If you enjoy hunting for natural cures and adjunct treatments for your pit bull, you know that there's no shortage of information recommending herbs for a myriad of conditions and ailments.
What's often missing, however, are the specifics: How much of the herb should you give your pit bull and how often? Which herbal preparations are best? How do you know you're using quality herbs? Should you buy a standardized extract? We talked to an herbalist who works primarily with dogs and cats to get the low-down.
What's an Herb?
Herbalists refer to any part of a plant that has medicinal properties as an herb. This includes leaves, stems, blossoms, barks, roots, resin, seeds, hulls, and berries.
Determining Herb Quality
In order to preserve their medicinal properties, herbs must be dried slowly at low temperatures with plenty of air circulation. Once dried, they should be stored in glass containers (preferably dark glass) with tight-fitting lids away from heat, light, and moisture. Failure to process or store herbs properly can destroy most of their healing properties.
Avoid herbs that look and smell like shredded cardboard. Potent herbs are colorful, fragrant, and flavorful. If you are purchasing herbs for medicinal use, certified organic and ethically wildcrafted plants are your best bets. Alternatively, consider growing your own. A small herb garden is easy to get started.
While a few herbs--Echinacea and St. John's Wort, for instance--have a short shelf life, most dried leaves and blossoms will retain their medicinal properties for at least a year or two if stored properly. Roots and barks can last for 3-5 years. Not sure if an herb is still good? Check its color and fragrance.
Even when herbs are harvested, dried and stored correctly, they can vary in potency based on how and where they were grown. Standardization began in Germany where nearly three-quarters of doctors regularly prescribe herbs and substantial research funding is poured into herbal studies. In order for these studies to yield meaningful results, researchers had to be certain that test subjects were actually ingesting an herb with verified potency.
Standardized extracts are processed in a manner that guarantees they contain a specific amount (listed on the label) of one or more key compounds. Some herbalists detest standardization, contending that it makes herbs too much like pharmaceutical drugs. They also point out that researchers aren't always correct about an herb's active compound. For instance, for many years, St. John's Wort was standardized to contain 0.3% hypericin, but it's now believed that hyperforin, an entirely different compound, is responsible for the herb's mood elevating properties. Moreover, most herbs are used for more than one purpose and different functions typically involve different components of the herb. Finally, it usually isn't just one compound that's responsible for an herb's efficacy. Medicinal plants are highly complex and their components work synergistically.
On the other hand, standardization can provide you with assurance that the herb you are purchasing contains sufficient amounts of the compound or compounds that are thought to be most important. The best option is often an herbal product that contains a standardized extract and a substantial amount of the whole herb.
Herbal treatments come in many forms. We'll look at the advantages and drawbacks of the most common preparation methods for internal use:
Powdered Herbs - The dried herb is ground to a powder and then added to food or given in capsules. Herbs in capsule form are the most widely available herbal preparation in North America as well as the most popular. Inexpensive to produce and convenient to take, this is the herbal preparation most people are familiar with. While most other preparation methods attempt to extract the herbs' medicinal properties, with powdered herbs, this extraction process is left entirely to the digestive system. Seeds and berries are commonly consumed in powdered form.
Herbal Infusions - An infusion is essentially a medicinal tea. Heat spring water or other non-chlorinated water to just below the boiling point and pour it over dried herbs, using about one teaspoon per cup of water. Cover and allow to steep for at least 15-20 minutes, then strain well. Stronger infusions can be left to stand for many hours or even overnight. You can make enough for a few days and refrigerate the infusion in a glass jar. In fact, a glass jar with a tight lid is also great for letting the medicinal tea steep. Herbal infusions are suitable for most leaves, blossoms, soft stems, and berries.
- Advantages: The whole herb is consumed, including insoluble plant fibers and chemical compounds not soluble in water or alcohol. Some formulas--many intestinal parasite blends, for example--actually depend on these insoluble fibers to do their job.
- Disadvantages: Dogs do not digest plant foods as effectively as humans, so some herbalists question if powdered preparations are the most effective way to administer herbal medicine to canines. It helps to dissolve the ground herbs in a little water just prior to feeding.
Herbal Decoctions - A decoction is another type of medicinal tea, but it's brought to a boil and then simmered on low heat. Decoctions are suitable for most roots, barks, and seeds.
- Advantages: The herb's medicinal benefits are provided to dogs in a form they can easily assimilate.
