Learn how to heal pet arthritis with herbs using these vet created guidelines.
One reward of holistic medicine in general and herbal medicines in particular is that the methods are safe and effective for treating a wide variety of disease processes. They’re especially beneficial for treating chronic diseases such as arthritis—ailments that typically escape Western medicine’s applications. I’ve found that the complex of disease processes lumped under the all-inclusive term “arthritis” is a perfect example of a category of diseases that responds to holistic medicines much better than anything I used in my previous lifetime as a “normal” veterinarian.
Arthritis: It Isn’t One Disease
Arthritis (and its cousin, rheumatism) are catch-all terms that encompass several dozen disease states of the joints and surrounding tissues such as tendons, ligaments, cartilage, joint sac (or bursa), muscles and connecting tissues.
The typical arthritis patient is a mid- to old-aged (5-plus years old) dog. Lower back and hips are the most commonly affected areas, but I think I’ve seen arthritis in every possible joint. Studies show that cats can also develop arthritis as they age, and I have treated several severely arthritic cats in my practice. But, with cats’ propensity to be couch potatoes for 23 hours per day, I suspect most owners aren’t aware when cats have a problem.
Most of the dogs I see have some form of structural abnormality, and due to the way they’re put together, they constantly put abnormal pressures on their joint surfaces, resulting in excess wear and tear and an increased production of harmful free radicals. Eventually, the joint cartilage erodes and loses its cushioning effects. Without the cushioning cartilage, a dog feels pain. As the cartilage continues to erode, bony growths may form, causing even more pain whenever the dog moves the joint.
Typically, a dog has been slowly getting worse and is now having a difficult time negotiating stairs or jumping onto Mom’s bed. The dog prefers to lie around in the warm sun and may groan whenever he gets up or lies down. There may be enough pain and inflammation in his joints that we can detect a noticeable limp when he walks, and sometimes the joints are actually swollen. X-rays may or may not show noticeable changes in joints and/or bony surfaces, but chiropractic evaluation often reveals joints that are less flexible than normal.
Six Pillars of Pet Arthritis Treatment
Over the years, I’ve developed a general protocol for arthritis to heal pet arthritis with herbs, adapted and refined from the treatments of several other holistic practitioners. I think of my protocol as having six pillars; each pillar helps me simplify my thinking while building a strong therapeutic base, and each one can be adapted to the individual patient’s needs as we progress along the pathway to healing.
Pillar 1: Diagnosis of Pet Arthritis
Our diagnostic objectives — achieved from a good medical history and a hands-on physical exam—are twofold: 1) to give us a starting place on the roadmap to healing, and 2) to rule out some of the diseases that can be confused with arthritis, such as fractures; growth- or genetically induced joint diseases; a variety of viral, fungal and bacterial infections; and bone- or joint-related cancer. What I see, hear and feel on my initial exam will dictate whether I’ll request further tests.
Pillar 2: Prevention of Pet Arthritis
A couple of building blocks are involved in prevention. First, a pet needs to have an underlying scaffolding that is structurally sound. Look to nature—coyote or fox—for the model of an ideal canine skeleton. The more removed from these natural standards the animal appears, the more likely it will have structural and/or alignment defects that eventually can create arthritis. Genetic predisposition also plays a role in arthritis, especially relating to abnormalities that involve joints (hip dysplasia is the prime example).
Two other preventive building blocks go hand in hand: exercise and maintaining ideal weight. A joint must move to produce necessary lubrication, and a well-lubed joint also supplies the joint nutrients that maintain healthy, joint-cushioning cartilage. A fat, out-of-condition animal not does not want to exercise, and when he does move, he puts excessive stress on weight-bearing joints.
Pillar 3: Healthy and Balanced Nutrition
The more I learn about arthritis, the more I believe the experts who claim that most, if not all, cases have their origin in some sort of metabolic imbalance. Lean critters are healthier—research indicates that food restriction throughout a pet’s lifetime, especially during its early years, creates an end-result lean body type that ultimately develops far fewer arthritic problems.
I’ve also found that a change in diet often will be enough to relieve arthritic symptoms. Use pet foods that contain no synthetic preservatives, pesticides, artificial flavors or colorings.
Other nutrients that have shown some promise in treating arthritis include vitamin B3, vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese, copper, boron and zinc. Omega-3 fats—from deep-sea fish and flaxseed oil (Linum usitatissimum)—also may be helpful.
Pillar 4: Controlling the Pain and Inflammation of Pet Arthritis
Arthritis pain can be severe, and easing the pain can be the one crucial step in our overall arthritis treatment plan. The idea is to get the pet to feel comfortable enough to allow him to exercise enough to keep his joints moving and to maintain an ideal weight and to help him maintain a lean body mass that is healthy enough to want to exercise, to . . . well, you get the idea.
Alternative medicines have given us the perfect answer here: I’ve found a combination of acupuncture, chiropractic and herbal medicines (along with nutritional supplements) better and safer to use than any of the methods currently offered in Western medicine. The combination of acupuncture and chiropractic works so well, in fact, I think it is just plain bad medicine to not use them.
