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Neem Oil for Pets: Is It Safe?

By Paula Fitzsimmons

Neem oil has been touted as a miracle product, most notably as an insect repellant, but also as a skin soother, treatment for ringworm, and anti-inflammatory. But does it live up to the claims? And even if it does, is it safe to use on your furry family members?

While veterinarians say neem oil can benefit some animals, there are also limits to what it can do. Before trying it on your dog or cat, learn the risks involved and how to use it safely and effectively.

What Is Neem Oil?

Neem oil is a carrier oil extracted from the neem (Azadirachta indica), a tree native to Sri Lanka, Burma, and India, and now grown in tropical regions around the world.

Ayurvedic practitioners use most parts of the tree to treat various conditions, says Dr. Lisa Pinn McFaddin, medical director at Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic in Manassas, Virginia. In the United States, oil from the seed is used, most commonly as a topical application. “Cold pressed oil is the preferred method of oil extraction, and the oil varies in color from yellow to brown to red.”

Neem oil contains properties like omega-6 and omega-9 essential fatty acids and vitamin E, but most of its benefits are attributed to triterpenes, Pinn says. (Triterpenes are a chemical compound in plants and animals that allows them to manage inflammation.)

“The most common triterpenes are azadirachtin and nimbin,” she says. “Azadirachtin is a powerful insecticide. Nimbin is known to have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antifungal, antihistamine, and fever reducing properties.”

These benefits come with a drawback, however. “While there are many properties of neem that make it attractive to want to use, those who use it quickly fall out of love with it due to the strong odor, and difficulty in working with pure product,” says Dr. Melissa Shelton, holistic veterinarian and owner of Crow River Animal Hospital in Howard Lake, Minnesota. Experts liken the smell to garlic, even in its diluted form.

Can Our Pets Benefit from Neem Oil?

Neem oil is most reliably used as a repellant. “Neem oil can be used topically to repel and kill common biting insects, including mosquitoes, biting midges, and fleas,” says McFaddin, who is an integrative veterinarian. It’s questionable whether neem oil is effective at repelling and killing ticks, she adds.

Its effectiveness depends on a number of factors. “The ability for neem oil to be antimicrobial and antiparasitic is variable pending the degree of susceptibility of the organism for which it is being used to deter and the concentration, frequency, and duration of the product’s use,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, veterinarian and owner of Los Angeles-based California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness.
 

Vets advise against using neem oil—or any other herbal remedy—as a sole repellant, and say it should be used in conjunction with traditional preventives. “Mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks carry life-threatening diseases such as heartworm, Babesia, Bartonella, Lyme disease, tapeworm, and many more,” says Dr. Danielle Conway, a nutrition resident at the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville. Pet parents who do opt for neem oil as their only repellant should be diligent about regularly checking their pets for parasites, she adds. Blood testing every three to six months is recommended for pets who are not on a monthly medicated flea, mosquito, and tick preventative, says Dr. Katie Grzyb, medical director at One Love Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. “Tests will monitor for heartworm and tick-borne disease,” she says. “The earlier the diagnosis, the easier and less expensive the treatment in most cases.”

Some of neem oil’s properties—azadirachtin, nimbin, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E—suggest that it might also be effective in treating ringworm, local demodectic mange, hot spots, soothing inflamed skin, and reducing itch, says McFaddin. “However, there are no studies documenting the efficacy of neem oil for the successful treatment of these conditions.”

How to Use Neem Oil

Neem oil should only be used topically and ingestion should be avoided, our experts stress. It’s available commercially as topical tinctures, sprays, and shampoos, McFaddin says. Not all products are equal, however. “These products are not generally regulated and purity of the ingredients may be questionable,” she adds. This is why buying neem oil from a trusted source is essential.

If you (and your pet) can stand the smell, you can try to make your own solution at home. Proper dilution is critical, with most vets in agreement that the final product should not contain more than 1 percent neem oil. “Pet owners can make their own spray or shampoo having neem oil in a 1:10 part dilution with another oil like olive or almond,” offers Mahaney.

Conway recommends a do-it-yourself product suggested in Veterinary Herbal Medicine, a reference book by veterinarians Susan Wynn and Barbara Fougere. “Pet parents can make their own topical products by adding 25mL of oil to 400mL shampoo, or adding 1 cup of neem leaf to 1 liter of water, bring to a low simmer for five minutes, and use as a topical spray daily.” Grzyb recommends testing a small area on your pet prior to treating the inflamed regions to see if he has any allergic reaction to the product.

Risks of Using Neem Oil

At the proper concentration, neem oil is generally considered safe. “Neem oil is not listed as a toxic plant product for cats or dogs as per the ASPCA Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Helpline, yet I always recommend cautious use with all dogs and cats under the guidelines of the pet’s primary veterinarian,” Mahaney says.

Another reason to consult with your pet’s vet, and a reminder that natural is not necessarily synonymous with safety, is that “neem oil can interact with insulin, some oral diabetic medications agents, and thyroid hormone supplementation medication,” McFaddin says.

Because the risks of using undiluted neem oil are not known, Mahaney doesn’t recommend pet parents use concentrated products. “If a pet owner is to make their own dilution, then the 1:10 dilution factor should be used.”

