There's nothing more changeable than the weather, and when it changes to snow or rain, my practice is often overrun by local cats with varying degrees of urinary problems. Weather changes even seem to affect some indoor cats.
Tomcats, whether neutered or not, have the most frequent problems because their urethra (the bladder’s outflow valve) can become completely plugged with a thick mucus-like substance that sometimes contains small, gravely stones. As the bladder fills up, it quickly results in a life-threatening condition that requires catheterization under anesthesia and considerable after-care. Once plugged, 50 to 75 percent of these cats will have the same problem time and again, and often surgery is required to maintain urine flow.
However, if caught early enough, herbs can help prevent the worst urinary tract problems, and I use them routinely for preventing recurrences. Dogs and female cats don’t plug as frequently as male cats; their urinary problems are more usually of the infectious variety. Nonetheless, the herbs recommended here will be helpful for prevention and the early care of any urinary problem.
Unless otherwise noted, these herbs are safe to experiment with, and you’ll need to. Herb potency can vary and pets will respond individually. Start with a little dried herb sprinkled on food and work your way up.
The two herbal remedies I routinely start with for chronic, recurring urinary problems in cats or dogs are dandelion root and Oregon graperoot.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) is a potent diuretic, meaning it will make your pet urinate more, providing he is not totally plugged. Be absolutely certain your cat’s litter box attempts (or your dog’s fire hydrant visits) are productive. Otherwise you could merely be filling up the bladder more quickly, making the condition worse. A free flow of urine cleanses the urinary system, and increased volume alone often clears up urinary diseases. Dandelion is also a wonderful general tonic and an excellent source of potassium, unlike other diuretics that can deplete this mineral. Cats, especially, can be very sensitive to decreased levels of potassium.
Oregon graperoot (Mahonia aquifolium) is a reasonable substitute for the cases where I once used goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), which is now seriously threatened in the wild. Oregon graperoot’s usefulness comes from its high content of berberine, a substance with strong antimicrobial qualities. It also stimulates bile flow and is a general tonic. Long-term use of Oregon graperoot may decrease the normal, good-guy bacteria in the gut. To help maintain healthy bacteria, I recommend that you also give your pet a teaspoonful of nonsweetened yogurt containing active cultures.
Dandelion and Oregon graperoot work best in the very earliest stages of urinary disease. I recommend 1 to 3 drops of each herb in tincture (nonalcoholic, if possible), given orally, five to six times a day. When your pet returns to a normal urinary frequency and flow (without straining), then switch to a prevention/maintenance regime, using dandelion root only; sprinkle several drops of the tincture or up to a teaspoon of the ground root on your pet’s food a few days each week. If infection recurs, return to the original treatment.
Depending on the specific condition, I recommend other herbs for urinary problems too.
• Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a diuretic, astringent, and general tonic that seems to be most useful for painful urination such as that caused by kidney stones. Dried nettle leaves can be used long-term as a general tonic, sprinkled on pet food or in tea form. Steep the leaves or roots into a tea and use it to moisten the food.
• Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) acidifies the urine, which helps kill bacteria and keeps it from attaching to the bladder wall. The problem is getting your pet to drink it; most animals don’t appreciate the taste of cranberry or citrus fruits. Cranberry capsules are an answer for easy-to-pill critters, but the large capsules aren’t very practical for cats. Most store-bought cranberry juices are sweetened, which will only make the urinary problem worse, so don’t use them.
• For blood in the urine, I use herbs that are astringent (tightening to connective tissue, thus helping control bleeding) or demulcent (soothing to irritated tissue). But blood in the urine is not something to fool around with until you have an accurate diagnosis from your veterinarian. After you’re confident of the diagnosis, some herbs may help. Urinary astringents include horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and plantain (Plantago major). Urinary demulcents include corn silk (Zea mays) and marshmallow leaf (Althaea officinalis).
For as long as I’ve been a veterinarian, I’ve been trying to figure out the cause of urinary problems, to no avail. Nutrition, crystal formation, neutering too young, bacterial infections, an undiscovered virus—none of these seem to be the cause of the cases I see, nor have they held up under scientific scrutiny.
However, two factors can contribute to urinary tract problems: nutrition and stress. Upgrade your cat’s nutritional level, and he’s likely to avoid the syndrome entirely or avoid recurrence, as the case may be. And remember that cats once weren’t domesticated—they stalked prey and acted out fears and aggressions in a natural fashion—and they could urinate whenever nature called.
If we could only let our cats and dogs be what they were meant to be, we likely would see far fewer problems. On the other hand, there would be much less need for veterinarians. So it’s with mixed emotions that I recommend a return of the natural for all our pets.
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.
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