- Disadvantages: Not all of an herb's medicinal constituents may be water soluble, and some plant components may be destroyed by the hot water. It's best to consult a good herbal reference book or two to determine if your intended use of an herb lends itself to infusions.
Herbal Tinctures - Tinctures are highly concentrated liquids that are made by soaking herbs in a solvent for a minimum of 2-3 weeks. The most commonly used solvent is alcohol (should be 80-proof or higher) because it will extract most plant components. It's also an excellent long-term preservative. However, tinctures intended for pets are often extracted with vegetable glycerine instead of alcohol. Glycerites usually aren't quite as potent as alcoholic tinctures, but it depends on the herbal compounds to be extracted. It's also possible to obtain tinctures that had the alcohol removed post extraction. The traditional way to accomplish this is by adding boiling water to the tincture or heating it until the alcohol evaporates. Unfortunately this can also result in the destruction of volatile herbal compounds. Regardless of the solvent used, look for tinctures with an herb-to-solvent ratio of 1:1 for best results.
- Advantages: Same as with an infusion, decoctions are easily assimilated by dogs.
- Disadvantages: Not all plant components are water soluble, even when the water is heated to the boiling point. Boiling also increases the risk that essential oils and other fragile constituents will evaporate.
- Advantages: Tinctures are typically absorbed faster and more completely than other herbal preparations. Since heat isn't used during the extraction process, volatile essential oils and many other fragile compounds remain intact. Moreover, some plant components can be extracted only with a solvent such as alcohol, so tinctures contain more of the whole herb than an infusion or decoction.
- Disadvantages: Puppies should not be given alcoholic tinctures, and while adult dogs can handle the small amounts of alcohol, they usually don't care for the taste. Glycerites, on the other hand, have a sweet taste that makes them popular with most dogs. While alcohol is an effective solvent, it can also have a denaturing effect, rendering some plant compounds inert. Additionally, tinctures are time-consuming to produce and hence expensive, though it is possible to make effective tinctures at home for a fraction of the price of commercial preparations.
As you can see, there is no one best herbal preparation for dogs. The best way to take an herb depends not just on the plant in question, but also on your intended use. For example, if you are giving your pit bull chamomile for its relaxing properties, an herbal infusion will work just fine. If, however, you're after the herb's anti-inflammatory benefits, you'll need a tincture. It's also possible to combine herbal preparations by mixing the whole, ground herb with 1-2 tbsp of an infusion or decoction or by adding tinctures to medicinal teas.
While the recommended dosage can also vary depending on the herb and your desired results, the following guidelines apply to most herbs, most of the time.
- Powdered Herbs: Give the contents of 2-3 capsules (standard size 00) 2-3 times a day (2 capsules for 30-50 lb pit bulls, 2.5 capsules for 50-70 lb pit bulls, and 3 capsules for 70-90 lb dogs).
- Medicinal Teas: Give 1-2 teaspoons per 10 pounds of body weight 3 or more times a day. Teas made from tonics and well-tolerated food herbs (e.g., rosemary, nettles, parsley, dandelion, etc.) can safely be given in larger doses.
- Tinctures: Give 10-25 drops 2-3 times a day (10-15 drops for 30-50 lb pit bulls, 15-20 drops for 50-70 lb dogs, 20-25 drops for 70-90 lb pit bulls). Double the recommended dosage when giving glycerine tinctures.
With long-term herbal treatments, it's possible that the body becomes habituated to an herb and fails to respond as effectively as it once did. Consequently it is advisable to give herbs in five days-on, two-days-off or three-weeks-on, one-week-off courses. During the off days or week, different herbs with similar actions may be given.
Administering Herbs to Your Pit Bull
Capsules are best opened and their contents added to food. Small amounts of yogurt, cottage cheese, apple sauce or canned pumpkin (unsweetened) work very well. If the herb has a very strong smell and your pit bull won't touch the yogurt mix, try adding a spoonful of mackerel or other canned fish.
Liquids can be mixed with small amounts of food just like powdered herbs, but it's also possible to squirt the tincture or tea between your pit bull's lower lip and lower back teeth. Medicinal teas can be poured into a small atomizer bottle and then sprayed right into your dog's mouth.
If you've made or purchased a glycerine tincture for your pit bull, you can place the drops in a small dish or saucer, and most dogs will lap it right up.
Finally, remember that while herbs can help your pit bull live a healthier life, they aren't miracle cures that will work for every illness. If your dog has serious health issues, please consult a holistic veterinarian to help you decide on the best course of action.