Herbs for Pet Arthritis Pain and Inflammation
I use licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) for its potent anti-inflammatory action. It replaces the steroids (cortisone) I once used in my Western medicine practice. With licorice root, although it may take a month or two before we see positive results, we avoid the adverse side effects of cortisone.
Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) also has been reported to be good for painful arthritis, with actions similar to cortisone.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) not only eases the pain, it helps in the healing process, especially of damaged nerves.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is especially good for the more actively painful arthritis or rheumatism where muscle pain is also involved.
Willow bark (Salix spp.) is rich in anti-inflammatory salicylates, the stuff found in aspirin. Due to the cat’s inability to properly break down and eliminate salicylates, don’t use willow for cats.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) taken internally seems to offer pain relief for some patients. In addition, cayenne acts as a systemic stimulant, helping move herbs and other medicines into joint areas where they are needed. I’m surprised how many of my animal patients (both cats and dogs) enjoy the taste of cayenne sprinkled over their food. In people, cayenne also is used topically as an ointment applied directly over painful joints to relieve pain. However, our hairy critters often go crazy trying to lick everything off their hair and skin, so they aren’t usually good candidates for topical ointments.
Antioxidants protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are produced when a cell is exposed to any of a number of toxins, including pesticides, herbicides, toxic emissions in the air, etc. Free radicals are also produced by cells surrounding the joint whenever excess or abnormal strains or pressures are applied.
Herbs as Antioxidants
Many herbs are highly antioxidant as well as containing good levels of necessary vitamins. I especially like culinary herbs such as oregano (Origanum majorana), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), ginger (Zingiber officinale), basil (Ocimum basilicum), parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and celery seeds (Apium graveolens) because they can be sprinkled on a pet’s food daily, much as you would season your own dinner. Find a combination of these herbs your pet enjoys. It’s been my experience that with a little patience, almost all pets eventually grow to like some culinary herbs.
Pillar 6: Healing Supplements
I usually recommend therapeutic levels of vitamins A, C and E (along with selenium), added to a pet’s diet for three to six months, then decreasing the dosage to protective levels. Check with your holistic veterinarian for dosages, as they’re related to the size of the animal and to the severity of the disease.
Many arthritic conditions respond very well to the chondroprotective agents, which not only promote new cartilage growth but also decrease pain and improve joint mobility. Perhaps the best is glucosamine, used at the regular human dosage schedule, altered to fit your animal’s weight. Other chondroprotective agents include chondroitin sulfate, MSM and SAM-e. I consider adding these to my protocol when glucosamine hasn’t seemed to work after a few months’ trial.
Herbs for Pet Arthritis
I’ve found herbs to be of great help for adding to the other medicines used, and some of my favorites include the following:
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is an anti-inflammatory herb that has been effectively used specifically for arthritis. Turmeric is one of the ingredients in various curries and, once again, I’ve found that many critters like its taste.
Boswellia (Boswellia carteri) is another herb traditionally used for arthritis. Both turmeric and boswellia are popular herbs used to treat arthritis in Ayurvedic medicine.
Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), an herb from South Africa, is a potent anti-inflammatory and is specific for treating arthritis and rheumatism.
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and yucca root (Yucca spp.) are herbs that traditionally have been used to treat arthritis. The best part of these two herbs is that they can be grown in your own backyard.
For all the herbs, I prefer a “sprinkle-the-herbs-over-your-pet’s-dinner” approach—giving your pet the benefit of all of the herbs’ medicines as well as offering more safety than with the herbal extractions (tinctures) that may concentrate one potentially toxic biochemical. However, some of the specific arthritic herbs (such as devil’s claw, frankincense and turmeric) may have increased action in the concentrated doses found in tinctures and/or capsules. In this case, I use the human dose listed on the product label, adjusted to the pet’s size.
A Closer Look at Conventional Pet Treatments
Today’s conventional therapeutics for arthritis focus on using corticosteroids (cortisone), salicylates (aspirin and aspirin substitutes) and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for pain and inflammation relief. None of these approaches is good for a pet’s joints in the long run. Their list of adverse side effects (including stomach ulcers, liver and kidney problems, and even death) would take up this entire article. More importantly, these “medicines” actually inhibit healing of joint surfaces and tendons and ligaments, and they may even add to degeneration of the joint surface— the very process we are trying to prevent and heal.
Furthermore, chondroprotective supplements (see “Pillar 6”) are powerful pain relievers, and with them you get the benefit of actually healing the joint surface. Bottom line: In my opinion, the long-term use of steroid products or NSAIDs is contraindicated; use them only when absolutely necessary and use them short-term only (no longer than two to three weeks at a time).
Final Thoughts on Pets and Arthritis
Once arthritis has become fully developed to the point where we have active joint degeneration and/or excess bone formation, I’m not sure we can ever really “cure” it. What I hope for is to reduce the pain so the patient can move about relatively pain free, and I want to create a healing environment around the joints so the animal’s natural healing abilities can work their own miracles. I know from experience that most holistic therapies take a month or more before results can be seen, so don’t give up too soon. And, also from experience, I understand that we may have to continue with the herbs and other treatments throughout a pet’s lifetime. I’m confident we can improve our pets’ quality of life for the time they have remaining, and I am most happy to know that with the holistic approach, I am helping without causing harm.
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. Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian