Keeping your allergic dog or cat itch-free can be done with herbs ranging from ashwaganda and astragalus to dandelion and Echinacea.
Allergies in dogs and cats can be triggered by either environmental pathogens or foods. In this article, I will focus on Western herbs for environmental allergens since it is almost impossible to remove these irritants. Environmental allergens include trees, plants, grasses, other animals, molds and mites.
Allergies are hard on the immune system; because they are a chronic disease, the immune system never gets a break. The immune system is comprised of two parts: the innate (ancestral) system and the adaptive (specific) system. The adaptive part is the one that causes allergies: it clears all environmental pathogens. Allergies are an over-activated immune system and an allergic response is an overreaction to a substance, leading to chronic inflammation.
I am primarily an herbalist, so I use Western herbs to support the immune system and prevent allergies. “Herbal medicines reportedly affect cytokine secretion, histamine release, immunoglobulin secretion and class switching, cellular co-receptor expression, lymphocyte proliferation, and cytotoxic activity,” writes NIH AIDS researcher Susan Plaeger in a “Guest Commentary” in Immunology and Herbs.
One of my favorite classes of herbs for immune support is the adaptogens. Adaptogenic herbs are safe for long term use, increase resistance to allergens, and work whether there is immunocompromised or overstimulation, as with allergies. Here are three of my favorite adaptogens.
- Siberian ginseng (also known as Eleuthero, Eleuterococcus senticosus) is known for its ability to increase resistance to all stressors. One of the many ways it does this is by supporting and enhancing the immune system. There are many studies in which Siberian ginseng prevented people from getting common diseases. It is known as a preventive rather than a curative herb. It helps prevent the symptoms and secondary infections often associated with allergies.
- Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) is another good adaptogen. It is immune-modulating, restorative for chronic illnesses such as allergies, and a tonic for the adrenals. It is especially indicated for the geriatric population, who have a harder time mounting an immune response under the best of circumstances.
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) is similar to ashwaganda, but for the young instead of the old. It increases energy and resistance to disease, and strengthens and stimulates the immune system. Unlike Siberian ginseng, which is more preventive, astragalus can both prevent and treat infections, so it is a great adaptogen for animals whose allergies have progressed to dermatitis or otitis.
Another class of herbs I find very beneficial for allergies are alteratives (not to be confused with the word “alternatives”). They’re blood cleansers. According to Rosemary Gladstar in The Science and Art of Herbalism: A Home-Study Course, alteratives are “agents that gradually and favorably alter the condition of the blood. They aid the body in assimilating nutrients and eliminating metabolic waste products.” Since toxins are primarily cleared from the blood in the liver and kidneys, more alteratives have liver or kidney effects.
- Burdock (Arctium lappa) is an herb that I put in almost every formula I made. Not only is it an alterative, but it’s a food herb (gobo), so it is nourishing, cleansing and supports the liver and kidneys. According to Andrew Chevallier in The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, “Burdock is one of the foremost detoxifying herbs…used to treat conditions cause by an ‘overload’ of toxins, such as…chronic skin problems.”
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is also excellent for flushing the liver and kidneys. The root is thought to be more cleansing to the liver, while the leaves are considered more diuretic. The concern with allopathic diuretics is potassium loss, but nature provided plenty of potassium in dandelion leaves. Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal states that dandelion is “one of the great tonic herbs of all time.”
- Nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of my favorite herbs ever. It is a good herb for treating allergies. David Hoffman states in Medical Herbalism that nettle “strengthens and supports the whole body. Throughout Europe, nettle is used as a spring tonic and general detoxifying remedy.” Both my cats and dogs love “nettle eggs”, always some variation of an omelette with nettles, mushrooms, garlic and cheese.
- Cleavers (Galium aparine) is another alterative not to be forgotten. It’s a diuretic and lymphatic, so it helps to clear allergens and other toxins out of the lymphatic system. Unlike many herbs, which can be dried and have their medicinal properties extracted by water, alcohol or some other menstruum, cleavers are usually used as a fresh juice and can be eaten as a green.
Whenever allergies flare, I use nutrition (whole foods are vitally important to good health), supplements and herbs to keep the animal comfortable and healthy until the allergen has waned in the environment. I use a combination of adaptogens, alteratives and dermatologic herbs tailored to the individual patient. One dog named Riley loved his combination so much that he sat and begged for it! As I have found with Riley and many other animals, good herbal treatment and whole foods can boost immunity and help completely resolve environmental allergies.
Specific dermatology herbs
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) is known as an antimicrobial herb, but it does so much more. It is an immune stimulant (this is how it fights microbes), but it can also fight allergens this way. It is also an anti-inflammatory and a mild detoxifier. Chevallier states that “Echinacea is one of the world’s most important medicinal herbs. Research shows that it has the ability to raise the body’s resistance…by stimulating the immune system. Echinacea…helps to relieve skin allergies, and it has been used for centuries to clear skin infections.” Unlike adaptogens and alteratives, Echinacea is not good for long-term use. There is debate about its safety long-term, but there is no debate that it loses its efficacy over time, and should therefore be pulsed (two weeks on, two weeks off).
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is another herb that cannot be used long-term, due to its adrenal effects. However, it is an anti-inflammatory and soothing herb, as well as being healing and detoxifying to the liver. Its adrenal effects make licorice good for allergies: it is nature’s hydrocortisone. The adrenal support also helps the body deal with the stress the allergens put on the entire system. In one study (“The treatment of atopic dermatitis with licorice gel” by M. Saeedi, K. Morteza-Semnani and M. Ghoreishi, published in a 2003 issue of the Journal of Dermatological Treatment), “the results showed that licorice extract could be considered as an effective agent for treatment of atopic dermatitis.”
Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium), native to the Pacific Northwest, is specific to chronic skin conditions. It is also an alterative, a stimulant and a tonic to the liver and gallbladder. Despite its berberine content, Oregon grape root is considered a very safe herb. Veterinarians Dr. Susan Wynn and Dr. Barbara Fougere recommend it for both skin and ear infections.