The mechanically marvelous heart is the cardiovascular system’s workhorse. A pump that pulsates day and night throughout a pet’s lifetime, it beats consistently at the rate of 100 to 140 beats per minute. The heart is small, but its pump is capable of sending gallons of blood through a miles-long labyrinth of outbound arteries and returning veins.
But the heart (and its supporting network of vessels) is more than a mere mechanical wonder. In many traditional medicines, animal as well as human hearts have emotional and spiritual qualities.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for example, the heart houses the spirit of Shen, the center of consciousness, feelings and thoughts. The meaning of Shen is touched upon when one says an animal has spirit, and a TCM practitioner may hear the heart as the pulsating language of the individual’s yin/yang that connects all beings in the universe.
While the heart may be an almost unbelievably powerful, muscular organ imbued with mythic qualities, it can have its problems. Symptoms that could indicate your pet has heart disease include difficulty breathing, coughing, exercise intolerance, weakness and fainting. Veterinarians check for heart disease by listening for any one of a cacophony of irregular sounds: heart murmurs, slowed or quickened heart rate, fibrillation, premature beats and lung congestion. Further tests might include an electrocardiogram, X-rays, ultrasound evaluation, blood chemistry analysis and heartworm tests.
Cardiovascular disease may have any number of causes: infectious, mechanical, nutritional, hormonal and parasitic. Specific therapy for any of these will depend on the diagnosis, but herbal medicines can be used to aid whatever therapy is decided upon.
The most prevalent cause of heart disease in animals is congenital — birth defects of the valves, vessels and nerves that regulate the heart’s ability to pulse naturally. Herbs offer the perfect aid for these cases because they provide mild, supportive care without appreciable adverse side effects. My holistic regime for helping the cardiovascular system’s diseases hinges on a four-pronged approach: using herbs specific for the heart; diuretic herbs (cardiac insufficiencies often cause a backup of fluids in the lungs, which in turn may cause coughing); supportive herbs; and heart-nourishing supplements.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is quite simply the best heart medicine available. A cardiac tonic, it regulates the heart’s activity by depressing or stimulating its action, depending on the need. It’s good for heart failure or weakness, for heart palpitations and as a general tonic for the circulatory system.
Hawthorn dilates vessels, including coronary arteries, enhancing the metabolic processes in the heart muscles and improving blood supply to the heart and the rest of the body. It has an overall anabolic effect on metabolism (creating a decrease in oxygen consumption and energy use) meaning that, under stress, the heart will have more capacity for work. It also abolishes some types of rhythm disturbances. Additionally, hawthorn has a mild diuretic effect and has been used traditionally as an anti-inflammatory.
A word of caution: Hawthorn, like most herbs, does not work as quickly as some of the Western medicine drugs, so it is not to be used for emergencies such as fibrillation.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a cardiac tonic that’s also used as a sedative and to help regulate female hormones. An excellent tonic for the heart, it strengthens without straining. It is especially good for conditions where the heart rate is increased, which are associated with anxiety and tension. Motherwort acts by improving metabolism of heart muscles, reducing heart rate, increasing coronary perfusion and slowing clot formation.
For the female pet, motherwort is used to help prepare the uterus for pregnancy and to promote contractions at the time of birthing. Since it promotes uterine contractions, it should not be used during the mid-phases of pregnancy. Motherwort is free of toxicity except that some people may develop contact dermatitis from handling it.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) is my favorite herbal diuretic — it’s potent and helps support the liver. Many Western medicine diuretics deplete potassium, which has an adverse effect on all muscles, especially heart muscles. Dandelion is a rich source of potassium, re-supplying that lost in the urine.
Other diuretics to consider include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and cleavers (Galium aparine).
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) can be extremely helpful for the cardiac patient due to its systemic stimulant effects. It is a general tonic, specific for the circulatory and digestive systems. Cayenne regulates blood flow, equalizing and strengthening the heart, arteries, capillaries and nerves. I also consider it a good generalized stimulant to help deliver other herbs and nutrients to all parts of the body.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is well-known as an aid for digestive problems, but it is also used as a circulatory stimulant.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is another good example of an herb with bi-directional effects — it has compounds that increase heart rate if needed and other compounds that decrease heart rate when that’s indicated. Ginseng enhances vitality and can be especially helpful for the older pet that is weak or exhausted, or for a critter who’s depressed.
Your cardiac patient should be on a low-sodium diet. Include a moderate amount of daily exercise, without undue stress or overexertion. Supplements to consider include vitamins A, C, E, B6 and folic acid, the vitamin-like compound carnitine and minerals selenium and magnesium. Also consider essential fatty acids such as flaxseed oil (for omega-3 fatty acids) or evening primrose or borage oil (primarily for omega-6s). Whether to use one of the supplements depends on each individual case. The one supplement I almost always prescribe for heart problems is Coenzyme Q10, as it is specific for cardiovascular diseases. (For dosages of these supplements, check with your holistic veterinarian.)
Be sure your cat’s diet contains adequate amounts of taurine, an amino acid essential for a cat’s heart health. Taurine is added to most brands of cat food and is readily available as a supplement. It is also found naturally in mackerel and clams.
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.