Before there was modern medicine, there was herbal medicine. Herbs have been used since prehistoric times to treat nearly every malady a human could suffer. Although in Europe and the United States the use of herbal treatments has declined drastically over the past two centuries, herbal medicine never went away throughout the rest of the world and has even had a resurgence in Europe and the US in recent decades. According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that 80% of the world’s population still relies heavily upon herbal treatments. Some of the most commonly used herbs are ginkgo biloba (for circulation and enhancement of memory), St. John’s Wort (for mild to moderate depression), and saw palmetto (for prostate health). Another commonly used herb is echinacea.
So you might be wondering right now what the human use of herbal medicine has to do with dogs? Well, our pets play a much larger role in our lives than they used to. Your dog is probably a full member of the family, going on vacations with you, to some stores, and maybe even to work, rather than being treated as a smelly animal relegated to the backyard. We’re much more concerned about the health of our pets than we used to be. At the same time, our culture has opened once again to the value of herbal treatments for many illnesses and conditions. So it makes complete sense that we’d begin to ask, “Can I use herbs to treat my dog too?” Echinacea is a good place to start in answering that question.
What is Echinacea?
Echinacea is the name given to three related species of herbs that come from blue coneflowers. It has been used for hundreds of years to treat many conditions, but especially colds, flus, and other upper respiratory infections. Prior to the invention of antibiotics, echinacea was used in much the same way that we use antibiotics now. Echinacea does not actually have antibacterial properties, however. Current evidence in favor of echinacea shows it is effective because it can boost the immune system, enabling that system to fight bacterial infection more effectively. In other words, echinacea doesn’t fight the infection; it helps strengthen the body so the body can fight the infection. Some take echinacea in hopes of avoiding colds and flus, others use it once they are sick to fight off the infection. For humans, echinacea can be taken as a pill, a tea, a powder, or in a liquid extract.
Does Echinacea Actually Work?
As is the case with most herbal treatments, the answer to this question really depends on who you talk to. The fact that echinacea has been used for centuries gives historical credence to the claims about its efficacy. In addition, there is a great deal of evidence, mostly from German researchers, that has shown that echinacea can be effective in humans. However, studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine have stated that “echinacea preparations had no significant effect on rhinovirus infection [or symptoms], and there was no effect on the infection rate in the groups that received echinacea.” In response, herbalists have criticized that study, claiming that the researchers used 3x less echinacea than is recommended as being effective.
Herbalists make it very clear that echinacea’s effectiveness is dependent upon the dosage that is given, saying that most echinacea supplements suggest too low a dosage, and that it is dependent upon the form in which echinacea is taken. Many make the case that dried echinacea, which is used in pills, powders, and teas, has lost a great deal of its immune boosting properties. They advise that only liquid extracts made from fresh (undried) echinacea given at fairly high doses will be effective for boosting the immune system. Regardless of how effective echinacea is or is not for fighting the common cold, almost everyone agrees, however, that echinacea does not work as well as antibiotics for serious upper-respiratory infections. As confusing as this conflicting evidence is to help you determine whether echinacea is safe and worth your time and money for yourself, there is even less consensus on echinacea’s effectiveness for dogs because almost no research has been done in this area.
Should I Give Echinacea to My Dog?
While a few studies have been done on the efficacy of echinacea for dogs, they have lacked control groups and large sample sizes, causing their results to be easily disputed. Almost all evidence for echinacea being effective for dogs has been anecdotal--”My dog had a raspy cough and I gave him echinacea everyday for two weeks and he got better.” As with nearly every question about your dog’s health, it’s best to ask your dog’s veterinarian whether echinacea is a good idea for your dog.
There are two main reasons that some pet parents have given their dogs echinacea. The first reason is the same reason human beings generally take echinacea---upper respiratory infections. Echinacea, in various forms and dosages, has been added to the dog’s food in hopes of avoiding an upper-respiratory infection or after the onset to help fight it off. Again, almost no studies have been done to find if this works for dogs. The other reason some people have used echinacea with their dogs is as an ingredient in a topical salve to aid wound healing. This salve includes both echinacea and calendula, which comes from pot marigold flowers and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Again, the role of the echinacea is to boost the body’s immune system so that the body can fight the infection.
What Other Herbs Can I Give My Dog?
Echinacea is not the only herb that is sometimes given to dogs. It does, however, provide you with a good idea of the conflicting ways that herbal treatments are viewed in the veterinary community. Holistically-minded pet parents have given their dogs chamomile (for anxiety), flaxseed (for dull coat, constipation), milk thistle (for liver disease), peppermint (for upset stomach), turmeric (for arthritis inflammation), and many other herbs that have been deemed safe for dogs. But whether echinacea and other herbs, while many are safe for canine consumption, actually have any medical benefits, is very much up in the air. So ask your dog’s vet about it. If your vet is very closed-minded toward holistic treatments, use the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association’s website to find a holistically-minded vet in your area that can help you determine not only what is safe for your dog, but what will actually help your furry friend to get to feeling better.