Herbal Medicine: Harmful or Healthful?

For us cat lovers, the search for new and innovative ways to keep our feline friends in tip-top shape never ends. Today, many humans – particularly those who use alternative therapies themselves – are turning to herbal medicines for their cats. But along with the increasing popularity of herbal supplements and remedies come questions about the safety and effectiveness of these treatments.

In some ways, the difference between herbal and prescription medications is not so clear. For thousands of years, human medicines have been derived from plants and many prescription drugs still are. One difference is that while herbal medicines often contain multiple substances from various parts of a plant, prescription drugs generally contain a single active ingredient. The sugars, minerals, proteins, and other ingredients present within a plant can interact with the active ingredient in a variety of ways – potentially increasing or decreasing its effect, or facilitating or hindering its absorption.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have extensively tested prescription drugs, but herbal remedies have not undergone similar scrutiny. Published scientific studies evaluating whether such therapies are helpful or – even worse – harmful to cats are still lacking. Fred Oehme, DVM, professor of toxicology, medicine, and physiology, director of the Comparative Toxicology Laboratories at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and editor of the journal, Veterinary and Human Toxicology, says, Since efficacy and safety studies using these products on cats have  not been performed, their benefit to the feline species is still unknown.

The same uncertainty applies to safety. Herbal medications often consist of non-specific ingredients, combined in non-standardized formulations, he adds. For example, while established guidelines let veterinarians know how much prescription drug to give to a 12-pound cat, no such guidelines yet exist for natural remedies.

Instead, herbalists work from their own judgment and experience to determine how much herbal remedy to give and how often to give it. Published results in cats are non-existent; instead, results are based on human perceptions of how the cat receiving the medication is feeling, says Oehme, a 1958 graduate of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Herbal medicines are not usually formulated specifically for cats, so they are generally unappetizing for that species, and people may have difficulty feeding or pilling their cats with these products, Oehme says. In addition, Testing for purity of herbal products is not an industry standard. Because herbal medicines are not controlled by FDA Good Manufacturing Standards, are not approved by regulatory agencies for cats, and are often made with unrefined, loosely monitored ingredients, they are also more likely to have contamination problems than prescription medicines.

Allen Schoen, DVM, an adjunct professor at the Tufts University Veterinary Medicine School in North Grafton, Massachusetts, with a private practice in Sherman, Connecticut, believes in an integrated approach to feline health. My question is always, What is best for this particular cat in this particular situation? says Schoen. Upon graduating from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine about 20 years ago, Schoen found that, for certain animals under his care – such as geriatric and anorexic cats or those with infectious diseases such as that caused by feline leukemia virus – traditional veterinary approaches didnt work as well as he would have liked. I began to look elsewhere for answers, toward approaches such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicines, recalls Schoen, who is editor of the textbook, Veterinary Acupuncture: Ancient Art to Modern Medicine.

In his practice, Schoen often turns to herbal remedies for cats considered to have terminal diseases. Ive seen such cats turn around when put on an herbal regimen, says Schoen. Herbs like ginseng and astragalus are adaptogenic – meaning they have many different beneficial effects on the endocrine system, he explains. Slippery elm is good for gastrointestinal disorders, and a Chinese herbal formula, polyporous combination, is great for chronic cystitis that is non-responsive to conventional medicines. While some herbal formulas for cats and dogs are now commercially available, Schoen also prescribes individually formulated combinations for certain feline patients. What is the most commonly used herb for cats? Laughs Schoen, That would be catnip!

Of course the best approach to good health, whether for humans or animals, is prevention. To Schoen, that means good nutrition, including herbal supplements. In fact, herbal medicines are often considered nutritional supplements rather than medications – the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labels them nutraceuticals and does not regulate them as drugs.

Caution is advised
Oehme points out that herbal formulations can interfere with prescription medicines, cautioning, If the interactions between prescription and herbal preparations affect vital organ functions, they can actually be toxic. This is a very complex topic with many variables. Since the preparations are not simple and the scientific evaluation of potential benefits in cats is certainly not simply done, simple answers are not easily available. We just arent there yet!

Schoen agrees. Herbal doesnt necessarily equal safe, he says. In fact, when misused, herbs can be just as toxic as drugs. This is especially true for cats, due to their unique metabolic pathways, he explains. For this reason, he cautions people never to assume that herbs that are safe for them are also safe for their cats. For example, the human asthma remedy ephedra can be toxic to cats. So can simple aspirin (which is derived from white willow bark). And while hawthorn may be good for the heart, it can also increase the effect of heart medications like digoxin, leading to digitalis toxicity. Such drug interactions, as well as dosages, and side effects have not yet been well documented in cats.

For this reason, Schoen strongly advises people interested in treating their cats with herbal remedies to work only with licensed veterinarians who are well trained in both traditional and herbal medicines. Schoen also believes that the climate in veterinary medicine is shifting toward a greater acceptance of herbal medicine. For example, Tufts is offering, for the first time, a post-graduate course in botanical medicine in response to interest from both veterinarians and veterinary students, says Schoen. Along with this increased acceptance has come increased study. Research on the effectiveness of various herbal remedies on cats and dogs is being done at numerous veterinary schools, including Ohio State University, Colorado State University, University of Guelph, and University of Florida, he notes. Schoen foresees eventual certification for veterinarians who wish to practice herbal medicine. Its just a matter of time, he says.