Veterinary Herbal Therapy

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Steve Marsden, DVM ND MSOM LAc DiplCH AHG, Shawn Messonnier, DVM and Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH.

What is herbal therapy?

Herbs are plants that contain ingredients with active therapeutic properties. These active ingredients may be present in the whole plant or only in a specific part.

An herb may be used in various forms, including teas, granular extracts (Chinese medicine), fresh herbs, dried herbs, oils, or tinctures. It may be commercially available as a loose herb, capsule, tablet, liquid extract, lotion, or cream. Herbal therapy is the use of herbs for medicinal purposes, either on their own or in combination with other herbs.

What is the history of herbal therapy in veterinary medicine?

Herbal (botanical) therapy has been used for thousands of years in many human cultures. Over centuries and even millennia, a tremendous amount of clinical experience has been obtained by these cultures regarding which herbs work well for which conditions and how they are best administered. It has been estimated that, even today, 75% of the world's population relies on herbal medicine for basic health care. Early civilizations placed great emphasis on the health of the horses and cattle that were so integral to their lives. As a result, the history of veterinary herbal treatment parallels its history in human therapy.

"Herbal therapy is the use of herbs for medicinal purposes, 
either on their own or in combination with other herbs."

In the late eighteenth century, advances in science enabled chemists to isolate and purify active ingredients in herbs. Further advances led to the ability to manufacture synthetic pharmaceuticals. At that point, herbal therapy diverged from mainstream medicine, since conventional medical researchers believed that it was safer and more effective to administer specific doses of the pure, active chemical, whether it was synthetic or derived from plants.

Advocates of herbal therapy maintain that whole herbs or their extracts are more effective and that the natural product contains other ingredients that act synergistically with the active principle.

On which species of animals is herbal therapy practiced regularly?

It was not until the late nineteenth century that veterinary medicine turned from herbal treatments to conventional pharmaceuticals. While significant research support exists for the use of herbs in veterinary medicine, most treatment protocols for dogs, cats, horses, and ruminants are based solely on clinical experience or research data that has been obtained from work with laboratory animals and humans. Over time, more herbal therapy protocols may be scientifically tested and incorporated into veterinary practice

Animal treatments are frequently inspired by human herbal medicine, but veterinary expertise is required to select the appropriate formula and to address differences in metabolism between animals and humans, and between the various animal species.

Who practices veterinary herbal therapy and do I need a referral?

Herbal treatment must be administered only after an accurate diagnosis has been made. Because of the differences in physiology between animal species and humans, and the potential for harm if herbs are administered inappropriately, only a properly trained veterinarian should prescribe herbal treatments.

"Herbal treatment must be administered only after an accurate diagnosis has been made."

The American Veterinary Medical Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association both consider the practice of veterinary herbalism to be within the practice of veterinary medicine. In accordance with regulations in the local jurisdiction, herbal treatment must only be prescribed by a licensed veterinarian, or under the direct supervision of a veterinarian. As veterinary herbal treatment grows as a specialty, there are increasing numbers of veterinarians in private practice who have obtained the necessary training and experience in herbal medicine. In many cases, referral is not necessary, but should be considered for the herbal management of very dangerous, refractory, or delicate conditions.

What conditions are most often treated with herbal therapy?

Herbal approaches have been developed for managing almost all conditions that currently challenge conventional veterinary medicine, including epilepsy, chronic kidney failure, chronic lameness, hormonal disorders, behavioral disorders, allergic skin disease, liver failure, and inflammatory bowel disease. Other herbs may simply support the normal function of healthy organs by acting as “tonics”.

How can my pet benefit from herbal therapy?

Herbalists believe that herbal treatments, using whole plants or their extracts, produce improved outcomes and fewer side effects than many pharmaceutical products.

Some general actions of plants confirmed by clinical and laboratory research include:

  • the support of normal function of the liver, kidneys, heart, and immune system;
  • reduced inflammation and improved blood flow through damaged tissues;
  • normalization of smooth muscle contraction;
  • promotion of the differentiation, aging, and death of tumor cells; and
  • elimination of pain.

Often, herbal medicine can eliminate the need for chronic medications. The components of herbal formulas may act synergistically to give greater positive effects than when used individually. Such synergistic interactions between herb constituents have been repeatedly demonstrated in laboratory research on both single herbs and herbal formulas.

How successful is herbal therapy?

Herbal therapy should never be administered without a proper veterinary diagnosis. The success of herbal treatment will vary according to the age of the patient, prior treatment history, and diagnosis. Since the science of herbology hasn't caught up with herbal practice at this time, even scientifically trained practitioners must rely upon clinical experience and traditional knowledge when deciding on an herbal prescription. When high quality herbs from reputable sources are used, dosages are more consistent, and the outcomes are more predictable.

How safe is herbal therapy?

Ongoing monitoring of the patient's symptoms and any laboratory abnormalities is required, particularly when herbal therapy is being used to treat serious disease. If the wrong herb or the incorrect dosage is given, the condition may worsen. In the hands of a knowledgeable veterinary herbalist, adverse reactions are uncommon and usually short-lived, but may still occur. Caution should be used when treating pregnant animals, using other therapies, or treating a very ill animal.

Currently, in many countries, herbs are not regulated for quality control nor are there any requirements for demonstrating efficacy and safety. Quality of herbs varies according to many factors, including growing conditions, age at harvest, time of harvest, handling after harvesting, and storage. Many plants absorb and concentrate environmental contaminants within their parts, while others may become contaminated or adulterated during harvesting or processing. This has led to a preference among veterinary herbalists for products certified as organic.

The shelf life of herbs varies from within six months of harvest for bulk herbs to about three years for granular extracts of Chinese herbs, and up to five years for tinctures. Reputable products should have an expiry date printed on the label.

What is the cost of herbal therapy?

Comprehensive herbal treatment involves a thorough history taking and physical examination, followed by a patient assessment and formulation of a treatment plan. It rarely involves a single visit, and costs vary according to the specific condition being treated, the herbs required, and the response of the patient. Fees associated with herbal treatment are set by the individual practitioner and often reflect their skill, experience, and training. In general, treatment using veterinary herbal therapy is not prohibitively expensive.

Can herbal therapy be combined with traditional veterinary medicine?

Herbal therapy can be combined with other forms of treatment if the appropriate precautions are taken. Some herbs are very potent, and caution must be used when combining them with other treatments such as drugs, homeopathic remedies, and acupuncture, since these treatments can either heighten or negate the effects of each other. As a complete and well-developed system of medicine used by a skilled practitioner, herbal therapy may be effective as the sole form of treatment for most conditions except those requiring surgery.

"Herbal therapy can be combined with other forms of treatment 
if the appropriate precautions are taken."

Trained veterinary herbalists have the knowledge and skill to understand the interactions between different forms of treatment and to interpret the patient's response to therapy. If your pet is receiving herbal treatment from a practitioner other than your regular veterinarian, it is imperative that you keep both individuals updated about the ongoing treatment to provide optimal care to your pet.

Without veterinary training, herbal treatment of serious disease in animals is not advised and frequently ineffective.

How can I find out more information about veterinary herbal therapy?

Consult the Veterinary Botanical Medical Association (VBMA) at for current reference materials, links, and referral lists.

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