Your family’s health and well-being are important to you, including those of the four-legged members of your clan. So when conventional veterinary methods keep you on a tight leash, it’s a relief to know that there are alternative ways to keep your pet healthy and happy. The best ways to make sure your pet is receiving prime health care is to know all of your treatment options, and to stay up to date on general pet health knowledge.
More Than Just Chow
Good pet health starts with a healthy diet. This means buying foods free of artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, fillers, and byproducts, as well as foods that are organic and non-GMO. This can be a tricky task to manage; because there is still no regulatory definition for marketing terms such as “natural”, some detective work on your part is in order. You must become a proficient label reader to make sure the information on the front of the package lines up with the ingredients listed on the back.
Sometimes food, particularly herbs, can be a better solution than conventional veterinary medicines, especially when dealing with minor gastrointestinal issues, yeast infections, and inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis. For example, giving 1 tablespoon of pure pumpkin purée to a dog (or 1 teaspoon to a cat) is effective against diarrhea and stomach upset because it’s high in digestive enzymes. Olive leaf, either the powder or liquid extract, is also an effective alternative to antibiotics because of the presence of oleuropein, a phenolic compound that has been shown to inhibit the production of inflammatory cytokines. Oleuropein also exerts potent antiviral and antimicrobial effects, and counters a number of pathogens, such as salmonella (Salmonella enteritidis), E. coli (Escherichia coli), and ringworm (Microsporum canis). However, you shouldn’t use olive leaf extract as a regular treatment method; constant use for more than three months could lead to negative long-term issues for your pet.
Because a large part of the immune system resides in the large intestine, you can also consider adding a probiotic supplement to your pet’s food. A dollop of coconut oil contains essential fatty acids that enhance digestion and benefit the skin, coat, and brain. Hiding medicine capsules in coconut oil can also make getting supplements into Fido or Fluffy a lot easier.
Those Doggone Pests
Frequent scratching is a sure sign that your pet has picked up a few hitchhikers, namely fleas and ticks. Conventional products formulated to rid your pet of these pests may contain chemicals with known carcinogenic and neurotoxic effects that not only impact pets, but also people, especially children. For instance, flea collars — one of the most common methods of flea control — often contain tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur, insecticides associated with a significantly increased risk of neurological disorders in children, who often hug the family pet around the neck. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, flea collars leave nearly 1,000 times the pesticide residue on pet fur than what the Environmental Protection Agency determines to be a safe level.
Fortunately, some plant-based flea and tick formulas have been proven to more effectively eliminate fleas and ticks, as well as the risk of toxicity. Studies have shown that the essential oils of thyme and myrtle are more effective at repelling fleas than either diethyltoluamide (DEET) or permethrin, two standard ingredients found in insect repellents. Geraniol is another common ingredient in natural flea and tick products that is superior to DEET. The compound is found in the essential oils made from rose geranium, lemongrass, and citronella. Other botanicals, such as clove and cinnamon, contain eugenol, an agent that blocks the activity of an insect neurotransmitter called “octopamine”, causing the insect’s central nervous system to crash. Because mammals and vertebrates lack adequate octopamine receptors, eugenol is safe for people and wildlife. Nancy Brandt, a holistic veterinarian at Natural Care Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada, recommends combining 1 tablespoon of salt with 1 cup of water for an Epsom salt poultice, and applying it three times a day to combat the itch from flea bites.
While all of these methods are suitable for dogs, some treatments, specifically those involving clove and thyme, should not be used to treat cats. Never apply essential oils directly to your pet’s skin, and consult your veterinarian if your pet is under 15 pounds before using essential oils at all. You should also always take the extra time to research where your essential oils are coming from — not all essential oils are produced safely or responsibly.
Curb Those Hot Spots
In every dog’s life, a hot spot is likely to develop, usually on the rear end of the dog. However, hot spots, known as acute moist dermatitis, can also appear elsewhere on the body, such as around the neck, legs, flank, and chest. Though hot spots are more common in dogs, they can occur in cats as well. These localized sites of inflammation are intensely itchy and irritating for the animal, and can escalate from a small spot to an angry patch of red, hairless skin in no time. With hot spots, you must act quickly to resolve the problem before they become infected and cause even more damage to your pet.
