As the body’s largest organ, skin is made up of simply wondrous stuff. The skin’s many layers of epithelial cells create a rugged body encasement that’s tough enough to contain all of a pet’s inside organs and the other fluids that come with the territory, and yet it’s porous enough to let the healing essences of herbs enter at will. Skin is generally impermeable to all manner of potential invaders; in some areas it’s as stretchable as spandex, while in others it is as thick and unyielding as boot leather. Miraculous stuff indeed.
The skin is the organ of first defense. A pet’s fortress against all outside penetrators, the skin is subject to nicks and scrapes, pokes and gouges, and bruises and abrasions. Fortunately, herbal remedies work extremely well on minor skin problems. I’ve found that herbs heal skin wounds better, faster and less painfully than do the antibiotics and steroids used by most regular vets. However, skin also may be the last organ to heal because many alternative medicines work by healing from the inside out.
Before we look at some of the topical herbs I’ve found helpful, let’s take a brief look at the ways you can get herbs onto your pet’s skin. Note: For open wounds, carefully clip away any hair that could become matted in an open wound, then gently cleanse the area with an herbal soap.
Spritz: This is my favorite way of applying herbs—nothing could be easier. Mix up a batch of herbal tea; let it cool; put the mix into a spritzer; and spritz it on the affected areas. Spritzes rapidly dry out and don’t stick around like ointments, so you may need to spritz several times daily.
Macerated pure herb/poultice: This is perhaps the best way to utilize mucilaginous herbs such as plantain. Take a leaf or two of the fresh herb, chop it up, and add a little oil or witch hazel to make it gooier and stickier.
Oils: Oils will stay on the injured area longer than spritzes, but they can be messy. To make your own, put some fresh or dried herb into a jar and cover the herb with oil (such as olive or sesame), using enough oil to top the wetted herb with 1/4 to 1/2 inch of extra oil. Cap the jar tightly, cover with a brown paper bag, and let it sit on a sunny windowsill for seven to 10 days. Shake often. Strain, and put the oil in a tightly capped bottle, stored in a cool, dark place.
Salves and ointments: Salves are semi-solid medicinal preparations, and ointments are fatty preparations with the consistency of cold lard (a common
substance used in the making of ointments). These products will remain on the area of application for a longer period of time, but many critters will persistently lick at the product.
My Favorite Topical Herbs
Calendula (Calendula officinalis). I tell folks that if they’re going to buy a commercial product, first be certain the product contains calendula, and then almost any of the other herbs listed below will add to the product’s healing powers. Calendula has anti-inflammatory and antifungal activity and is an astringent. In addition, it enhances the growth of epithelial tissue over open wounds.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is excellent for all sorts of nicks, scrapes, itches and burns. Lavender is an antiseptic with antibacterial activity.
Aloe (Aloe vera). The fresh juice of the leaves is excellent for burns, and it aids in the healing of all wounds.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). This herb is beneficial for any lesion that appears to have damaged a nerve, or for those wounds or open areas where your pet is really irritated by the itch.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Yarrow is good for fresh wounds that are oozing blood, and excellent for the lacerations that need a boost to encourage healing.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Used internally, echinacea balances the immune system and treats infections. It’s also good externally as an antimicrobial, and it has a local anesthetic effect, temporarily deadening the pain of cuts or burns.
Plantain (Plantago spp.). Plantain is especially good for treating wounds where you need to draw out the pus or other contaminating material. For the topical treatment of abscesses, I recommend using just a plantain poultice first—until the abscess is actively draining. Then add one or more of the healing herbs listed here.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). The large leaves of comfrey are good for making up a healing poultice to be applied to any wound surface. Its leaves are astringent and aid in wound healing.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Chamomile flowers are anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and they help with the healing process. In addition, chamomile is antispasmodic, and many animals seem calmed when the plant is used, even topically.
Mullein (Verbascum spp.). Much like comfrey, the leaves of mullein make an excellent addition to any healing poultice. And mullein flowers in an oil or witch hazel base are good for treating ear
infections—they have antiseptic and healing activity and a local anesthetic effect.
Generalized Skin Conditions
When dealing with a tougher-to-treat skin condition, topical herbs may not be enough. Generalized skin conditions can be due to many causes, such as allergies or nutritional problems. Any of these conditions are best treated with a holistic approach. Two skin conditions are worth mentioning here: parasites—including mites, fleas and ticks—and “hot spots.”
Over the years, I must have tried 100 herbal “cures” for parasites. What I’ve found is that some of the herbals seem to work well at first on some animals, but they don’t stand up under the tests of time or effectiveness on a high percentage of animals. Sure, there are lots of herbs that have moderately effective repellent activity or they may have pretty fair knock-down power for fleas. But they don’t get to the major part of the flea population: the eggs and larvae. Eliminating ticks from a premise is even more challenging than flea removal. To effectively cure a real parasite problem, you may need to begin with a chemical kill, then use a preventive program that could include herbs.
Hot spots are localized areas where a pet has licked and gnawed until there’s a red, open wound. These can begin with almost any irritant—fleas are a common instigator. Treatment with some of the soothing herbs mentioned here can be very effective against hot spots.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. He has retired from his regular veterinary practice and now lives in eastern Kansas.
“Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.