From allergies to liver deficiency, many things can cause itchy inflamed skin in our pets. Find how out how these skin-soothing herbs can help ease your dog or cat’s discomfort while you get to the root of the problem.
It stands to reason that your dog or cat’s skin (as well as your own!) will become damaged or compromised at some point. After all, the skin is the first line of defense against attack from external substances. Skin problems in pets have many causes, including allergies and liver issues, but a variety of herbs can help your dog or cat feel more comfortable when his skin is inflamed, itchy and sore.
Not just skin deep
While causes of acute-onset skin issues such as insect bites or sunburn are obvious and can be dealt with directly, most other forms of skin and coat disease are caused by deeper issues that can be very difficult to identify and address. Chronic or recurring skin conditions that cannot be attributed to influences outside the body usually point to deeper health issues, some of which can be serious or even life-threatening.
So the greatest mistake we can make when assessing a skin problem is by assuming the problem is only skin deep. And while topical salves, liniments, shampoos or lotions can be quite effective at temporarily suppressing itching and pain, they will not likely address the root causes of your dog or cat’s skin problem. For that, we must approach the issue from the inside out with diet – and several key herbs.
Start with diet
Many if not most cases of chronic skin issues in dogs and cats are either directly attributable to or strongly influenced by inappropriate ingredients in pet food and the allergies they produce. Be critical about the quality of the foods you feed your animal, avoiding those that contain meat meal, digest, by-products, artificial flavors and preservatives, and weeding out all grains, especially wheat and corn.
You should also feed your animal a good fish or krill oil supplement. The Omega-3 fatty acids in these marine lipids play critical roles in regulating the immune system’s inflammatory response to allergens. More specifically, Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit inflammation, whereas Omega-6s (typically found in grains and vegetable oils) serve to stimulate inflammation. Both processes are necessary for healthy body functioning, but an imbalance in favor of too much Omega-6 sets the stage for skin allergies, a dull coat, and excessive shedding.
Liver support is important
Liver deficiency is another common factor to consider. The liver is responsible for producing the digestive enzymes and acids needed to break down and assimilate food, while also filtering waste from the bloodstream, making it the most overworked organ in the body.
If the liver is deficient in any of these functions, excess waste that cannot be eliminated via the normal pathways will wreak havoc on the body in many ways, but will often manifest as “a skin condition”. If this is the case, the symptoms we commonly recognize as pyoderma, eczema or psoriasis will increase as the body resorts to extraordinary measures to eliminate the waste, pushing the toxins outward, away from vital internal organs to the skin.
So in addition to dietary adjustments, liver support is indicated when it comes to skin problems, and this where herbs come in.
5 herbs for liver support
1. Burdock root (Arctium lappa)
This is my favorite herb for long-term use in these cases. Also known as “Gobo” in Asian markets and restaurants, burdock root has an ancient history as a skin remedy. It contains inulin, an indigestible polysaccharide constituent that serves as a prebiotic, feeding beneficial microflora in the gut and thereby improving digestion.
Inulin is unique in its ability to pass through the stomach undigested. When it reaches the intestinal tract, it ferments, feeding and stimulating the reproduction of beneficial bacteria that reside there.
Burdock also contains a broad variety of compounds that gently stimulate the liver at various levels, to help “detoxify” the body and aid in transporting waste out of the bloodstream. Burdock can be accessed as a tincture, or as a fresh root, available at many health food markets. Application of the fresh root is as easy – just grate it liberally onto your animal’s favorite food at each mealtime. Burdock is fairly neutral in flavor and very safe— there is no need to worry about overfeeding.
Dandelion is another herb to consider. The roots and leaves of this ubiquitous little weed are highly nutritious, and contain a complex assortment of liver-supporting compounds as well as diuretic properties that aid the body in eliminating toxins via urination.
3. Red clover (Trifolium pretense), alfalfa and milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
These are well-known “blood cleansers” worth considering. For a formula that contains a balanced array of all these herbs, consider Animal Essentials Detox formula.
Relieving the itch with herbal astringents
The benefits of good food and proper supplementation usually take a few weeks to manifest. This might not be fast enough for your itchy tormented companion, so while you continue treating him from the inside out with diet and liver-supportive herbs, you can employ topical remedies to relieve his misery.
One of the quickest ways to reduce skin inflammation and itchiness is by using herbal astringents. They work their magic by quickly tightening skin and subcutaneous tissue, thereby reducing inflammation and redness.
1. Witch hazel
Witch hazel extract is a classic example of an herbal astringent. It can be purchased in a clear liquid distilled form at any drugstore. It is, in fact, the primary active ingredient in many commercial hemorrhoid ointments, as it reduces inflamed membranes very quickly. A dab or two of witch hazel applied with a cotton ball can work wonders against angry flea or mosquito bites.
Before you run to the local drugstore for some witch hazel, however, it is important to know that most products are made with isopropyl alcohol, which is quite toxic if ingested in large enough amounts. Therefore, this extract should be reserved for situations in which only a few dabs are needed (i.e. don’t rinse your dog with it!). Better yet, look for witch hazel extract made with ethanol (grain alcohol) or vegetable glycerin, an edible palm oil derivative used in natural soaps and cosmetics for its emollient skin-soothing qualities.
2. Aloe vera
Aloe is another excellent astringent and also has antibacterial properties. Aloe gel works especially well when spot-applied directly to red oozing hot spots or insect bites. However, unless combined with an emollient, the drying and tightening properties of aloe vera may in some cases further exacerbate the misery of dry chapped skin.
Calendula is another trusted ally for the skin. These beautiful little “marigold” flowers are easy to grow or can be purchased in dry bulk form at your local natural products retailer. Cooled calendula tea, liberally applied to your animal’s skin and coat, will bring fast relief to itchy inflamed skin, and accelerate the healing of open sores. To make a soothing skin rinse, simply infuse two to four tablespoons of dried calendula flowers into a quart of near-boiling water. Allow the tea to cool completely, then drench your companion with it, allowing him to drip dry.
Just remember, chronic skin issues are almost never only skin deep. While you’re looking into your dog or cat’s diet, these herbs can be infinitely useful for bringing lasting relief to his inflamed and itchy skin.
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.