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Features June 2014 Issue

Remedies That Aren’t

7 substances touted as good for dogs’ health that can actually be harmful.

Decades ago, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson quipped about Americans’ trending infatuation with “natural” alternative medicines, reminding his audience that arsenic is natural, too. He made a good point. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's good for you — or your dog.

For better or worse, the trend never went away. Here are some “natural” remedies touted as beneficial to your dog that you should run by your veterinarian before considering administering, just like any other pharmaceutical.

Garlic: Ingesting garlic has serious risks for dogs, most notably, the risk for hemolytic anemia, which is the destruction of red blood cells. Ironically, some articles online that correctly explain garlic’s hazards for your pet appear right alongside links to other entries that extol the so-called benefits of garlic.

For instance, one site refers to a number of books promoting natural health care for dogs that recommend feeding your dog garlic to boost his immune system, help him fight off a variety of infections and parasites, improve his liver function, and lower his blood and triglyceride levels. The site even recommends applying a poultice of crushed garlic and olive oil to your dog's skin to treat ear mites and minor skin lesions. The poultice might work well as a pasta topping. For your dog, it’s dangerous because he can lick it off and ingest the garlic inadvertently.

Unfortunately, even a quick search on sites well trodden by mainstream consumers committed to finding “natural” remedies yields a surprisingly wide selection of garlic-containing preparations for your dog. Amazon features brewer’s yeast with garlic supplements and other canine dietary supplements containing garlic that are said to help keep fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes at bay.

Don’t be fooled. Despite the widespread appearance of garlic in commercially available products, the ASPCA warns that the ingestion of garlic, along with other members of the onion family such as shallots and scallions, can lead to hemolytic anemia, also referred to as Heinz Body Anemia. The ASPCA points out that garlic powder and dehydrated garlic pose the greatest risk for poisoning — the more concentrated the onion-related food, the more risky. Those preparations may even lead to the need for a blood transfusion. Your dog may show no sign of illness until three or five days after ingestion, then may begin resting more than usual, tiring easily, or passing urine that contains an orange or red hue. Should these symptoms occur, a visit to your veterinarian is clearly advised. Better still, don’t mix garlic and your dog in the first place. Why flirt with danger?

Comfrey: Used topically, this herb with its bell-shaped leaves and black roots is said to cause the cells of a wound to regenerate so quickly that a good cleaning is necessary before application to prevent new cells from growing over a wound that hasn't yet been disinfected, raising the risk for an abscess. If taken internally, the herb is also said to be a good source of B vitamins and amino acids.

Online, you can easily find ear ointments for your dog that contain comfrey, including a skin repair balm. That's concerning. The Merck Veterinary Manual lists comfrey as an especially risky herb because of its pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which have been linked to liver damage. The alkaloids are actually produced by the herb to fend off bugs, but the insecticide can be harmful to a dog.

If your dog licks the topically applied balm and ingests it, it can make its way into vulnerable parts of his body. Even if your dog can’t readily reach the balm with his tongue, he may get it into his mouth if he cleans the spot repeatedly with his paws, then licks them. Of course, given comfrey’s risks, giving it to your dog to ingest should be out of the question.

Wormwood: A preliminary study out of the University of Washington has found some promise in the compound artemisinin, derived from wormwood, which appears to attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. The herbal remedy is also believed to help rid your dog of mange and mites when given as a diluted tea poured over food.

But wormwood’s most common use is as a natural deworming medication that gets sprinkled dry over your dog’s food. Stay away from it. It does no good if measured out in low doses and poses the risk of irreversible damage to your dog's liver and kidneys if given in larger amounts. In all, this alternative cure may be too big a gamble, especially when your veterinarian can prescribe a safe and effective deworming medication that comes with clear directions for safe doses.

Anise: This licorice-flavored seed that makes many Italian baked treats so appealing is said to provide digestive and respiratory benefits for dogs when baked into their treats or sprinkled on their food. The scientific evidence for that is scant to nil. What is known is that anise works on dogs like catnip works on cats. Websites recommend filling a stuffed toy with anise seeds or spraying it with anise oil.

Not a good idea. Though this supposed digestive aid and play-inducer may sound appealing, it can actually lead to gastrointestinal problems. The ASPCA warns that “if large amounts are ingested, gastrointestinal tract irritation and minor central nervous system depression can be seen in dogs.” The ASPCA’s website also recommends that “pet owners avoid offering their canine companions ‘people food’ when cooking and baking, due to the increased risk for GI upset.”

Aloe vera: Extracted from the leaf of a succulent plant, aloe vera is so ubiquitously found in personal care and nutrition products for people that it also seems a safe cure for almost anything that ails your dog. Some online sites recommend aloe vera gel’s direct application to your dog’s skin to relieve skin rashes and minor skin injuries. Web surfers may also read that several drops per pound of your dog's body weight mixed twice a day in his food may help with constipation. Because of its supposed ability to help move your dog’s bowels, it is also considered a good detoxifier. And as a gel or gel capsule, aloe vera is recommended to strengthen a dog’s immune system.

This herb however, contains saponins, chemical compounds that produce a soapy lather toxic to dogs. Dogs may react to ingestion of aloe vera with vomiting, a loss of appetite, lessened activity, diarrhea, and even tremors.

Chamomile: The calming, apple-scented blossoms of chamomile have been thought to reduce anxiety in dogs, whether served up at home as tea or purchased over-the-counter in powdered or liquid extract form and poured or sprinkled on your dog’s food. But chamomile poses a risk to some dogs because of its anticoagulant properties. It should not be given to dogs who are scheduled for surgery or to dogs whose blood does not clot sufficiently. Bleeding tendencies are also a risk after long-term use, even in dogs whose blood clots normally. The ASPCA says this daisy-like herb may also cause skin irritation, diarrhea, vomiting, allergic reactions, and loss of appetite.

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Tea made from chamomile may be soothing, but for dogs, it also presents serious health risks.

Lavender oil: The oils derived from the purple blossoms of lavender are a popular herbal remedy, serving as an anti-bacterial and natural nerve soother. Watered down, lavender oil may be used to wash a dog’s minor injuries, and its pleasant scent has been linked with a calming effect that helps mitigate anxiety in dogs. Indeed, a 2006 controlled experiment on 32 dogs with travel anxiety carried out by Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, concluded that dogs exposed to the scent of lavender managed travel with “significantly more time resting and sitting and less time moving and vocalizing.”

That said, lavender can prove toxic if ingested, leading to liver or kidney damage and, in the worse case scenario, death. And figuring out the proper dilution for safe topical use can be difficult. If you do apply lavender to your dog’s coat, take care that the oil doesn’t get into his mouth. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine lists lavender oil as a toxic compound that may be poisonous if taken orally.

In other words, as with treatments applied to the skin, toxicity needs to be kept in mind if your dog can lick off an herbal remedy either directly or by cleaning it off with repeated swipes of his freshly-licked paw. n

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