In its undiluted form, neem oil can potentially irritate the skin surface, especially on already-irritated skin, or if left on for more than 24 hours at a time, he says. “Additionally, if a non-diluted or sufficiently diluted product is used on a pet and the product is consumed, then a pet could exhibit [excessive] salivation, appetite changes, vomiting, or other health concerns.”

Neem oil has mostly been used on dogs and horses with a fairly wide safety margin, Shelton says. “Cats have not used neem as widely, and for now, we would still recommend caution, as cats groom much more than other species (and are more likely to ingest it). Until safety data and veterinary use is documented further, we would suggest refraining from use of neem unless guided by a veterinarian.”

If your pet is in distress after you apply neem oil—signs include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, respiratory distress, or convulsions—Conway says you should discontinue use.

Neem oil can aid in repelling and killing parasites, but vets recommend against relying on it as your only source of insect repellant. Whether neem oil offers a safe and effective way to treat other conditions is questionable at this point. As with other herbal remedies, there just isn’t enough data available for its use in companion animals. When in doubt, always ask your vet.

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Valerian Root for Dogs: Does It Work?

By Paula Fitzsimmons

If your dog is terrified during thunderstorms or becomes anxious when left home alone, valerian root may offer relief. It’s an herbal supplement with mild sedative qualities that humans have traditionally used to alleviate insomnia, stress, and anxiety. Integrative veterinarians also recommend it for their anxious canine patients.

Valerian root is not without its risks. You need to watch for side effects, especially if your dog takes other medications or supplements. And because dogs are individuals (just like us), it may not work as well for yours as it does for the pup living down the block.

Before investing in a bottle of valerian root capsules or liquid, it’s important to learn the essentials: Are valerian supplements safe? Are there side effects? And do they even work? Our vet experts weigh in on valerian root’s usefulness for treating anxiety in dogs. Of course, you should run any supplements past your own vet before giving it to your canine companion.

The Science Behind Valerian Root

Valerian supplements, available as teas, drops, capsules, and more, are made from Valeriana officinalis, a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Valerian root is best known for its sedating qualities, and is used to relieve insomnia and anxiety, and control seizures, says Dr. Susan Wynn, a veterinarian with Blue Pearl Veterinary Partners in Sandy Springs, Georgia. It works similarly to benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes familiar names like Valium and Xanax.

Researchers aren’t precisely sure how valerian works, but they think it may increase the amount of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. “Valerian root is believed to work via the receptors of the GABA, which blocks nerve transmissions between neurons that stimulate activity. Therefore GABA has a calming effect,” explains Wynn, who is board certified in veterinary nutrition.

According to the NIH, evidence of valerian root’s sedating and anxiety-reducing effects in humans has been inconclusive. And in dogs, studies are non-existent. “All recommendations for the use of valerian root in veterinary medicine are either concluded from human and small mammal studies, or based on anecdotal evidence,” says Dr. Lisa Pinn McFaddin, an integrative veterinarian with Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic in Manassas, Virginia.

Should You Give Your Dog Valerian Root?

Despite the lack of solid evidence, many integrative vets recommend giving dogs valerian root for anxiety, sedation, and improving nighttime sleep, McFaddin says. “Specific conditions in which valerian root may be recommended include noise phobias—including thunderstorms, fireworks, and gunfire—separation anxiety, visits to the veterinary office, travel, on walks with aggressive dogs, and when hosting large groups of people at home.”

Even though safety studies of valerian root for dogs don’t exist, Wynn says that overall, it’s a safe herb. “The American Herbal Products Association publishes a text that rates safety of herbs, and considers valerian safe in all people, including pregnant women.” But dogs aren’t people, she says. “I am aware of no case reports or studies that address safety in pregnant dogs, so I would not advise using it in this group of dogs.”

If you do give your dog valerian root, watch for symptoms like drowsiness or lethargy, says Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian based in New Jersey. The herb can interact with anesthetics, so it shouldn’t be given within two weeks prior to a procedure. “It may also interact with sedative or anti-epileptic drugs, making them more potent. Anti-fungal drugs, in particular, may have greater side effects when used with valerian.”

Before starting your dog on a regimen, understand that valerian root isn’t guaranteed to provide sufficient relief. “If the pet has anxiety that is bad enough that the pet will cause harm to himself or others, medication may be required,” Morgan says. “If the pet has seizures that cannot be controlled, anti-seizure medication may be warranted.”

Valerian root is not a panacea. “If I have an owner who reports insomnia, I look for a medical problem because this is the likely cause in animals,” Wynn says. “For anxiety, I never recommend an herb or a drug unless the owner understands that they must institute behavior modification methods at the same time.”

 

How to Give Your Dog Valerian Root

Even though experts consider valerian root to be safe, they do recommend that you contact your vet before giving it to your pet. Aside from the potential for interactions with other drugs and your dog’s individual health issues, dosing can be tricky, and potentially dangerous if administered incorrectly.

