By Rania Gollakner, BS, DVM, MPH

What is echinacea?

Echinacea, also known as the purple coneflower, is a dietary supplement made from the Echinacea plant, and is primarily used for immune system support, as an anti-inflammatory, or to shorten the duration of upper respiratory conditions. There are different types of echinacea, and therefore some formulations are blends of the different forms. The blends that include alkylamides, cichoric acid, and polysaccharides appear to be the most beneficial. It is most often used in dogs, cats, rabbits, and horses.

Dietary supplements are substances that can be used to supplement the diet, such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, botanicals, enzymes, and probiotics. While many supplements are sold over the counter, they still contain ingredients that have biological effects that should be managed by your veterinarian. Follow your veterinarian’s directions and cautions very carefully as their directions may be significantly different from those on the label.

There are differences in how countries regulate supplements. In the United States, these substances are not as vigorously regulated by the FDA as other medications, which means they can be sold without the manufacturer proving their effectiveness, safety, and without a guarantee of consistent or accurately reported ingredients. In Canada, products that have been evaluated for quality, safety, and effectiveness by Health Canada and authorized for sale will have a license number on the label.

How effective is echinacea?

Limited studies in animals have been performed, but there are a few scientific studies and anecdotal evidence that suggests echinacea works to reduce inflammation and the severity of upper respiratory symptoms by enhancing immune function. In humans, it has shown to effective in reducing the incidence of upper respiratory infections in children by over 50%.

How is echinacea given?

Echinacea is given by mouth in the form of a capsule, liquid extract, or powder. Measure liquid forms carefully. Give echinacea with food.

What if I miss giving my pet the supplement?

If you miss a dose, give it when you remember, but if it is close to the time for the next dose, skip the dose you missed and give it at the next scheduled time, and return to the regular dosing schedule. Never give your pet two doses at once or give extra doses.

Are there any potential side effects?

Studies are limited for this supplement and therefore information regarding side effects is also limited. However, echinacea is considered very safe and side effects are uncommon. High doses may cause gastrointestinal signs such as vomiting and diarrhea. In humans, side effects may also include headache, dizziness, or oral irritation; but the significance of these side effects in pets is unknown.

Are there any risk factors for this supplement?

Studies are limited for this supplement and therefore information regarding risk factors is also limited. Do not use echinacea in pets that are allergic to it. Echinacea should be used cautiously in pets with autoimmune disorders. Use echinacea cautiously in pregnant or nursing pets.

Are there any drug interactions I should be aware of?

The following medications should be used with caution when given with echinacea: antidepressants.

Vitamins, herbal therapies, and supplements have the potential to interact with each other, as well as with prescription and over the counter medications. It is important to tell your veterinarian about any medications (including all vitamins, supplements, or herbal therapies) that your pet is taking.

Is there any monitoring that needs to be done with this supplement?

There is no specific monitoring that needs to be done while your pet is taking this medication. Your veterinarian may monitor your pet to be sure that the medication is working.

How do I store echinacea?

In general, echinacea should be stored at room temperature and protected from light and moisture. Because there are many different manufacturers of echinacea, always refer to the label for specific storage instructions.

What should I do in case of emergency?

If you suspect an overdose or an adverse reaction to the medication, call your veterinary office immediately. If they are not available, follow their directions in contacting an emergency facility.

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