Allergies can cause your canine companion to scratch himself silly. These herbal solution will help ease the itching and discomfort.
It’s rough being a dog with allergies. Scratching, chewing and licking…a little break, then it starts all over again. It’s a common cycle that’s not only hard on your dog but distressing to you too, especially when you see him inflict injury on his skin or develop infections. Cats also suffer from allergic skin disease – it might not be as obvious, but bald patches, intense licking, and scabs around the head or back are clues.
From a holistic viewpoint, skin allergies usually start from an internal problem that involves the gut and immune system. The gut is like an internal skin, and if it’s not healthy, then it’s likely the outer skin will be unhealthy too. If you want a quick fix, then drugs will do it, at least for a while; but if you want long-term skin health, consult with a veterinary herbalist, holistic veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist who can address the underlying causes of your animal’s allergies and put together a treatment plan. In the meantime, what can you do to alleviate the itch and make him more comfortable? These simple herbal solutions can really help until you and your vet are able to resolve his allergies.
For topical use
• In the case of severe scratching, a bath can help calm and cool the skin. An oatmeal bath has therapeutic properties. Place ½ to 1 cup oatmeal into a sock or stocking and squeeze it into water. The water should go a milky color. Soak your dog for ten minutes to soothe and calm his skin. Three drops of lavender oil can also be added to the bath water. Rinse your dog thoroughly in lukewarm water.
• Cucumber slices applied to intensely localized inflamed areas will help cool the skin – and provide lots of antioxidants if your dog eats them!
• Aloe vera gel (from the inside of the leaf) can be applied directly to the dog’s skin and is both cooling and anti-inflammatory. Again, if it’s licked or ingested, it’s no problem.
• Calendula can be made into an infusion, put into a pump pack and sprayed on irritated areas. (Cats don’t like sprays because it sounds a bit like hissing.)
• For itchy feet, soak in Epsom salts in cool water for five to ten minutes. Apply plantain gel, or a plantain or calendula infusion, to the red inflamed skin between the toes.
• Use German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) as a 2% cream instead of hydrocortisone to reduce inflammation. Chamomile tea can also be used as a fresh infusion for dermatitis. Avoid chamomile in dogs that are sensitive to daisies, ragweed or chrysanthemums.
• Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) contains essential oils that are antiseptic, antifungal and antioxidant. Make an infusion using fresh or dried thymes and apply to mild skin infections or where yeast commonly occurs (around the lip folds and underneath the tail).
• Peppermint (Mentha piperita) relieves pain and itching and is antifungal and antibacterial. It is suitable as an infusion for intense scratching or painful hotspots. Make peppermint tea (an infusion), cool it and apply as a fi nal rinse.
• Avoid olive oil on the skin, as this can enhance the growth of yeast (Malassezia).
• Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) reduces redness and has potent antioxidant activity. Applied twice daily as a cream or spray, it can improve allergic dermatitis and has a mild pain-relieving effect. Witch hazel is best for moist, oozing rashes rather than dry skin problems.
• Products containing chickweed gel are useful for hot and itchy skin; nettle is good for red, hot, weeping skin and eczema.
• Echinacea (Echinacea sp) has wound-healing, immune-modulating, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activity when applied externally. It can be applied as an infusion, or diluted as an ethanol extract in water.
• Take special care with tea tree oil, which is commonly advocated for fungal infections and itchy skin. Only use products that are registered for use on animals and are properly diluted.
One of the best herbs to use topically on cats is calendula. Make an infusion as follows. Buy organic, very orange or yellow calendula flower heads. Take a heaped teaspoon and make a cup of tea using hot “just off the boil” water. Cover the teacup with a saucer to keep the volatile oils in the tea, and allow it to cool – only apply cool infusions to an animal’s skin. Use the slightly orange/yellow water as a topical tea and apply to affected areas. This can be done twice daily (use the same tea for up to two days, then make a fresh batch). The spent flowers can be wrapped in a tissue and applied as a compress to a local area of inflammation.
For internal use
If your animal has been taking prednisolone-type medications or has just finished a course of corticosteroids, consider giving him the following herbs as teas or tinctures.