“The dose range for the dried herb and tincture is very large and dependent on the dog’s level of anxiety or stress,” McFaddin says. “And a lower dose may be needed if the dog is taking other medication for anxiety or sedation.” According to Veterinary Herbal Medicine, by Wynn and Barbara Fougere, the recommended dose of dried valerian root for a dog is between 1 and 7.5 grams, and for tinctures is between 7 and 15 milliliters.

Still, “None of these doses have been established using clinical trials,” Wynn says. “It’s all guesswork at this point, and only trained herbalists would be expected to start at the right dose.”

Dosing depends on the form of valerian—capsule, drops, or whole-dried root—says Morgan, but generally speaking, “It should be administered three to four times daily in small doses starting a few days before the anxiety-inducing event.” Fresh valerian root is also available, but she says a dosage would be hard to determine.

You can also look at valerian root as just one part of your dog’s treatment plan. “The goal is to improve your dog’s quality of life through reduction of stress and anxiety,” McFaddin says. “In many instances, one herbal or nutritional supplement is not enough. Polypharmacy, the use of multiple lower doses of medications and supplements, may provide the best and safest outcome for your furry family member.” 

A valerian root supplement may be a good option for certain anxiety-provoking situations like trips to the vet, thunderstorms, and travel. Be open to incorporating behavioral modification or other herbs, nutritional supplements, and medications in conjunction with the valerian root. Start by discussing supplementation with your dog’s vet and investing in a trusted brand. If used correctly, valerian root may help take the edge off your dog’s anxiety. 

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Therapeutic Services for Dogs (and Cats)

Labrador retriever dog laying down on hallway floor

You know there are physical therapy centers for people who are recovering from traumatic injuries and life saving surgeries, but did you know that the same service exists for dogs (and cats) as well? In fact, veterinary rehabilitation therapy is a growing field in animal medicine, especially as pet owners become more educated on the similarities between human and animal physiology and increasingly expect the same type of care for their pets as they do for themselves.

Depending on what your dog is recovering from, therapy options may include massages, water therapy, heat and cold therapy, electrical therapy, acupuncture, ultrasound, and stretching, amongst other options. These therapies can help your dog to regain mobility, decrease pain, reduce weight, increase strength, and, in some cases, return to participating in athletic activities (if she had been previously). Here we will focus on two of the more common therapies that are available for pets: massage and water therapy.

Massage Therapy

Just as humans find relief from stress and injury in a therapeutic massage, so are dogs soothed by a massage. Massages accelerate the rate at which damaged tissues are able to heal, calm the animal and reduce pain. There are therapy centers that offer deep tissue massages for dogs, but even a basic therapy massage can greatly improve your dog’s well-being and recovery time.

Sporting dogs are increasingly being treated with massage therapy after competitions to help reduce stiffness and speed up recovery of muscle and tissue tearing, while older pets that are slowing down and losing mobility can benefit from its ability to reduce pain, swelling and the stiffness that naturally occurs in older joints.

And, just as for humans, therapeutic massage can help to reduce emotional stress in pets. If your dog (or cat) is behaving differently or seems distressed or depressed following a major change (such as a move or death in the family), massage can help your dog to recover and transition through the change more easily.

Water Therapy

Animals that benefit most from physical therapy performed under water tend to be older, overweight, or unable to put weight on an injured limb. Water allows for a complete range of motion while being supported by water, while the light resistance from the water helps to build muscle and improve blood flow. Specially designed therapy pools are used so that the animals are getting the full benefit of normal exercise without all the stress on the joints and muscles. One of the devices therapists employ is the underwater treadmill, so that the dog can go through the normal motions of walking without weight bearing down on healing bones, joints and muscles.

The use of water therapy has been shown to loosen up tight, constricted muscles, improve strength and stamina, reduce pain, increase mobility, and even help dogs to lose weight.

physiology

The study of the functions of the body

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Natural Ways to Treat and Kill Fleas in Grass

By Aly Semigran

Whether your pet is going outside to play or just relax, your backyard is likely a place your four-legged companion frequents and enjoys. However, fleas may be hiding in your yard and can latch onto dogs (or cats) while they are rolling around in or even just walking through the grass during the spring, summer and fall months.

Luckily, there are safe solutions provided by veterinarians and natural lawn care experts for pet parents who want to rid their grass of fleas in a natural, non-toxic way.

Fleas Thrive in Warm Weather 

While fleas can be found on your cat or dog year-round, they tend to cause more issues during the spring, summer and fall. This can be due to the warmer climates and fleas’ breeding habits. “Fleas develop in protected microhabitats such as crawl spaces under structures, vegetation next to the house, pet bedding, dog houses, and places that create high humidities,” explains Dr. Michael K. Rust, Ph.D. of the University of California, Riverside.

Phil Catron the President of NaturaLawn of America, adds that fleas are very active “between the temperature range of 70-85 degrees, coupled with 70+ percent humidity,” which explains why the pest battle heats up during warmer months. 

But keep in mind—fleas don’t disappear when the temperature drops. Flea pupae in their cocoons can stay dormant for up to a year in lower temperatures.

