Herbal Pet Care

Taking a holistic approach to caring for your pets

By Michael J. Balick, Ph.D.



Even with a healthy diet and regular exercise, your cat or dog could be plagued by parasites, be stung by a bee, or develop an acute or chronic disease. A holistic veterinarian might treat the problem in a variety of ways, but the treatment will likely include the use of herbs. Here are a few of the most common problems dogs and cats experience, and the herbs used to treat them. Work with your vet to determine the best preparation and dosage for your pet.

Allergies. Allergies result when the body’s immune system becomes overactive in response to an allergen. Besides identifying and avoiding the triggering substance, treatment could include the use of herbs that help the body filter toxins, such as burdock and dandelion root. Diuretic nettle (Urtica dioica) and dandelion leaf (Taraxacum officinale) help rid the body of waste. (Nettle also has antihistamine properties, making it useful against seasonal allergies.) Immune system modulators, such as astragalus, can also be helpful. Also, be sure your pet is receiving adequate amounts of essential fatty acids, found in flax seed and borage seed oil.

Anxiety and nervous disorders. For acute anxiety, such as may be caused by travel, for instance, your pet’s practitioner might recommend chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), or valerian (Valeriana officinalis) to help her relax. If anxiety and nervousness are chronic, work with your vet to determine the underlying causes. Adaptogenic herbs such as astragalus can help a chronically anxious pet manage stress. Use sedative herbs, such as valerian, only occasionally—not routinely.

Arthritis. The pain of joint degeneration and the inflammation that accompanies it can be eased with anti-inflammatory herbs such as boswellia (Boswellia serrata), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and alfalfa (Medicago sativa). Nettle, dandelion, and burdock help rid the body of toxic wastes. Dogs may also benefit from a warm compress of comfrey (Symphytum officinale) leaves or yarrow, applied externally to sore joints.

Digestive troubles. Recurrent diarrhea and vomiting can be symptoms of other, more serious conditions, such as pancreatitis, liver disease, or cancer. To relieve occasional colon pain and spasms (colic) and eliminate excess gas, try fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare), chamomile, dill (Anethum graveolens), peppermint, or marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). For a bout of diarrhea, gentle astringent herbs, such as chamomile, slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), or plantain (Plantago major), or mucilaginous marshmallow root, are helpful. For constipation, dandelion root or marshmallow root are effective.

Ear mites. Ear mites, as well as bacterial or fungal infections of the ear, can be treated with oil that’s infused with garlic (Allium sativum) or calendula (Calendula officinalis) or mullein (Verbascum thapsus) flowers. Apply three to seven drops of the oil into the ear canal daily for up to 4 weeks.

Fleas and ticks. If your pet suffers from flea bites despite having a healthy diet, supplementing his diet with a small amount of dry or blanched nettle leaves could help reduce the severity of his allergic response. Besides being nutritious, nettle has antihistamine properties. To remove fleas indoors, vacuum frequently and wash pet bedding. Use a flea comb on your pet, and rub diatomaceous earth onto his skin. Diatomaceous earth is the gritty remains of ancient marine organisms; be sure to use the kind sold in pet supply stores, not the type sold for swimming pools. As a preventative, treat your pet with an herbal spray that contains natural insect-repelling compounds.  If your pet already has a flea problem, use the same formula to make a flea shampoo. Do not use products that contain pennyroyal or pyrethrins, which can be toxic to pets—especially cats.

Urinary problems. Antimicrobial and soothing to irritated mucous membranes, marshmallow root tea (given in very small quantities) is a good treatment for urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and inflammation. Immune-stimulating and antimicrobial echinacea (Echinacea spp.) can help reduce or prevent infections. Nettles, dandelion, and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) will stimulate urine flow, and gingko improves blood circulation in the kidneys. If your pet’s kidneys have been damaged by a poor diet, liver disease, or other problems, your vet will probably recommend a reduced-protein diet, as well.

Skin problems. Calendula flowers prepared as a spritz (an infusion applied as a spray), oil, or salve is one of the safest, most effective treatments for minor skin inflammations, scrapes, itches, and burns. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), yarrow, and chamomile also have skin-healing properties and can be used in sprays, oils, or salves. They also make good additions to calendula preparations. Try aloe juice for burns and fresh yarrow leaves for wounds with minor bleeding. For abscesses or infected wounds that require draining, first apply a poultice of macerated plantain mixed with a bit of olive oil or witch hazel; after the wound has drained, apply calendula oil or salve.