Pet Corner: Herbal Treatments for Liver Dysfunction

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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.

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 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.

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 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.

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