Prepping Your Yard to Keep Fleas Away

Catron says that the first line of defense for keeping fleas out of your grass is to maintain a clean yard. “Flea larvae don’t like light and adult fleas will lay eggs beneath all kinds of debris, including leaves and furniture,” he says. “They like cool dark places and removing these makes your yard less appealing to them.”

In addition to raking leaves and removing any furniture that is not being used, Catron suggests removing wood and dirt piles, which are ideal flea hiding spots. “Cleaning up the flea havens in your yard not only makes them more likely to find somewhere safer to hide, it exposes the fleas to whatever treatment you choose, which makes your efforts to eradicate them more effective,” he says.

Natural Remedies to Kill Fleas in Your Yard

If fleas have still managed to pop up in your cleaned and maintained yard, there are natural ways to deal with the problem. 

Diatomaceous Earth

“One of the best natural materials which may be used to control fleas outside is diatomaceous earth, often simply referred to as DE,” Catron explains. “DE is the remains of millions of fossilized simple cell organisms which are left over from dried up water sources.”

DE can be applied by spreading the dry powder around the lawn. But, Catron suggests another method. “Mixing DE with water is the easiest and least messy way,” he says. “Using roughly ¼ to ½ lb. of DE and mixing it with water in a sprayer is enough to treat up to 1,000 square feet of lawn. Because the DE powder is not soluble in water, consistent agitation is necessary so the particles stay suspended as much as possible.”

Nematodes

Glen Baisley of Neave Group Outdoor Solutions, notes that another effective and safe solution is the use of nematodes, which are microscopic roundworms that kill pests and other insects. Not only will they not harm your pets, but they are “available at most garden centers.”

“Nematodes typically come packaged and impregnated onto a flexible material,” Catron explains. “The piece of material contains millions of these tiny microscopic worms and when placed into a water solution will be dispersed from the cloth-like material and end up in the spray solution.”

The nematode water solution is then sprayed on to the lawn that needs the treatment. “The recommended rates will vary with the type of nematode and how much of a population of nematodes is impregnated onto the material,” he notes.

But there’s things to keep in mind when it comes to applying the nematodes. “Since they are living organisms, they need to breathe too so only mix up what you will be spraying within a reasonably short period of time. If left in a spray tank for too long (say several hours) they will actually drown and be of no use,” Catron says. He notes that nematodes are also “sensitive to light and heat and drought so the best time of the day to treat with nematodes is in the early morning, evening or on a cloudy day.”

So how do they work exactly? Catron explains that the nematodes will “enter the flea’s body through any opening it can find. Once inside it will release a bacteria which kills the flea (usually within 24-48 hours). Once the flea is dead, the nematode will begin to reproduce itself inside the dead carcass. This results in the release of more parasitic nematodes into the surrounding area and helps in the overall control.”

Homeopathic and holistic vet Dr. Stephen Blake, DVM, CVA, CVH, uses a combination of nematodes and dish soap when it comes to dealing with fleas.

“Put two ounces of dish soap in an Ortho hose sprayer bottle and fill the rest up with water. Spray the entire yard once or twice per week to kill adult fleas,” explains Blake. “Repeat as needed or weekly for prevention during flea season. Do not spray succulent plants or, if you do, rinse them off after spraying them.”

What To Avoid When Controlling Fleas In Your Yard

Whether you opt for a natural treatment for fleas or go with a chemical alternative, it’s important to know what’s safe to use around your pets. Before treating your yard, make sure to discuss the potential dangers with your veterinarian.

“Many of the pesticides on the market used for flea control contain organophosphates, and this class of chemicals is a nerve poison,” Catron warns. “Overexposure can cause skin irritation on pets and also affect the cholinesterase levels in their blood leading to serious sickness.”

It’s also important to be aware of other types of synthetic materials which may contain pyrethroids, which can affect the skin and respiratory systems of pets and humans alike, Catron adds.

And while you’re talking to your veterinarian about safe yard treatment options, make sure you also ask about appropriate flea preventatives for your pet. Treating all the animals in your home as well as their environment is the best way to get rid of fleas.

Image:  via Shutterstock

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Natural Treatments for Ear Infections in Dogs

By Monica Weymouth

There are two types of dog owners in this world—those who routinely stick their noses in their BFFs ears sniffing for signs of foul play, and those who don’t.

If you fall in the former camp, you certainly know the smell of a dreaded ear infection, as well as the telltale itching and headshaking that go along with it. Not to mention the frequent vet visits, piles of over-the-counter ear washes and old wives’ tale “remedies.”

You’re also far from alone. Ears are the perfect place for an infection to settle in, and if your dog is predisposed, issues can become chronic. “The most common causes of infection are yeast and bacteria, and they thrive in moist, dark areas—ears are perfect for that,” says Natasha Kassell, VMD, a holistic house-care veterinarian based in Philadelphia. “But there’s certainly a genetic component—all dogs have ears, but not all dogs have ear infections.”

Is your pooch stuck in the stinky ear club? Read on for tips on prevention, treatment and—finally—breaking the cycle of ear infections with tips from holistic veterinarians.

