raw skin known as a “hot spot” on his foreleg.

Cortisone treatments gave Rufus only temporary relief, so I decided to explore alternative methods. With my new medicinal herb book in hand, I learned that preparations of calendula (Calendula officinalis) are effective in treating open skin wounds. I made some calendula tea and, using a plant spritzer, sprayed it on his hot spot. The first dose brought an immediate sigh of relief from Rufus, and for three or four hours he was itch-free. I sprayed the hot spot with calendula several times that day, and Rufus had the first good night’s sleep he’d had in weeks. By morning, I could see pink healing tissue, and in a week the lesion no longer itched and was nearly healed.

Unfortunately, not all hot spots are this easy to treat. In fact, hot spots top my list of frustrating cases because it’s difficult to pinpoint their cause. They can be caused by bacterial or fungal infections; ­nutritional, hormonal and/or immune system imbalances; spinal nerve impingement; ­heredity; and a myriad of other causes. The secret to treatment seems to be a good dose of patience and determination to keep trying various remedies until you find the one that addresses your pet’s specific needs. And, although I have yet to find one herb or herbal formula that will by itself miraculously cure such a skin problem, herbs can be effective when used along with other therapies, including nutrition counseling, acupuncture, homeopathy, and chiropractic adjustments.

Step One: Diagnosis

Effective treatment depends on a good diagnosis. Find a veterinarian who goes beyond the quick fix of a cortisone shot and flea collar and gives your pet a complete dermatologic workup, including skin scrapings and cultures, blood tests, and, when necessary, biopsies. Once you have an idea of what may be causing the problem, you can determine an effective treatment plan. Keep in mind that if your pet’s skin problems are caused by parasites (fleas, ticks, or mange mites), you will almost certainly need more than herbal treatments to get rid of the bugs.

Working from the Outside

For the localized red, raw, and itchy area, I use calendula. Sometimes, I combine it with other skin-conditioning herbs, including aloe, chamomile, mullein, or plantain. Fresh calendula, good for treating cuts, scratches, and abrasions, also speeds wound healing through its anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal activity. It also contains an effective pain-relieving compound called salicylic acid.

I make a mild calendula tea to spritz directly on the raw, infected skin several times a day. A calendula salve is another good delivery system for some animals. To make a calendula salve, melt 7 ounces of a petroleum jelly or a beeswax cream over low heat. Add 2 ounces (about a handful) of fresh or dried calendula flowers. Bring the mixture to a soft boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes, covered, stirring regularly. Strain the mixture through fine gauze, and then discard the flowers. Pour the liquid into a lidded container, cool, and store away from sunlight. Apply once or twice a day to your pet’s hot spot.

Some animals will lick off topical applications. That won’t hurt them in small amounts, but it will decrease the medicine’s effectiveness. I suggest adding a pinch of cayenne (Capsicum spp.) to the ointment to discourage licking. Cayenne also has been shown to relieve pain and help wounds heal.

Healing from the Inside Out

For some especially hard-to-heal skin lesions, you may need to combine your pet’s topical treatment with an internal treatment. Here are a few herbs that may be used to make a medicine your pet can swallow. You can sprinkle them onto your pet’s food or make a mild tea for your pet to drink. Use them alone or combine them.

• I use licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) for conditions that I once treated with cortisone because the herb stimulates the adrenal glands, which produce natural cortisone. Most critters like its taste, so it makes an effective camouflage for bitter herbs. Don’t use licorice on any animal with heart, liver, or hypertension problems. And don’t think you’re helping your pet by giving it a treat of commercial licorice candy, which often doesn’t contain the herb at all.

• Burdock root (Arctium lappa) is a “blood cleanser,” promoting the excretion of wastes in the urine and sweat. It’s a valuable remedy for skin conditions, ­especially those that have left the skin dry and scaly.

• Yellow dock (Rumex crispus) is used extensively to treat chronic skin problems because it helps the liver eliminate toxins that may be contributing to the condition.

• The antibacterial activity of sarsaparilla (Smilax regelii) makes it especially good for chronic skin conditions.

Exercise and Rest

Skin problems are commonly found in the couch-potato pet. Lack of exercise leads to poor circulation and stagnant blood, both of which can cause unhealthy skin. In addition to daily exercise, I sometimes suggest that owners give their pets a tea made with nettles (Urtica spp.) to stimulate the blood. Additionally, because the liver is critical to cleaning the body of toxins that are often responsible for many skin irritations, I usually advise adding a liver tonic such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), chicory (Cichorium spp.), or milk thistle (Silybum marianum) to an animal’s herbal regime.

Imagine how difficult it must be for your pet to deal with the infernal itching–some animals have literally been driven crazy by it. To alleviate an animal’s irritability and anxiety, I suggest adding some oats (Avena sativa) to the animal’s food or offering your animal a little valerian (Valeriana officinalis) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tea. These herbs provide a mild calming effect that may help your pet get some rest.

How Much?

When your pet needs to take medicine, finding the safest dose requires caution. When possible, sprinkle the herbs mentioned above on your pet’s food or offer ­a mild tea. When capsules, tablets, or tinctures are necessary, use small amounts, adjusting the dosage for the weight of your animal, assuming that the dosage on the label is for a 150-pound human. A general guideline is one or two doses a day for 30 days. If your pet shows any sign of ­discomfort after taking a medicine, discontinue use immediately and call your ­veterinarian if you think the problem is ­serious.

Rufus Kidd is a twelve-year-old golden retriever whose primary interests include romping in the snow, swimming, and playing fetch. Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary pathology.

The information provided in “Pet corner” is not intended to substitute for the advice of a qualified veterinarian.

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