by Mary Boughton, MBE of Dorwest Herbs

Chairman of the National Office of Animal Health’s Companion Animal Sub-committee

Member of the British Herbal Medicine Association's Veterinary Committee


In these days of green consumerism and environmental awareness, anything natural has come to be perceived as good and by implication safe for people, animals and the environment. But how many times does one hear someone make the mistake of assuming that because something is natural it must be good and also be safe ? It is of course a common fallacy but one which is widely held. Many of the most toxic and dangerous substances known to man are natural but they are by no means accepted as being safe. Arsenic and lead from the mineral kingdom and yew berries, death cap mushrooms and foxgloves from the plant world are all good examples of this, being natural and toxic. However, many very common substances can be toxic when taken to excess; alcohol, coffee and even water will kill if large enough quantities are consumed.


So are all natural treatments safe and should we be giving them to our animals ?



Let’s look at herbal medicine first as it is the oldest form of medicine. Plants used medicinally are commonly referred to as herbs and the general supposition is that they are all safe. Certainly those available for general sale are accepted as having beneficial effects and very few side effects, whereas others such as digitalis or opium poppy are strictly controlled under the poisons regulations. Nevertheless over 80% of conventional medicines have been derived from plant compounds. Most herbal medicines licensed for animal treatment are used for chronic or non-life threatening conditions such as arthritis, skin conditions, travel sickness, anxiety etc. but some licensed herbal medicines are used in the treatment of more severe conditions such as epilepsy. Herbal medicines are now widely used in veterinary practice alongside conventional medicines and are a very useful form of treatment.

They have very few side effects or adverse reactions, which is something of great concern to owners and offer a holistic approach by working in harmony with the whole system to deal with the root cause of the problem rather than purely alleviating the symptoms.


It is important that any medication given to animals, natural or otherwise, is appropriate for it and this means that it must have been formulated for that species of animal and have withstood the test of time - a long time in the case of herbal medicine which has been used for centuries by all civilizations. Some people mistakenly think it is good to give their animals medicines or supplements that have been formulated and manufactured for the treatment of people, without considering the possible consequences of this. They believe that "if it's pure enough for me it must be the best possible for my dog or cat". This is a totally and potentially dangerous belief and can have dire consequences. For example, the most widely used human medicine, aspirin, is fatal if given to cats. Yet many people continue to give human medicines and supplements to their animals convinced that they are giving them the best. The digestive system and metabolism of domestic pets is totally different from our own, the life span is shorter and their medication needs to reflect these differences. Unfortunately some manufacturers who are inexperienced in animal nutrition and treatments actually perpetuate this myth by using this 'human quality' tag to endorse their products. Always use a licensed herbal medicine if you can as this will have been properly evaluated and many veterinary practices now use them and also sell them in their waiting rooms.

There are under 30 licensed herbal veterinary medicines in the UK and these are manufactured by just a few companies, who have been specialising in herbal medicines for many years. The major manufacturers have advisory services either by telephone or through their stands at dog and cat shows so that product information, assistance and advice on the use of these medicines is always available from trained and experienced personnel. There are virtually no authoritative books on herbal medicines for animals although I have recently published a brief guide called ‘Herbal Medicines foo Dogs’ other holistic treatments do touch on the subject.




This is a complete system of medicine that aims to promote general health, by reinforcing the body’s capacity to heal itself. It works on the principle of “like cures like” and the remedies are made from a tincture obtained from plant, mineral or animal sources. Homœopathy is often confused with herbal medicine but the two disciplines are entirely different – herbal medicine involves the taking of a plant, or part of a plant, which has a direct physiological effect on the body whereas homœopathy uses greatly diluted amounts of a substance which if given in large doses would cause the symptoms that the patient is suffering from. At these great dilutions however it promotes the body’s ability to heal itself. There are two basic ways in which dilutions are described, the X or decimal scale and the C or centesimal scale, which is the classical scale used by Samuel Hahnemann who was the founder of homœopathy. All you need to remember in order to compare the two scales is that a 6C is equivalent to a 12X, a 15C to a 30X and so on. The strengths, or potencies, seem unusual to understand at first as the more diluted the 'mother tincture' from which the remedy is prepared, the stronger the effect. So a 1C remedy is the least potent and a 30C is the strongest and the highest normally available for self-administration. The higher the potency the quicker and deeper its reaction.