Smarter Grooming Many well-meaning owners and groomers remove dogs’ inner ear hair to prevent infections—but in the process, may be causing the problem. “As a young veterinarian I believed the floppy, hairy-eared dogs developed more ear infections due to this anatomy which prevented air flow,” says Jodie Gruenstern DVM, CVA, a holistic veterinarian and practice owner in Wisconsin. “There may be some truth to this, however, what I found to be most correlated is that after a dog’s ear hair was ‘plucked’ while at a groomer, the dog commonly developed an ear infection about two weeks later. Akin to waxing, this plucking hurts! It leaves the sensitive ear canal abraded and scabby deep inside where it is then vulnerable to microbial attack.”

Natural Oils and Washes

When it comes to keeping ears clean and healthy, you may already have the supplies in your pantry. “I don’t generally recommend ear washes as they break up the natural wax coating on the ear canal which can lead to irritation,” says Erika Halle, DVM, a veterinary acupuncturist and chiropractor in Oregon. “I recommend cleaning with just a couple of drops of oil, such as coconut or olive, placed into the ear canal. This softens the excess wax and helps it move up and out where it can be wiped away with a tissue.”

Although Gruenstern does recommend a commercial aloe-based herbal rinse for dogs who are prone to post-swim ear infections, she cautions that such washes are only preventative, and once an infection is present, a visit to your veterinarian is always in order. “Many astringent, even natural, ear washes are misused,” she says. “If the pet guardian suspects an ear infection, it is too late for an ear wash. The canal is already sensitive, so an ear wash ‘burns’ the sensitive tissue, even blisters it, perpetuating the problem.”

Boric Acid

From treating acne to killing ants, boric acid has a ton of uses—including preventing ear infections. Kassell recommends sprinkling some of the powder in your dog’s ears after swimming or bathing, and even uses boric acid to treat some mild infections. “It makes the ears a less favorable place for yeast and bacteria to grow,” she explains of the acidity. Because boric acid shouldn’t be swallowed or inhaled, be careful to protect your dog’s (and your own!) eyes, nose and mouth.

Conventional Treatments

If an ear infection is confirmed, a holistic veterinarian will often recommend a conventional treatment plan. “I have tried many topical, natural products such as garlic/mullein and even some Chinese herbal ear drops. I have been disappointed with their effectiveness,” says Gruenstern. “The conventional medications which contain an antifungal for yeast, an antibiotic for bacteria and a steroid for inflammation gives the pet the fastest relief. Then we look for the underlying cause.” Next on her agenda: a full thyroid panel, a probiotic product to balance out the gut and…

Dietary Changes

To prevent future infections, holistic veterinarians take their exam from the ear canal to the food bowl. “If a dog is fed a high starch diet, which is what is used in baking to grow yeast, then yeast will flourish on the skin,” explains Gruenstern. “Excessive starch in the diet leads to insulin resistance and a whole inflammatory cascade. A fresh, species-appropriate diet is very important to prevent the development of most conditions.”

Halle also recommends removing starch, as well as exploring other meats. “The first things I have people cut out are grains and chicken,” she says. “After that, it depends on the dog. You may need to try some other proteins like turkey or beef, or even a novel protein like kangaroo or brushtail.”

Not all veterinarians agree that grain-free diets are a good option, so make sure to consult your own vet before making a switch to a grain-free food.

Preventative Evaluation

If your dog is suffering frequent infections, a holistic veterinarian may look at the number of vaccines—as well as flea and tick treatments—that are being administered throughout the year.  “While vaccines are incredibly useful at preventing serious disease such as rabies, distemper and parvo, they stimulate the immune system in an unnatural way, and may play a role in the vast amount of chronic diseases we’re seeing in dogs, from cancer to autoimmune diseases to ear infections,” says Kassell, “My goal as a holistic veterinarian is to help guardians minimize use of potentially harmful products while still protecting their pets against contagious viruses, fleas, ticks, etc.”   

The bottom line: If your dog is showing signs of an ear infection, make an appointment with your veterinarian and discuss how you can avoid the next visit.

See Also

Image:  via Shutterstock

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Natural Supplements for Dogs With Itchy Skin

By Lynne Miller

Dry, itchy skin is a nuisance for dogs, and pet parents are sniffing around for natural supplements for this common and vexing problem.

Treating pruritus, or itching, can be difficult since any number of things can cause it. Food allergies, seasonal allergies, fleas, ticks, mites, and skin infections are just a few of the culprits. To complicate things further, more than one thing could be making your pooch itchy. If you notice lesions on your dog’s skin or the itching is out of control, make an appointment with your veterinarian.

And before you buy any supplement, veterinarians recommend taking a close look at your dog’s diet.

Ideally, dogs should eat a diet that’s relatively high in protein and low in processed carbohydrates, says Dr. Michael Dym, a homeopathic veterinarian based in Royal Palm Beach, Fla.

“Before supplements, we must cut down on inflammation which often starts in the gut,” Dym says. For dogs that eat typical commercial pet food, “you can add every supplement known to man and it won’t stop the itching.” 

Read the label closely on your pet’s food, advises Dr. Patrick Mahaney, a Los Angeles-based holistic veterinarian. Look for food that lists meat, poultry or fish as the first ingredient, and avoid food with ingredients labeled as “byproduct” and “meal,” with the exception of flaxseed meal.

