10 holistic pet care tips you can trust
For more than 22 years, I’ve been raising and caring for my pets using alternative and complementary methods. In that time, I’ve seen dozens of supplements, herbs and nutritional theories hailed as the one true way to pet health, and then fall by the wayside.
After interviewing dozens of holistic vets, following a lot of tips that sounded promising and undergoing a great deal of trial and error with my own animals in the past two decades, I’ve come up with a list of 10 tried-and-true holistic tips that have worked for my pets as well as many others.
One caution, and it’s a big one: Talk to your veterinarian before trying to treat your pet at home. It’s one thing to give a gingersnap to see if it helps a healthy puppy’s mild carsickness; it’s another to think you can treat a pet’s violent or chronic diarrhea at home. There is nothing “holistic” about treating conditions without a diagnosis.
1. Peppermint and catnip
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) and catnip (Nepeta cataria) are wonderful remedies for nausea and car sickness. Peppermint also regulates peristalsis, so it can help with irritable bowel syndrome, and even with symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.
Catnip has similar effects on digestive upsets while being more palatable for felines. Even if your cat doesn’t experience a euphoric reaction to the herb — and 20 percent of cats don’t — it still has digestive benefits and can also serve as a mild appetite stimulant to both dogs and cats. It may help with some forms of vomiting in cats, but it’s important first to have your veterinarian determine the cause of the vomiting.
If your cat is attracted to catnip, you can just put some of the dried, crushed herb on the ground for the cat to roll around in. If not, you can add the dried herb to their food at the rate of around half a teaspoon per pound of food. You can also give cats or dogs a glycerin-based tincture (available at some health food stores), half a milliliter for every 20 pounds of body weight.
Glycerin-based peppermint tinctures are widely sold in health food stores for use by children. Dogs can be given these products dosed by body weight according to the guidelines on the label; those that also contain ginger are especially helpful for car sickness. (And yes, a gingersnap will also often do the trick.)
Because dogs tend to like the taste, they will usually drink a weak peppermint tea given in a bowl instead of water. It should be offered lukewarm or at room temperature rather than very hot or chilled.
Peppermint is contraindicated for pets with reflux, as it relaxes the esophageal sphincter.
2. Medical grade honey
When one of my dogs developed a drug-resistant staph infection, I spent weeks and hundreds of dollars on antibiotics, only to have the infection come back again and again. I finally banished it, hopefully forever, with the aid of an FDA-approved bandage containing medical grade honey.
This honey contains an enzyme that is believed to prevent bacterial growth. It comes from bees that feed on the flowers of the Manuka plant in New Zealand. It’s being used in both human and veterinary medicine to treat and prevent resistant bacterial infections. The product I used is called Medihoney.
3. Glucosamine supplements
Arthritis harms our dogs and cats in many ways. It makes it hard for them to move around and get enough exercise, decreases their quality of life and makes it less likely that they’ll play. It can prevent them from joining us on lap, sofa or bed and can cause all kinds of problems for those living in homes with stairs. And it creates an area of inflammation in the body that is associated with other types of damage, including cartilage destruction.
Most veterinarians usually reach for anti-inflammatory drugs as their first defense, but they often have severe side effects. Consider instead using safer effective supplements and treatments that not only relieve symptoms, but also protect or repair damaged joints. I recommend starting with a good glucosamine supplement which has independent testing and certification insuring that it’s a standardized product. The brand I’ve found to be effective is Cosequin.
If that’s not enough for your dog, there is Adequan Canine, an injectable polysulfated glycosaminoglycan, a sort of cousin of glucosamine. Adequan is not available labeled for cats at this time.
Adequan has been shown to be preferentially taken up by inflamed joints when injected. It soothes and lubricates the joint, naturally reducing inflammation and pain by reducing friction. Even better, instead of just masking pain as anti-inflammatory drugs do, it actually helps to rebuild cartilage in the damaged joint.
For both glucosamine supplements and Adequan, do the full loading dose and then give the full maintenance dose. It makes a difference.
