By Rania Gollakner, BS, DVM, MPH

What is ephedra?

Ephedra is a supplement and stimulant derived from the Ephedra sinica or Ephedra equisetina plant and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (called ma huang) to treat asthma or other lung problems. In humans it has also been used in weight loss products and as an energy booster. Ephedra stimulates the “fight or flight” response and targets the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, and respiratory system. This substance is banned in the United States and Canada as a dietary supplement due to the widespread abuse of this supplement but is still used by herbalists.

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 ephedra?

Because ephedra contains substances such as ephedrine, norephedrine, and other stimulants, it can be effective for improving conditions such as asthma, allergic reactions, and low blood pressure. Unfortunately, it can have dangerous side effects as well if not used carefully and under the supervision of a medical professional.

How is ephedra given?

Ephedra is given by mouth in the form of a capsule, powder, or tablet. Give with food. Measure doses carefully, as this supplement can be easily overdosed.

This supplement will take effect quickly, in about 1 to 2 hours, and improvement in clinical signs should follow.

What if I miss giving my pet the supplement?

Give the missed dose as soon as you remember, and then wait the recommended amount of time between doses. Never give your pet two doses at once or give extra doses.

Are there any potential side effects?

Side effects include an increased heart rate, increased body temperature, increased blood pressure, agitation, restlessness, sleeplessness, nausea, tremors, and vomiting. Serious side effects include collapse, severe weakness, seizures, stroke, and sudden death.

This short-acting supplement should stop working within 24 hours, although effects can be longer in pets with liver or kidney disease.

Are there any risk factors for this supplement?

Ephedra should not be used in pets that are allergic to it or in pets with glaucoma, heart disease, high blood pressure, seizures, diabetes, anxiety, enlarged prostate, liver disease, kidney disease, or thyroid disease. Do not use in pregnant, nursing, geriatric, debilitated, or young pets.

Are there any drug interactions I should be aware of?

The following medications should be used with caution when given with ephedra: antidepressants, aspirin, benzodiazepines, beta-adrenergic agonists, blood pressure medications, caffeine or other stimulants, theophylline, or digoxin.

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?

Monitor your pet closely for serious side effects 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 ephedra?

In general, store this supplement at room temperature, protected from light and moisture. There are many manufacturers of this supplement, so follow the specific storage instructions on the product label.

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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