Bad teeth, red gums and smelly breath…periodontal disease affects at least half of all dogs and cats. These herbs (along with kelp!) can provide symptomatic relief while you work with your vet to restore your animal’s dental health.
Periodontal disease is extremely common in our dogs and cats. The right diet, along with regular veterinary checkups, can go a long way to helping prevent this problem — but if your dog or cat is like most pets, he may already has some level of dental disease. In this article, I will introduce you to a few of my favorite herbs (and an alga!) that help promote dental health. Just keep in mind that that these are symptomatic remedies, not cures, so be sure to also take a hard look at the food you’re giving your animal, and include an occasional raw bone to scrub off tartar and build healthy gleaming teeth.
For infections of the mouth, or as a preventative against gingivitis, a tincture (see sidebar below) or very strong tea of any of the following herbs can be applied directly to the gum lines or infected sites with a swab.
1. Myrrh (Commiphora molmol)
Myrrh is a reddish-brown dried sap from a thorny tree native to Africa and southwest Asia. Its uses as a powerful antiseptic agent date back to ancient Egypt, and it is still widely used today as an antibacterial ingredient in toothpastes, mouthwash formulas, and antiseptic gum preparations. Myrrh is very strong — only a few drops of the tincture are needed. If too much is swallowed, it may cause stomach upset and flatulence. For this reason, most of my myrrh formulations will include fennel seed extract (also antibacterial for the mouth), to help prevent flatulence and to freshen breath.
2. Oregon Grape (mahonia spp.)
The rhizomes and roots of Oregon grape are rich with a bright yellow and bitter alkaloid called berberine, a compound that has been extensively researched for its powerful antimicrobial properties. More than a few studies have shown berberine to be more effective than some forms of prescription antibiotics, including chloramphenicol, when used against various forms of Staphylococci, Escherichia coli (E-coli) and other gram negative-type bacteria.
Not only is berberine effective at knocking down most of the pathogens it’s bound to meet in the mouth, it has a unique ability to penetrate into mucous tissues, where various types of bacteria embed themselves. Oregon Grape extract is equally useful for the ears, eyes, and the mucous membranes of the vagina and urinary tract, where it combats various fungal infections as well.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) also contains berberine, as well as another alkaloid called hydrastine, which is equally effective in the mouth. However, goldenseal is much more bitter, making it harder to apply, and the plants are very close to becoming endangered in the wild, so I opt for Oregon grape instead.
3. Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Sage is an excellent remedy for infections or ulceration of the mouth, skin or digestive tract. Most of its antimicrobial activity is attributed to thujone, a volatile oil that is effective against Escherichia coli, Shigella sonnei, Salmonella species, Klebsiella ozanae, Bacillus subtillis and various fungi, namely Candida albicans, C. krusei, C. pseudotropicalis, Torulopsis glabrata and Cryptococcus neoformans.
In the mouth, a strong sage tea or tincture is useful for treating or preventing gingivitis, as well as infections secondary to injury or dental surgery. Sage can also be used as a simple poultice. Mix the dried herb with just enough water to form a thick paste which can then be rubbed onto infected gums. If you also have thyme in your kitchen spice cabinet, add some to your sage poultice for enhanced antimicrobial activity.. . It can also be used as simple poultice.
4. Thyme (Thymus spp.)
This common kitchen herb is also highly active against pathogenic bacteria in the mouth, making it a great addition to your pet’s dental health regimen. Its medicinal activity is generally attributed to its volatile oil constituents — thymol and carvacrol. Thymol is a very good antiseptic for the mouth and throat and is useful for fighting gingivitis in dogs and cats. In fact, it is used as the active ingredient in many commercial toothpaste and mouthwash formulas.
Kelp also helps promote dental health
Although technically not an herb but an alga, kelp (Ascophyllum nosodum, Laminaria and other species) has been long regarded as an excellent source of trace minerals for the teeth and the body, and it serves to reduce plaque as well. Until recently, studies substantiating the effectiveness of kelp against plaque could only reveal that it does work, but not why it works.
That is, until a 2012 study at Newcastle University in the UK found that Bacillus licheniformis, a bacteria that lives on the surface of kelp, is the hero here. When these bacteria are ingested and die, they produce a special amylase enzyme that destroys the biofilm that otherwise forms dental plaque. Kelp is very easy to feed; you only need to add ¼ to ½ teaspoon per day to your pet’s food. Results are usually seen within one month.
Adding the healing properties of these herbs (and of kelp!) to your dog or cat’s dental health protocol will help keep minimize discomfort while enhancing the health of his teeth and gums – and keep his breath sweeter!
Greg Tilford is CEO and formulator of Animal Essentials Inc., and an industry consultant and custom formulator for veterinarians worldwide. He is the author of five books, including Herbs for Pets, the Natural Way to Enhance your Pet’s Life. He has taught at veterinary institutions and conferences, including the annual AHVMA conference. Greg serves as honorary advisor to the Japan Animal Wellness Association for international pet care professionals. He is a charter member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the NASC. He founded the Animal Products Committee of the American Herbal Products Association and has served on Health Canada’s Expert Advisory Committee for Veterinary Natural Health Products.