I had a mixed-breed dog with very bad hip dysplasia (a genetic degenerative hip disease) in the days when hip replacement surgery was not as advanced as it is now. I kept her comfortable to the end of her long life first with glucosamine, then with Adequan, and later with the addition of regular acupuncture.
But the first time I took her for a treatment was years before she’d developed arthritis. Suffering from a bad knee injury, she walked into the office of veterinarian Cheryl Schwartz on three legs, and walked out on four. I was hooked.
Of course not all veterinarians are equally adept at using acupuncture. If your pet needs just mild symptomatic relief, particularly from the pain of an injury, a veterinarian with certification from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society should be able to help. For more serious and chronic diseases, it’s best to seek out a veterinarian who is an experienced practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and has advanced training from an institution such as the Chi Institute.
Feeding a balanced homemade diet is usually the one thing people don’t want to be bothered with because they think it’s too hard. But I’ve been feeding my pets a homemade diet now for over 22 years, and it’s both easier than most people believe and the closest thing to a “miracle cure” of anything I’ve tried.
While I won’t tell you a balanced homemade diet solves or prevents all health problems — it definitely doesn’t — I’ve seen it turn around many bad cases of itching, digestive problems and other chronic health conditions, sometimes within days or weeks. I’ve fed homemade diets to dozens of dogs and cats of all ages and states of health. I’ve raised puppies and kittens from birth to death in advanced old age, and seen some of them far outlive their commercially-fed littermates and parents.
I first started caring for my pets with holistic methods in 1986, when my cat Chuck, who had struggled all his life with severe allergies, was suffering so much after 10 years on steroids that his veterinarian suggested we put him to sleep. Instead, I put him on a homemade diet I read about in “Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats.” His lifelong skin problem cleared up within days, never to return. Tumors in his ears went away, his coat grew back, his bad breath became sweet — even his litter box smelled better.
I immediately switched all my cats, and later the dogs, to the same diet, and discovered that without exception, every one of them was in better condition. Skin, coat, breath, eyes, digestion — all better.
One last word about diet: Particularly for cats, I’ve seen nothing but benefit from feeding them diets that do not contain grains or, indeed, any form of carbohydrate at all. Cats are nature’s strictest carnivores. Grain-based and high-carb diets have been associated with severe health problems in cats, including feline diabetes. Break the cereal habit. Your cat will thank you.
6. Saw palmetto
Does your dog have an enlarged prostate? Let’s first assume you have taken him to the vet and ruled out infection or another problem requiring expert medical intervention, and discovered that he has a condition known as benign prostatic hyperplasia. I have found that the herb saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) has an immediate and dramatic effect on any and all symptoms, even including bleeding, associated with this condition.
Neutering your dog is your best bet to fully control it, but if that’s not an option (for instance, if your dog is old or unwell), saw palmetto is well worth investigating. Dogs can be given the human dose if they’re large (80 pounds and up); reduce by half for medium-sized dogs, and by 75 percent for small dogs.
Exercising their pets is the other thing people don’t like to do. Hence, the epidemic of fat dogs and cats, which is a shame, because almost nothing is more strongly correlated with longer lifespan than keeping your pet lean.
Fresh air, sunshine and exercise will improve your pet’s mood and health, and it’s good for you, too. It also stimulates your pet’s mind, and improves the bond between human and animal. So get out that catnip toy on a string, take your dog to the park, or see if your old cat doesn’t remember what it was like to wrestle with you when he was a kitten.
Best of all? It’s free.
8. Cranberry extract, d-mannose
I have a dog with a genetic kidney defect that has left him prone to bladder infections. After struggling with this problem for more than a year after surgery to correct his defect, I found a combination of supplements that helped prevent most (although not all) the infections.
