Herbs have a firmly established place in alternative medicine. Used properly, they can help treat a wide range of conditions in dogs.
The key term here is “properly used”. For example, those who reach for herbal remedies as direct intervention against the symptoms of arthritis, or as standalone replacements for pharmaceutical drugs, are likely to be disappointed. Although many herbs can be used to reduce inflammation and relieve pain, most are much weaker than conventional arthritis drugs when used for suppressing symptoms. But as part of a holistic regimen that looks beneath symptoms to identify the causes of arthritis, herbs can be quite effective and will bring relief by preventing or managing a dog’s underlying condition.
How herbs can help
Unlike non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which address only the painful symptoms of arthritis, herbs can strengthen and support the body systems responsible for eliminating toxins that might contribute to the disease. To achieve this goal, the herbalist’s first job is to eliminate the possible causes of arthritis in a dog, then turn to improving and supporting the body’s natural corrective functions, from the inside out.
Allow me to introduce you to five of my favorite anti-arthritic, tonic herbs.
Boswellia serrata (Indian Frankincense)
A resinous gum extracted from a bush native to India, boswellia has a long history of effective use against the painful symptoms of osteoarthritis and other forms of degenerative joint disease. The herb contains boswellic acid and alpha- and betaboswellic acids; these are well documented as reliable anti-inflammatory agents. Because of its demonstrated safety and efficacy in dogs and other mammals, boswellia has become a very popular ingredient of the natural pet supplements industry. Boswellia can help alleviate pain and improve joint mobility within a matter of days. It is thought to inhibit mediators of autoimmune disorders while decreasing glycosaminoglycan degradation. This in turn may help slow the progression of cartilage damage. In other words, boswellia helps the body do for itself what most conventional anti-inflammatory drugs cannot do – heal from within. The biggest and perhaps only pitfall of boswellia is its awfully bitter flavor, which makes the extract difficult to feed in therapeutically viable doses. Nevertheless, boswellia stands as one of the most effective herbal anti-inflammatories available.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Numerous scientific reports support turmeric as a safe and effective anti-inflammatory remedy for arthritic dogs and other mammals. Feeding this bright yellow kitchen spice can be as simple as sprinkling a few pinches on Fido’s food, but the best results come from turmeric preparations that have been scientifically manipulated to contain unnaturally high concentrations of the herb’s active curcuminoid constituents. Human studies have shown that the anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving capabilities of turmeric extract containing at least 20% curcuminoids are comparable to those of the NSAID drug ibuprofen. And when bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple, is fed concurrently with turmeric, the results can be even more impressive. Bromelain is itself a powerful anti-inflammatory, and when combined with turmeric it also helps with digestion and transports turmeric’s curcuminoids into the bloodstream.
Turmeric is also a peripheral vasodilator that helps warm the body and increase circulation to joints where added blood and lymph is needed for the regeneration of healthy tissue. But that’s not all. Turmeric stimulates and protects the liver, so while it’s reducing painful inflammation, it’s also helping with the process of eliminating waste that’s contributing to the problem Step aside, NSAIDs!
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
I regard licorice root as perhaps the most broadly applicable antiinflammatory in my herbal medicine chest. It contains several phytosterol compounds that are thought to affect the body’s production and utilization of cortisol, a steroid hormone that helps regulate the body’s inflammatory responses to damaged joints. I find licorice especially useful when combined into a liquid compound with alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and yucca root (Y. schidigera), two other phytosterol-rich herbs that lend digestive and liver support to help with the elimination of toxins that might contribute to the progression of arthritis.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Active constituents of ginger include gingerol, gingerdione and shogaol as well as sesquiterpene and monoterpene volatile oils, all of which offer medicinal attributes. In the case of arthritic joints, dried or fresh ginger root when taken internally helps relieve stiffness and pain, while acting as a peripheral vasodilator to improve circulation in and around swollen joints.
Multiple studies suggest that devil’s claw tuber may help alleviate the pain of osteoarthritis, primarily through the iridoid glycoside constituents it contains. Devil’s claw has become very popular in recent years, and appears in numerous arthritis relief formulas for dogs and other animals. However, despite its popularity, I have heard many mixed reviews from veterinary practitioners and dog owners telling me that sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The reasons behind this controversy may be related to how the herb is harvested. The tubers of this bizarre-looking little African plant must be selectively harvested from mature plants that are at least four years old, and the harvest must be done during a very specific stage of the plant’s growth cycle. The most sustainable practice is to harvest only one to a few of the tubers that extend from the plant’s base, leaving enough to assure the plant’s survival and the re-growth of new tubers. Unfortunately, increased demand for this herb has led to the premature harvest of too many tubers, and in many areas we are seeing declining populations of the plant.
Because tubers from immature plants lack sufficient concentrations of active iridoid glycoside constituents, much of the devil’s claw sold on the North American market is functionally useless. With that said, there are sustainable sources for those who seek it out; aside from its bitter flavor, properly-harvested devil’s claw is an excellent joint pain remedy.
You should always work with an experienced animal herbalist or a veterinarian trained in herbal therapies before trying these remedies on your dog. Properly sourced and administered, and used in conjunction with an overall holistic healthcare approach, these herbs can have a powerfully healing effect on your canine’s creaky joints.