“It comes down to the quality of the ingredients,” Mahaney says. “Generally, the patients I work with are so much healthier from a skin perspective if they’re eating whole foods.”

You might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of natural products promising relief from chronic itching. Here are a few common supplements recommended by veterinarians.

Fish Oil

The Omega-3 fats found in fish oil help reduce inflammation, which can lessen the intensity of many allergies. According to the VCA Animal Hospitals’ website, these fats can also be used to treat skin disorders such as seborrhea or seborrheic dermatitis, which occurs when the sebaceous glands of the skin produce an excessive amount of sebum, an oily/waxy material.

Omega-3s also reduce reactions to pollen and other common triggers found in the environment, Dym notes.

Fish oil can complement medicinal treatments for itching, such as oclacitinib tablets, says Dr. Lenny Silverman, a traditional veterinarian with a practice in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“We have some clients who use fish oil on a regular basis,” Silverman says.

Look for the purest form of fish oil with low flavor and low odor, ideally manufactured by a company that tests for radiation, Mahaney says. You can pierce the capsule and add the liquid directly to your dog’s moist food.

Make sure to balance the essential fatty acids in your pet’s diet.

“Most premium pet foods contain a lot of Omega-6 fats so you need more Omega-3 supplements to balance it properly,” says Dr. Jean Dodds of Garden Grove, Calif. Dodds, noting that Omega-6 fats can cause inflammation, recommends dogs get five times more Omega-3s than Omega-6s in their diet.

Too much fish oil can also have adverse effects. Consult your veterinarian before you start supplementing.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil can improve many skin conditions including itchiness and dryness. It also can reduce allergic reactions.

You can apply coconut oil directly to your dog’s coat, dry, cracked pads, cuts and sores.

Dym likes to add a little coconut oil to food. Add coconut oil slowly to your pet’s diet, about a quarter teaspoon per every 10 pounds of body weight.

“Coconut oil is high in fat,” Dodds notes. “If you put too much in food, your dog can get diarrhea.”

Because of its fat content, coconut oil also may not be a good choice for overweight dogs, according to The Drake Center for Veterinary Care. Coconut oil also should not be fed to dogs with pancreatitis.

seborrhea

A condition of the skin in which too much oil (sebum) is produced

sebum

A type of oil produced by the skin

steroid

The term for a type of medication that impacts immunity, metabolism, sexual characteristics, and other such elements of a living thing

pruritus

Something that causes itching

mites

Any type of arachnid excluding ticks

dermatitis

A condition in which the skin becomes inflamed

enzyme

A substance that causes chemical change to another

antioxidant

Term used to describe certain feeds; refers to c or anything else that contains compounds that prevent the process of oxidization.

pancreatitis

A medical condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed

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Natural Home Remedies for Flea and Tick Control

While we may not be able to roll back the global warming trend that is making pest season longer in some parts of the country, there are easier, softer ways to treat parasites, and ways in which we can avoid some of the worst pests.

A lot of people are reluctant to use chemical flea treatments because of the possibility of a toxic reaction with the skin. “If it isn’t safe for my children, how can it be safe for my pet?” they ask. Unless it is a full blown flea infestation, you may have good results by using gentler and safer methods for flea eradication and control.

1. Juice ’em Away

Fleas are known to be repelled by citrus. The juice from a freshly squeezed orange or lemon can be lightly rubbed onto your pet’s fur to ward off the buggers. 

Take note that oil extracts from lemons and oranges (and any citrus) are not safe for cats and dogs at all. The oil that is extracted from the rind of the citrus fruit contains limonene, an effective insect repellent as well as an all purpose household cleaner. Limonene is also irritating to the skin, and when ingested, can cause liver damage in cats and dogs. Limonene is found in household cleaning products and insect sprays, in home fragrance products, and may be found in some topical products (i.e., for use on skin). Take great care in using citrus oil products only in areas of the home your pets cannot reach, and do not use it on yourself if your pets will be licking you, or on your pets’ hair or skin in any form. The oil is specific to the cells within the rind of the fruit and can only be extracted using specialty equipment, and so is not found in the fresh-squeezed juice of the fruit. If your pet licks a little of the juice off of his fur, there is very little risk of harm — always keeping in mind that allergies can happen to anyone. If your pet behaves oddly after using or eating anything different, discontinue its use immediately. 

2. Rub-a-Dub Tub

Remember the old cartoons where dogs would jump into water to relieve themselves of fleas? Water really does work. Since fleas do not grasp and hold onto the hair shafts, they fall off in the water and drown. A good dip in a tub of water will wash away most, if not all, of the fleas on your pet. Using a gentle pet shampoo or a little bit of regular dish liquid, along with a thorough brushing (an outdoor brushing is best), will go a long way toward ridding your pet’s body of fleas.

3. A Clean Home is a Happy Home

Around the house, laundering pet beds and furniture covers, and vacuuming and disinfecting the floors — not just around your pet’s living spaces but all over — will help to control the population of fleas (just make sure you do not use products with volatile organic compounds). Always dump the bag or cannister of the vacuum, since fleas can continue to live inside the container.