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) increases the antiinflammatory effects of corticosteroids and reduces histamine release. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it helps tonify the Spleen (aids digestion) and clears Heat. It can be given to aid the withdrawal of corticosteroid drugs and to extend the effects of steroid drugs. Do not use licorice for more than three weeks unless under the supervision of a veterinarian – certain types might have side effects. Avoid it if the animal has high blood pressure.
Suggested dose: 0.5 ml per 30 lb daily. Add to food.
St Mary’s thistle or milk thistle (Silybum marianum) scavenges free radicals, protects liver cells from being injured by steroids, and assists in restoring the liver following steroid use. It has potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and liver-protective properties.
Suggested dose: 1 ml per 20 lb daily.
Bupleurum (Bupleurum falcatum) is a Chinese herb useful for chronic skin disorders; it has both anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating activities. It can cause a sedative effect in some patients. and increased bowel movements and flatulence in larger doses.
Suggested dose: 1 ml per 20 lb of 1:2 liquid extract, to help reduce the dose of corticosteroids or as an alternative to corticosteroids.
Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa) is anti-inflammatory, supports the adrenal gland, and can protect against the suppressive effects of corticosteroid medication. It has no adverse effects if used properly.
Dose suggested: 2 ml per 20 lb 1:2 liquid extract.
Nine times out of ten, hot spots are triggered by fl ea bites; they are the result of an intense reaction to fl ea saliva followed by self-trauma and secondary infection to the area. Flea control is critical in preventing hot spots. They can also indicate an underlying reaction to food or inhaled allergens such as pollen and dust mites.
1. For simple hotspots, trim the hair around the area. If this is difficult or painful for your dog, take him to your veterinarian.
2. The area needs to be cleaned using salty water or the calendula infusion mentioned in this article. If you don’t have calendula, then a green tea infusion can settle the inflammation nicely.
3. An oatmeal compress can be applied to the area. Stir ½ cup of rolled oats into one cup of lukewarm water until moisture is absorbed. Drain excess water. Place oats between layers of gauze or muslin, tying the oatmeal in so that your dog is not covered in porridge! Apply the poultice for ten to 15 minutes. The oatmeal is soothing and healing. Rinse with lukewarm water and pat the area dry.
4. You can then consider the topical treatments outlined in the article using aloe vera gel, calendula tea, green tea or witch hazel lotion spray.
If the hot spot does not look noticeably better overnight, you will need to seek veterinary attention. Corticosteroids and antibiotics work very quickly to provide relief, and might be needed to alleviate the terrible suffering hot spots can cause – but you might be able to avoid drugs if you get onto the problem quickly.
Other useful herbs include:
• Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica, Urtica urens) is an anti-inflammatory traditionally used as a “blood purifier” for the treatment of chronic skin eruptions. It can be used for eczema and other skin conditions.
• Burdock root (Articum lappa) is good for dermatitis. Inulin, the main active ingredient, modifies the inflammatory process; burdock also offers direct antimicrobial activity against staphylococcus infections.
• Evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis) is anti-inflammatory. It may also be beneficial in atopic dogs and those with autoimmune skin disease. Long-term treatment appears to be safe.
• Cleavers, yellow dock and red clover are also good for detoxification and skin support.
Herbs have a lot to offer when it comes to easing your dog or cat’s allergies. Used properly, with the guidance of a holistic vet or veterinary herbalist, they can calm his itching, soothe his skin, and help him heal.
Dr. Fougere graduated in 1986 from Murdoch School of Veterinary School Western Australia and practices integrative medicine in Sydney. She holds Masters degrees in herbal medicine, education and training, and a Bachelor degree in complementary medicine. She was named the AHVMA Practitioner of the Year in 2010 and Educator of the Year for 2011. Dr. Fougere is one of the founders and on the faculty of the College of Integrative Veterinary Therapies. She has served on the board of many Australian veterinary organizations, the AHVMA, VBMA, IVAS She is currently the chairperson of the College of Veterinary Botanical Medicine. She is the author of several books and co-author of more. She travels the world teaching and speaking to veterinarians about holistic modalities.