The remedies should ideally not be touched by the hand, as this may effect the remedy, and neither should they be given within 15 minutes of food if possible. Dispensers are designed to enable the tiny sucrose tablets or pillules to be administered straight into the mouth of the animal without being touched. In the past, some homœopaths advised that the remedies should not be given with strong smelling food or medicines, such as garlic.

However today's foremost homoeopathic vets confirm that that there is no need to discontinue giving garlic or any other strong smelling foods while also giving homoeopathic remedies, indeed herbal medicines work well alongside homœopathy.

The following books are an excellent source of easy to understand information on this subject:-

"People are Pets" by Francis Hunter, MRCVS, VETFFHom and Steven Kaye, PhD, MRPharmS

"Homoeopathic First Aid for Pets" by Christopher Day, MRCVS, VetFFHom.




The use of essential oils has become very popular in recent years and can be very beneficial to our animals as well as ourselves. The oils are mixed with a carrier oil, usually sweet almond oil, and are mainly absorbed through the skin or diffused in the air. Oils are often used in conjunction with massage for soothing muscles but can also have a beneficial affect on pain and inflammation. Many affect the animal’s temperament by either aiding relaxation or stimulating the system, depending on the particular oil used. Some oils should only be used by those properly trained in aromatherapy, others need to be diluted before use, so always make sure that you use extreme care and stick to the basic aromatherapy oils which can be safely used on your dog or cat. Some volatile oils can be dangerous for animals with certain conditions such as epilepsy, or during pregnancy so always make sure that you check the oil’s properties before using it. The most commonly used oils which are perfectly save to use on all animals are Lavender and Chamomile but you should refer to books on the subject before trying any others. Remember to always buy the best quality oil that you can afford as a high quality oil will always be more effective.

A useful book for those wanting to know more on this subject is “Veterinary Aromatherapy” by Nelly Grosjean, publoished by C W Daniel Co Ltd



Many holistic vets use and offer acupuncture treatment and orthodox ones are increasingly doing so also. It is a form of medicine that has an affinity with homœopathy as they both work on an energy or dynamic plane to treat the body. In acupuncture the energy of the body is considered to flow along pathways throughout the body and these are called meridians. It originated in the Far East and involves the insertion of fine acupuncture needles along these meridians in the body to stimulate or slow down the energy flow. It should only be carried out by a properly qualified person and when used on animals may only be done in conjunction with a vet or upon veterinary referral. It has proved to be particularly useful for pain relief but can help with a wide variety of conditions.




To return to the 'natural' theme and what is and isn’t safe and proven to help your dog or cat. Herbal medicines that are licensed for animals are safe to use, have minimal side effects and are effective in their actions. Their licensed status confirms this. The other forms of therapy are generally unregulated with regard to their use in animals, with the exception of homœopathy which has a registration system. The many products sold as supplements are not designed to be used as treatments but just as additions to the diet. Always bear in mind that anything that you give to your dog or cat should have been formulated especially for them, manufactured by a reputable company, and given in the recommended quantities. Only give human medicines and supplements to your pet after consultation with your vet and always purchase from a reputable company to assure a high quality product.

By using your commonsense and being discerning in your choice, you can safely use complementary therapies for your animals where this is appropriate, but they should not take the place of proper veterinary advice when this is required and acupuncture should only be carried out under veterinary supervision. Together with good quality food they can all make an important contribution to your pets condition and well-being. They give the benefit of the oldest forms of treatment, and upon which much modern medicine has been based. It may be natural but by following sensible guidelines it is also safe !