Many cases of urinary tract infection, stones, or kidney failure can be attributed to chemical, microbial or immune system imbalances associated with deficiencies or excesses in the diet.

During the course of a lifetime, most animals will experience some kind of urinary tract discomfort. Surface infections at the urethral opening are quite common, and are typically caused when pathogenic bacteria or fungi find their way from the animal’s mouth or the environment to genital area. Localized redness, inflammation, and perhaps a burning sensation may encourage your dog or cat to lick incessantly for a few days. With a twice-daily gauze wipe of apple cider vinegar, the problem will likely disappear very quickly. However, not all urinary tract problems are minor. Chronic urinary tract disease is a leading cause of death among domestic dogs and cats, especially older animals.

Fortunately, most forms of urinary tract disease are preventable or treatable when addressed early on. The challenge is detecting the problem quickly. In some cases, an animal may let you know that she has a problem. Georgina’s cat, Maddie, for instance, never urinated outside her litter box. One Saturday morning, however, as Georgina was reading the newspaper on the floor, Maddie strode over, squatted, and urinated on the paper right in front of her human. Georgina could clearly see traces of blood in the urine and called the vet.

In not so obvious cases, successful early detection may depend on how well you know your animal and your animal’s behavior. You may notice your companion drinking more and urinating less, urinating in unusual places, or straining to pass urine. You may see an arched posture while walking, hesitation when jumping, or unusual body positioning while sleeping. You may find small amounts of blood or other discharge in the urine, or the urine may be dark or especially smelly. Your companion might be hypersensitive to touch: if you notice discomfort when you touch the lower abdomen or the immediate area, your companion may have an infection or inflammation of the bladder or kidneys. All of these signs warrant a prompt visit to the veterinarian.

Good urinary health maintenance begins with diet

Effective holistic treatment starts with a critical assessment of your animal’s diet. Many cases of urinary tract infection, stones, or kidney failure can be attributed to chemical, microbial, or immune system imbalances associated with deficiencies or excesses in the diet. A growing number of holistic practitioners believe that dry kibble cat foods may be a leading cause of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD). This belief warrants merit, especially when you consider the feline urinary system from a holistic perspective.

Cats, you see, are obligate carnivores, meaning their bodies are naturally designed to derive much of their required water from meat sources. Fresh meat is comprised of 70-85% water, and when a cat eats dry food continuously as a primary source of nutrition, changes in urine pH and concentration can occur. If the urine is too acidic or too alkaline, sharp mineral crystals can form in it, triggering inflammation and causing possible blockage of urinary tract passages. Likewise, metabolic waste materials created from digestion of poor quality pet food ingredients and chemical additives might lead to eventual damage of delicate tissue structures in the urinary tract.

Some manufacturers have formulated specialized commercial kibbles with lower amounts of protein but many holistic vets feel it is not the quantity of the protein but the quality and assimilation that is important. From a holistic standpoint, do we really wish to deprive a carnivore of needed protein, especially when the real goal is to improve protein metabolism so the kidneys and urinary tract are less encumbered by the waste products? Further, do we want to suppress the symptoms of a protein metabolism problem at the risk of inducing a state of malnutrition? The bottom line: prevention begins with good nutrition — animals that receive a balanced, natural food diet are far less likely to suffer from urinary system ailments.

Considering which herbs to use

Once you have critically assessed and adjusted an animal’s diet, you can consider herbs as an effective means to relieve discomfort and to assist in the natural healing process. Determination of exactly which herbs to use, proper dosage, and duration of herbal therapy will vary from animal to animal, and is best left up to an experienced veterinary herbalist. If you choose to pursue the use of urinary tract herbs without consulting a holistic pet care professional, you should first become familiar with the nature of the herbs, and how to best apply them to your specific animal. Whenever possible, use herbal products that are formulated specifically for your type of animal by a reputable veterinary herbalist. Read the manufacturer’s literature, and follow their label suggestions for proper dosing and use. With all of that said, several safe and effective herbs come to mind that can work effectively in your dog, cat, or even your bird.

Although each case of urinary tract disease is different, most involve inflammation of delicate membrane tissues. That’s why urinary tract herbs that have direct, anti-inflammatory effects in the urinary tract top my list of favorites.

By far, the most widely recognized herbal medicine in this category is cranberry juice. The tart, astringent nature of cranberry juice causes an immediate, contracting effect on mucous membranes. Because of this, cranberry, fed twice daily, might help reduce urinary tract inflammation in your dog or cat very quickly. Cranberry is also antibacterial, antioxidant (it’s high in vitamin C), and may help to temporarily acidify urine in the bladder. All of this makes cranberry especially useful in cases where elevated (alkaline) urine pH presents a problem. By bringing urine pH levels back down into normal range, the urinary tract environment is less favorable to reproduction of bacteria and in some instances, the formation of urinary stones. Remember, that most commercial brands of cranberry juice are full of sugar, and may not be appropriate for your companion. A better option may be a powder cranberry product that is designed specifically for use in your type of animal.

However, cranberry cannot inhibit all types of bacteria and fungi, and if the problem already includes acidic urine, you may want to consider another herb. Fortunately, there are many other choices for the herbalist to consider in the treatment of urinary inflammation. For example, the high tannin content of Uva-ursi leaf tea (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) makes this member of the Heath family even more astringent than cranberry juice so it often serves as a better choice in cases with minor bleeding in the urine. And, unlike cranberry juice, uva-ursi doesn’t acidify the urine, meaning that it is more appropriate for use in animals with low pH (high acid) urine. Plus, uva-ursi contains a natural chemical compound called arbutin, which, in a high-acid urinary tract, chemically transforms into a very effective antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medicine. However, the tannin constituents of Uva-ursi are too strong to use continuously for more than a couple of days, and animals with preexisting kidney disease should not use it all. Gentler alternatives include cornsilk (Zea mays), plantain leaf (Plantago spp.), or couchgrass (Agropyron repens), which are better suited for long term, general-purpose anti-inflammatory use in the urinary tract.

Demulcent herbs, which serve to protect, lubricate, and soothe inflamed tissues may prove useful, too, especially in cases where irritation is constantly aggravated by the presence of calculi (stones, crystals, or “gravel”) in the urine. My number one choice here, marshmallow root (Althea officinalis), contains an impressive amount of slippery, oily mucilage. A good quality, alcohol-free marshmallow root extract has a water soluble consistency similar to heavy gear oil, and it relieves pain associated with the passage of urinary calculi. Please remember, though, if you suspect that your animal has stones, see a vet — your companion’s condition could be quite serious.

Marshmallow also contains an assortment of antimicrobial and immune-stimulating compounds especially well suited to urinary tract applications in most types of domestic animals.

Administer herbal preparations on an empty stomach

Herbal teas and tinctures are usually the better forms of herbal preparations for treating urinary tract illness because they carry the medicinal plant compounds into the urine quickly and completely. All forms, including powders, capsules, Chinese herbs and liquids, should be fed on an empty stomach.

By paying close attention to your animal’s diet and being aware of the first subtle signs of discomfort, you may save your animal from a life of chronic urinary tract disease.

Previous articleUnderstanding your animal’s veterinary tests
Next articleGoing green with your dog
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.