Caution: This advice is for pets who have already had the cause of their chronic bladder infections diagnosed. Recurrent bladder infections are always a sign of an underlying problem, and you are putting your pet’s life at risk if you don’t find out what it is. And if your pet has a single, uncomplicated bladder infection, the proper treatment is to have a culture done to find out the infecting organism and give a prescribed antibiotic until the infection is gone. Why not just give him or her the supplements? Because, although they will prevent new infections from forming; they are not adequate for treating an existing infection.
If, as with my dog, the underlying cause of your pet’s infections can’t be corrected, constant infections and a life of antibiotics aren’t the only options. Cranberry extract has been shown in human studies to prevent bacteria from adhering to the bladder wall, allowing them to be flushed out with urination. D-mannose binds to some strains of e. coli, one of the most common causes of bladder infections, and lets the bacteria be washed out with the urine.
Also encourage your pet to drink plenty of fluids and urinate as frequently as possible.
9. Pain control
Pain does not just hurt, it harms. Being in pain suppresses the immune system, interferes with healing, impairs sleep and can delay full recovery from an illness, injury or surgery. So don’t let your fear of modern drugs compromise your dog’s or cat’s quality of life by letting their pain go uncontrolled.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t remedies in the alternative and complementary medicine chest that can’t help with pain or make conventional pain therapies safer. In addition to glucosamine, Adequan and acupuncture, which I already discussed, some conventional medications, such as the human drug Tramadol, have fewer and less serious side effects than the more commonly-prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and are well worth asking your pet’s veterinarian about. (Cats typically do not tolerate Tramadol well.)
If your pets do need to take NSAIDs, there are supplements and even a few drugs that you can use to make them safer. Antacids might make your pet feel more comfortable while taking NSAIDs, but they don’t actually have any protective benefit. Instead, ask your pet’s veterinarian about the herb slippery elm (discussed below), as well as the human drugs carafate and misoprostol.
10. Slippery elm
Slippery elm (Ulmas fulva) is pretty much a wonder-substance for diarrhea, loose stool, nausea and other digestive upsets. This is actually a food rather than a medicinal substance, and there are no contraindications to its use.
My recommendation is to buy the loose powder, available in bulk at most health food stores. You can mix it with warm water and then add it to your dog’s food, or just let them eat it. It forms a jelly when moistened, which can be fed as desired, and also used as a soothing poultice on minor skin irritations.
It’s slightly sweet, so dogs don’t mind it. Cats hate it, so it’s much less useful for them, although it can be given in a tincture form. Animals’ Apawthecary makes a product for pets called Phytomucil that I’ve used for my cats. I don’t find it to be as effective as the powder, but my cats don’t care about that distinction.
Beyond the list
Of course, there are plenty of other useful and reliable holistic care tips. But when you go looking for them, you’ll find there’s also no shortage of really bad advice and information, not just on the Internet, but in pet health books and articles as well. As an antidote to the bad information, have some good:
An online database of scientific research and studies about herbal medicines. It has varying levels of access, but the most basic one is free and available to the public.
“Veterinary Herbal Medicine”
By Dr. Susan Wynn and Dr. Barbara Fougere
Written by two prominent veterinarians, this book is aimed right at the most skeptical and evidence-seeking among those investigating herbal medicine, primarily other veterinarians. It contains guidance on using more than 120 herbs, including information on drug interactions, dosing, scientific research and herbs for treating specific health conditions.
“All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets”
By Mary Wulff-Tilford and Gregory L. Tilford
This colorful guide was written by two experienced herbalists and covers the principles and theories of herbal medicine as well as giving practical information on their use. Its nearly 200-page encyclopedia of Western, Ayurvedic and Chinese herbs includes plant descriptions, information on cultivating and obtaining plants, a guide to the preparation and administration of herbs, beautiful, large, clear, color photographs of the herbs, and information on contraindications and side effects. There is easy-to-understand information about what common maladies can be treated by each herb. An excellent index of ailments, with practical care suggestions as well as references to appropriate herbs, follows it.
Christie Keith is a contributing editor for Universal Press Syndicate’s Pet Connection and past director of the Pet Care Forum on America Online. She lives in San Francisco.