4. Flea vs. Predator

In the yard, you might consider adding a natural predator of fleas. Nematodes are small worms that feed off of flea larva, and are easy to find at garden stores or pet shops. They are highly effective, with a noticable improvement in flea popualation within two days. Keep in mind that the type of nematode that is being recommended here is termed a “beneficial” nematode. It is not the type that is known for infecting animals, such as the heartworm.

Lady bugs can also be found at your local gardening shop, and are also very effective. Lady bugs feast on soft bodied bugs like fleas, and a mature lady bug can eat an average of 50 insects a day. Finally, fire ants are known to eat flea larvae, so if you have them in your yard, you may want to practice some controlled fire ant management that limits them to some areas of the yard rather than complete eradification of them.

5. Blades of Fury

Ticks hang out in tall grass and use the opportunity to grab on to passersby when they feel body warmth — which they are very good at doing. If you are going to be spending time in wooded or grassy areas with your dog, you might want to fashion some cover-up clothing for your dog in order to avoid ticks. An old t-shirt can be altered to fit your dog’s body, and old socks can be cut to make “leg warmers.” This may not entirely prevent ticks from making their way onto your dog, but it may work to keep most of them off since they have nothing to latch onto, and will slow the rest down so they do not spend as much time on your dog’s skin (the longer ticks stay on the skin, the more likely they are to transmit disease).

6. Essential Oils

Because ticks carry dangerous bacteria, repelling them is a priority. One of the natural repellents that a lot of people have success with is rose geranium oil, which can be applied to your dog’s collar. Do NOT use rose geranium oil on your cat, though. Cats can have a bad reaction to essential oils, primarily because they spend a lot of time grooming, which means that anything on their skin goes into their mouth. With ticks, the best thing you might do is to check your pet a few times a day when you are in an area that has ticks, and remove them promptly. Proper technique is important for removing ticks, so make sure that you consult a veterinarian before doing it yourself if you are not completely sure of how to do it.

Now that you have a few alternate means of combating fleas and ticks, you can feel confident that your pets will remain bug-free throughout the year — especially in the summertime, when there are so many nasty critters to worry about.

*This article has been revised and updated, June 10, 2015

Image: Melody.loves.you / via Flickr

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How Natural Flea and Tick Repellants Work

Herbs and essential oils have been used to repel insects since the dawn of man, merely upon the suggestion that they work. But how exactly do these natural compounds keep pesky critters off your pet?

Toxic Warning

Any discussion of natural flea and tick repellants requires a warning that many of these substances, despite being natural, can be toxic if ingested by your pet. The safest way to use herbs and oils is to put them on a collar, which is hard to reach during doggy and kitty self-cleaning sessions. Even a small amount of some, consumed orally, can cause liver damage and serious neurological symptoms. 

Poisonous Herbs and Essential Oils

Essential oils that contain phenols are particularly toxic to cats and cause liver damage. These include oregano, thyme, eucalyptus, clove, cinnamon, bay leaf, parsley, and savory. It’s a good idea not to share any food containing these herbs and spices with your pets. 

Ketones in essential oils can cause neurological symptoms if ingested. Some herbs and essential oils with this component include cedar leaf, sage, hyssop, Cyprus, lavender, eucalyptus, mint, caraway, citronella, clove, ginger, chamomile, thyme, and rosemary. Once again, keep your pet out of a kitchen using these ingredients and don’t allow any sampling of dishes with these herbs and spices.

How to Prevent Toxicity

Companies offering natural flea and tick repellants, as well as remedies for infestations, are well aware of which compounds are problematic for your beloved pets. Be diligent, though, in reviewing the ingredients list for yourself. Careful pet owners can prevent any harm while still reaping the benefits of essential oils and herbs to help keep cats and dogs flea and tick free.

Shampoos – Some natural flea and tick shampoos do contain potentially toxic ingredients, but the short amount of time in contact with the skin doesn’t allow for much absorption. Problems may evolve if your pet soaks in it for any longer than a normal sudsing up. A thorough rinse is of utmost importance, as well as vigilance against Fluffy or Fido trying to sneak of taste of it.

Dips – Dips with these ingredients are not recommended, despite any manufacturer’s claims of safety. The very nature of a flea and tick dip requires thorough dousing and soaking, which promotes maximum absorption of ingredients through the skin. Steer clear of these to keep your pet out of danger.

Collars – Flea and tick collars containing these ingredients should only be coated on the outside of the collar to keep the compounds out of direct contact with your pet’s skin. When considering a purchase of this form of protection, contact the manufacturer and ask if the collar is coated on the inside and if so, consider making your own collar using the oils only on the outside. Make sure it’s close-fitting enough to prevent your pet from licking it and if you have multiple pets that may lick each other’s collars, then this method is not the way to go.

adrenaline

A hormone produced by the adrenal glands, also often referred to as epinephrine. Adrenaline is used in the body’s response to traumatic situations or emergencies.

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Herbal Remedies for Dogs

Eight Herbs to Improve Your Dog’s Health

Herbs. How boring would your Bolognese sauce be without them? Herbs have long been used to treat and prevent ailments in people, and apart from smelling good and adding an extra something to your cooking, certain herbs can help out your dog, too.