As always, the best treatment option is to avoid getting hot spots in the first place, which requires knowing what causes them and taking early preventive steps. Flea dermatitis and food or environmental allergies most notably contribute to the appearance of hot spots and other inflammatory skin conditions, but other factors may be involved. Emotionally, lack of exercise or mental stimulation, severe separation anxiety, adjusting to a new home, or the arrival of a new pet or child are common stress points for an animal. Pets also “grieve” for lost family members or playmates, and possibly even a favorite toy or blanket. Physical issues, such as a bug bite or matted hair, can lead to skin problems. Constant licking of an area around a joint may cause a hot spot, and may serve as the first sign of arthritis.
In holistic terms, there is always an underlying cause that must be addressed to fully treat your pet, and helping them emotionally may be the key to curing them physically, and vice versa.
Once the hot spots are already present, there are a few natural ways to battle them effectively. Homeopathic remedies, such as Rhus tox or Apis, can be given inside the cheek as 3 to 5 No. 20 pellets — or a half-dropperful of 30C potency liquid — every 30 minutes for up to 4 doses a day. If administering to cats, dissolve the pellets in a small amount of broth they can drink throughout the day.
Externally, 1 teaspoon of coconut oil mixed with 2 drops of oregano essential oil applied to the area will help soothe the irritation and combat bacteria. Unfortunately, this treatment is not suitable for cats, as oregano can have harmful and lasting consequences for them. If using this method on your dog, plan to supervise them and deter them from licking the area until the salve is absorbed. If there’s no sign of improvement after a few hours, and certainly if the situation seems worse, stop the treatment and call your veterinarian.
Paws Off Over-Vaccination
Many people are unaware that the only animal vaccination required by law in every U.S. state (and in some Canadian provinces) is rabies. The other core vaccinations — distemper, parvovirus, and adenovirus — are not required, yet they’re commonly administered on animals that are already immune from a previous vaccination. Until the American Animal Hospital Association’s Canine Vaccination Task Force released updated guidelines in 2011, these three vaccines were typically given every year to dogs. Although the new guidelines recommend core vaccinations every three years as opposed to annually, the task force states that the minimum immunity provided by distemper and parvovirus vaccines is closer to five years, while the immunity from the adenovirus vaccine lasts at least seven years. Ronald Schultz, a veterinary immunologist and professor of the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, and one of the lead authors of the new guidelines, recommends titer testing to measure the serum concentration of antibodies to evaluate whether or not to revaccinate.
While it’s good to be involved in your pet’s health, over-vaccinating can be more harmful than helpful. For example, many pet guardians regard heartworm disease as a death sentence, but Jeffrey Levy, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, and Practitioner of Classical Homeopathy, asserts that this doesn’t have to be true. In his extended experience in treating dogs with heartworm, the only ones who suffered heart failure were the dogs that had been vaccinated every year. He notes, however, that geographic location and environment may significantly increase the risk for exposure and the need to vaccinate. Otherwise, a natural diet and the avoidance of toxins is key to prevention, as well as a monthly dose of heartworm nosodes.
Gerald Wessner of the Holistic Veterinary Clinic also treats his patients with heartworm nosodes, but he prescribes them a bit differently. Wassner weans his patients off the nosodes over the course of three months, adding food-grade diatomaceous earth to the diet for 30 or more days, and a homeopathic medicine called Paratox that consists of black walnut hull, turkey rhubarb, crampbark, wormwood, and other botanicals.
Despite these remedies, it’s still important to test for heartworm microfilaria annually, and to discuss all options for prevention and treatment with your veterinarian.
While having these home remedies at your disposal can be helpful, it’s still always a good idea to have a qualified holistic veterinarian evaluate your pet’s physical condition, emotional status, and dietary needs to help pinpoint the causes of illness and provide the right combination of therapies. Note, too, that a holistic veterinarian will be able to recommend acupuncture and homeopathic remedies to address these conditions and promote overall wellness in your pet, something that you should not administer at home on your own.
Pets can sneak their way into your heart quickly, and stay there for life. Help them stay as healthy as possible while they’re a part of your family. Making decisions about your pets’ health is not always the easiest thing to do, but knowing all of your veterinary options is a good place to start.
Recipes for your pet’s health:
Karyn Maier is a seasoned health writer and herbalist who resides in the Catskill Mountains. She spends her free time writing, foraging, gardening, cooking, and practicing botanical arts. Visit her at Herbal Musings.