I’m so excited: I just learned that, according to some experts, old age officially begins at 65. I still have three more years until I’m really old.
Truth is, nobody wants to think of themselves as old. We live in a culture that tries to deny the inevitability of aging, and we often reserve our deepest feelings of denial for our pets, hopelessly wishing they would never get old.
It’s from this denial that we’re constantly trying to find or brew up the magical elixir that will make us immortal. This anti-aging campaign has come up with a lot of bunk stuff, but herbs actually can help us and our pets ease into our final years with comfort and grace.
What Happens as a Pet Ages?
There are two basic forms of aging: programmed and random. Different organisms age at different rates. We live longer than dogs and cats, but some turtle species, arctic clams and most trees live longer than we do. We can’t do much about the programmed aging except to select our parents well.
We can, on the other hand, do something about the random aspects of aging. To my way of thinking, the best of approaches lies in using herbs to help us work with the factors we can modify.
Organ systems. As an animal ages, the reserve capacity of each organ system progressively diminishes — the functional ability and mass of virtually all systems may decrease by as much as 30 percent. Herbs are the ideal medicine for helping an organ system achieve whatever functional capacity it has available.
An annual blood chemistry evaluation at the veterinary clinic can be most helpful here. If the test results identify an organ or system that is not functioning fully, we can concentrate on helping that organ with herbs.
For example, if liver function appears to be compromised, I’d consider a low-level therapeutic dose of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) or dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). Many older animals become easily disoriented or distracted, or they may become grumpy and reclusive — all signs that the nervous system is gradually losing its reserve capacity. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) helps treat cognitive dysfunction by increasing blood flow to the brain, and it’s also a good antioxidant herb.
Oxidative changes of aging. Living cells require oxygen, but too much oxygen can be damaging, causing a type of rapid aging of cellular structures that some have likened to cellular rust. As an animal ages, cellular damage from oxidative processes accumulates and actually feeds upon itself until the internal damage ultimately expresses as some form of externally recognizable disease such as arthritis, diabetes or cancer.
“Rust” preventers are referred to as antioxidants, and many herbs have potent antioxidant effects. Some of my favorites include basil (Ocimum basilicum), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). It’s actually difficult to pick an herb that doesn’t have some antioxidant properties, so what’s really important is to see that your pet gets his or her daily dose of herbs.
Toxin accumulation. As a result of both diminished organ capacity and increased oxidative byproducts, the aging body has a tendency to accumulate an excess of toxins. Again, liver-specific herbs can be used to help boost liver function, and nearly all herbs have a mild diuretic effect to help the kidneys eliminate toxins.
Obesity. Perhaps the most pervasive of conditions: The accumulation of fat adds an additional burden to organ systems already overloaded. Fat animals don’t want to move, and regular exercise is absolutely necessary for maintaining adequate circulation and for keeping the joints well-oiled. Finally, research has shown that moderate dietary restriction (to about 75 percent of the calories normally consumed) during a dog’s lifetime increases life span (by about two years, or nearly 20 percent, in the study), and it delays the onset of diseases common to the aging animal. For specific herbal obesity treatments, see the September/October 2003 issue of Herbs for Health.
Glucose damage. Similar to the cellular rust caused by too much oxygen and the byproducts of oxidation, too much glucose can, over time, cause a “browning” of cells, a hardening much like the browning of biscuits in an oven. The result of browning or cellular stiffening is what we observe as creaky joints, dry skin that lacks youthful pliability, a brittle hair coat and wrinkles.
To help prevent damage from excess glucose, it’s important to maintain a diet high in fiber and low in sugars. It’s also helpful to aid the pancreas with its chore of balancing blood glucose with herbs that have a hypoglycemic action, such as artichoke (Cynara scolymus), burdock or nettles (Urtica dioica). Many animals with arthritis are treated with anti-inflammatory corticosteroid products, but these create an excess of cellular-browning glucose — in effect, easing the immediate effects of arthritis while acting to shorten a pet’s life. A better approach is to use herbal medicines specific for arthritis and for pain relief and inflammation control.
Chronic inflammation and altered immunity. Some animals have lived “the hard life,” while others have breezed through with hardly a sickness or ill feeling. Those who seem to always be sickly are the critters that have aged faster. In addition, the hard-lifers likely have an immune system that is not only compromised, but its worn-out blood cells may be contributing additionally harmful oxidative products.
A gentle boost to the immune system is good for all older critters, but especially for the hard-lifers, and nothing’s better than a preventive dose of echinacea (Echinacea spp.), given a few weeks of every month throughout the year.
Herbal Protocol for the Aged
Don’t let the plethora of herbs with anti-aging properties befuddle you. Make it easy on yourself. First, if you and your vet have identified an organ system that really needs help, select one or two organ-specific herbs and consider giving these at the low end of the therapeutic dosage. Check with an herbalist for appropriate organ-specific herbs, or check out Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Dog Care (Storey, 2000) and Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Cat Care (Storey, 2000), both available on our Bookshelf on Page 55.
For the normally aging critter, the simplest and best approach is to simply sprinkle some culinary herbs atop the pet’s food. If you haven’t already begun, start today; the sooner your pet becomes accustomed to the taste of herbs, the better.
Now, we don’t want to shut down an old codger’s eating habits just because he’s never tasted anything but store- bought pap. So, try an herb for a few days, sprinkled on a corner of your pet’s food or hidden in a chunk of fresh meat. Watch to see that your pet doesn’t refuse to eat totally; if one herb is not accepted, try another. When your pet decides to eat the herbed food, that’s the herb to continue for a few months, and then do another taste test.
It really doesn’t matter which of the herbs we use to help us with our anti-aging quest — so long as they are common culinary herbs, which have been safely used for millennia. Almost any culinary herb has some, if not considerable, antioxidant qualities; any one of them could enhance your pets’ appetite for good foods, and there is a distinct likelihood that the herbs your pet likes are exactly the ones she/he needs to remain healthy. Animals in the wild have a natural ability to select the herbal remedies they need, and I think most of our pets can also — at least those who haven’t been completely spoiled by our civilized ways of feeding.
Likewise, the amount doesn’t matter much when using fresh or dried herbs sprinkled over the food; try about a teaspoonful per 20 or so pounds of critter.
Be cautious when giving any medication to an elderly critter, including concentrated, active-ingredient herbals such as those found in tinctures, tablets or capsules. Remember that all organ systems, including those that metabolize and detoxify any medicine, are working at less than optimum in an aged critter, and toxic levels of bioactive chemicals can build up rapidly.
A Final Word
According to some reports, the oldest dog known lived to be 29 years old. The way I see it, this gives me a shot, according to the aging charts, to achieve 106 or better. That should give me plenty of time to try a lot more herbs for myself — and for our new puppy, Pokey, who will be another in a long line of our family’s herbal teachers.
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.