If you have room to grow herbs (and you really don’t need much, a window box is perfectly fine), why not grow a selection that can be used to treat some common dog ailments? Hey, it may help you save a few bucks on vet visits — and saving money is always a good thing.

Aloe Vera

This spiky leafed herb is pretty amazing. It’s medicinal value has been appreciated since ancient times, helping to heal wounds and even stomach ulcers in people, amongst other things.

You’ll be glad to know it’s also good for your dog if applied topically. Aloe Vera gel can be applied topically to help treat minor burns, scrapes, and skin irritations due to its cooling and anitbacterial properites. But pet parents be warned—dogs should not eat or lick Aloe Vera or the leaves of Aloe Vera plants, as it can cause gastrointestinal problems and toxicity if ingested in large amounts. If applying the gel topically, make sure your dog does not lick the area.

Calendula Flowers

The bright and sunny flowers of this easy-growing herb may be used to treat cuts, scrapes and wounds, both on you and your dog. While it has many different applications (including anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and the cooking pot), it’s mostly used to heal wounds.

The flower petals, meanwhile, can be applied directly as a wound dressing, or made into a tea to be used as an antiseptic wash. The antiseptic quality of the herb helps prevent bacterial growth, which is good news for your dog and bad news for the bacteria.

Ginger

We’re not talking about the movie star stranded on Gilligan’s Island, but the herb. Not only is the root of the ginger herb delicious, but it’s been highly prized for centuries as a medicinal herb. It can be made into a tea or tincture, and is excellent at settling a doggy’s upset tummy.

Goldenseal

Sadly, goldenseal has nothing to do with gold, seals, or even a magical seal made out of gold (that would just be silly). This herb is a powerful antibiotic that prevents the bacteria from latching onto the cell walls. It can be used as a tincture, tea, or wash for dogs with eye infections or weepy eyes. It’s also useful in treating stomach and bowel ailments.

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle protects the liver against damage and also improves liver function. In fact, it’s an important extract to use if your dog has been on any medicine that may affect the liver.

Valerian, Chamomile and California Poppy

This trio of herbs can be used to treat a hyper dog. They are natural relaxants for dogs, and also have added health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, asthma, and even working against pesky parasites. Tinctures, teas, and extracts all work well, although with Valerian, only a few drops are needed.

Of course, with any treatment, herbal or otherwise, make sure you consult your vet prior to treatment. You can also check in with your local holistic pet store for advice, and read our how-to guide for growing an indoor or outdoor herb garden. Like you, your dog should benefit from these natural wellness boosters, but only under professional supervision. Happy herb growing.

Image: ZeePack / via Flickr

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Herb ‘N’ Living: Growing a Home Garden for Your Pet

Some animal experts have asserted that pets intuitively eat plants according to their specific medicinal value — that is, as long as they have several plants to choose from. The problem, however, is that we choose our plants for beauty rather than edibility. So when a pet has only household plants or landscaping to choose from, it can lead to something more serious than a bellyache, especially if the plants are toxic or sprayed with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. But, given the right plants to choose from, your pet will be able to treat itself and you won’t need to worry about potential side effects. 

Whether you have a large yard space, a small four-foot by four-foot plot, or a windowsill, you can grow a healing garden for your cat or dog. Most of these plants are simple to grow and inexpensive to boot. Even better, many double as home remedies for you and your family.

 

So without further ado, here are a few tips that will earn you an honorary green thumb.

 

For an outdoor garden, the burdock herb is an ideal plant. Known for its ability to treat allergies and digestive and kidney issues, the burdock is a traditional medicinal plant used worldwide. A rich soil works best, but be careful to not let this plant grow too large, for it will take over your entire garden when given the opportunity.

 

Milk thistle, good for liver disorders, is low on demands. It can be grown in wet or dry soil, and in a sunny or partly sunny location. However, remove the flowering heads to prevent it from becoming too weedy.

 

Peppermint is another easy-to-grow herb. Go to the store, buy the plant, and place it in rich, moist soil — that’s it. Your pet will find the leaves of the peppermint herb, which does well in both sun and shade, useful for indigestion and nausea. Just don’t forget to cut the springs back regularly to encourage healthy growth.

 

The Astragalus herb, meanwhile, is useful for lowering blood pressure, decreasing blood sugar, improving digestion, and promoting healing. The Astragalus seeds need to be scratched before planting in a sandy soil.

 

Similarly, garlic is a well-known immune booster. Garlic grass is easy to grow, indoors and outdoors, and can be started from a bulb bought at your local grocery store. Just push the cloves under a quality soil, pointed side up. Keep in mind that the garlic clove, eaten in large amounts, can make your dog ill, and it is toxic to cats. Garlic cloves should not be given to your cat under any circumstance, but the grass that grows from the clove can be nibbled on as your cat feels the need.

 

rot

A type of decay that is caused by fungus or bacteria

inhibit

To slow something down or cause it to stop

indigestion

A medical condition in which the digestive process is disturbed in some way from something like too much food, spoiled food, etc.

blood pressure

The amount of pressure applied by the blood on the arteries.