Echinacea and Other Herbal Immunostimulants for Pets

Allen M. Schoen, D.V.M., M.S.

When one needs an antibiotic, one needs an antibiotic and few things work better and are better documented. However, sometimes,we do not have immediate access to them or they are not working as well as we would like, or the infection is actually viral and antibiotics won’t work. Othertimes, one would like to try something more natural that could actually help boost the immune system as well as kill the bacteria. There are actually a number of herbs that can work quite well, similar to antibiotics or antiviral agents as well as working to boost the immune system . The one that is getting the most press these days for people is echinacea, commonly known as the purple coneflower. The plant as well as its roots have been used as an immunostimulant, antiseptic, antiviral and anti-inflammatory agent. Native americans used echinacea roots topically for boils, abscesses and snakebites. They would also chew the roots for toothaches, colds, sore throats and coughs. These days it is touted as an excellent herb for colds. It actually has no direct bactericidal effects. According to Varro Tyler, a well respected professor of Pharmacognosy, in her book, Herbs of Choice (Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994), echinacea benefits in the treatment of infections is actually due to its immunostimulating properties. Its effects tend to increase the body’s resistance to bacteria and viruses. There are whole books reviewing all the research on the beneficial effects of echinacea for the treatment of colds, flus, viral infections topical infections etc.. It is generally used orally, but may be used topically as an ointment for burns and infections. The dosage of echinacea depends on the potency of the particular preparation. Typical oral preparations that you might find in a health food store recommend 15 to 30 drops two to four times daily. These need to be tapered down to the weight of your pet. If it is an alcohol tincture, you need to beware with cats and make sure to burn off the alcohol before administering to a cat. Capsules are also available and may be more practical for some pets. A capsule can be opened and the appropriate dose administered to your cat in a small amount of food or dissolved in a small amount of water and administered orally. Prof. Tyler warns that infrequently, allergies may occur in patients allergic to members of the sunflower family. There is some controversy as to whether it is O.K. to give continuous doses of echinacea or is it better just to give when needed. In Tylers book, he reports that The German Commission E monographs on herbal medicines recommend that it should not be given internally for periods exceeding 8 weeks at a time.

When can echinacea be used on pets and for what? No studies have been conducted on dogs or cats to establish indications, contraindications or dosages for its use. Anecdotal reports from holistic clients and veterinarians suggest that it may be helpful in certain chronic infections. Anecdotes suggest that it has been beneficial in the treatment of chronic upper respiratory infections in cats and dogs. Other reports suggest that it may help boost the immune system in chronic skin infections in dogs. Some have reported using it to boost the immune system in animals with cancer. Ideally, double-blind clinical trials for specific conditions in dogs and cats would be great. Financially, there is no incentive for funding of such studies since herbs are not patentable and therefore not profitable for a particular company to fund such research. Without such research it is difficult to discuss specific conditions. Hopefully, clinical trials combined with documented case reports will give us more clarity on its appropriate use with our pets.

Another commonly used herb, Allium sativum, known as garlic, is a potent immunostimulant and antibacterial and has been given for centuries by the chinese and Egyptians for numerous conditions. Over 1,000 research papers have been published on the medicinal effects of garlic in just the past 20 years. The active ingredient, allicin is a potent antibiotic. However, the dose is quite variable depending upon the amount of active ingredient in the garlic. For appropriate dosing in people, Tyler states that one would need to eat between 5 to 20 cloves of garlic daily ! What an odor! You wouldn’t catch anything because no one would go near you! You want to be careful not to give too much to your pets. Besides the odor, it can give them heartburn, flatulence and gastrointestinal upset. There are many garlic preparations on the health food store counters that have more concentrated levels of allicin. It is important to use one that has research documenting efficacy. Kyolic is one of the more well known ones that is concentrated and that studies have been conducted on. Again, no documented studies have been conducted on indications for our pets. Anecdoctal reports of garlic being beneficial in gastrointestinal problems and diluted topical ointments for ear problems in dogs.

This indeed is one of the major challenges of using various herbs in pets. There is little research documenting indications, side effects and appropriate dosages. Does this mean one shouldn’t use them at all? I don’t believe so. I feel that herbal medicine has a long history of anecdotal folk wisdom and recently excellent research on certain herbs for specific conditions. Most of this research has been conducted on laboratory animals or people. I always joke that I don’t use anything on my animal patients that hasn’t been documented on people first . Before using any herbal medicine, you should discuss it with your veterinarian and if he or she is not educated in herbal medicine, ask them for a referral to a holistic veterinarian that they respect. You can also contact the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) for a holistically oriented veterinarian in your area. All this referral means is that they are a member and have an interest in herbal medicine. You can send a self addressed stamped envelope to the AHVMA is 2214 Old Emmorton Road, Bel Air, Maryland, 21015 or call them at 410-569-0795. Good luck and may you and your furry fourlegged friends have a healthy and happy month!

No article can replace the services of a trained veterinarian.  This article is not intended to encourage treatment of illness, disease, or other medical problems by the layman.  Any application of the recommendations set forth in this article is solely at the reader’s discretion and risk.  You should consult a veterinarian concerning any veterinary medical or surgical problem.  If a veterinarian is caring for your pet, for any condition, he or she can advise you about information described in this article.