Incorporating herbal and plant-based medicines into veterinary practice: enhancing care in a busy clinic - Veterinary Practice
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Incorporating herbal and plant-based medicines into veterinary practice: enhancing care in a busy clinic

By focusing on education, streamlining your inventory and effectively using what’s already on the shelf, veterinarians can seamlessly integrate herbal medicine into their busy practices

The "ABCs" of veterinary herbal and plant-based medicine: 3 of 3

Learning about the uses of herbs in veterinary medicine is not just adding another tool to your practice but opening a whole new toolbox. Incorporating herbal medicine into veterinary practice is a way of filling in many of the gaps in the medications and treatments that are currently available – gaps you may not even have even realised were there. Herbal medicine allows for a much more well-rounded approach to treatments using generally safe products with very few side effects.

Herbs should be tailored to the individual animal to obtain the most benefits, something we will cover in more detail in our next article. There are, however, many ways that herbs can be quickly added to the shelves of a busy practice. This article discusses practical strategies for incorporating herbs into a busy veterinary practice, emphasising the use of readily available herbal products.

The growing interest in herbal medicine

Pet owners are becoming more informed and proactive about their pets’ health, often seeking natural therapies to complement conventional treatments. Herbs provide a wide array of therapeutic benefits, including anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antimicrobial and calming effects. Integrating these into veterinary care can enhance treatment outcomes, improve patient well-being and cater to the preferences of a more holistic-minded clientele. By understanding your clients’ preferences and having a better knowledge of the plant-based options, you can have a better discussion about the best time to incorporate complementary treatments.

Integrating these into veterinary care can enhance treatment outcomes, improve patient well-being and cater to the preferences of a more holistic-minded clientele

How to make herbal medicine work in a busy practice

Incorporating herbs into a busy veterinary practice requires knowledge and education on the available options, so educating the veterinary team about the benefits, uses and contraindications of various herbs is an important first step. (Continuing education courses and webinars on veterinary herbal medicine can be beneficial.) A knowledgeable team can confidently recommend and use herbal treatments.

Start with a selection of versatile and commonly used herbs; having a focused inventory simplifies management and ensures that the herbs are used before their use-by date while also increasing your and your team’s confidence with a small number of products. Essential herbs like chamomile, milk thistle, valerian, calendula and dandelion root are good starting points due to their broad and straightforward applications. As confidence grows, further herbs can be added.

Having a focused inventory simplifies management and ensures that the herbs are used before their use-by date while also increasing your and your team’s confidence with a small number of products

Develop standard protocols for the use of specific herbs in various conditions. This ensures consistency and safety in treatment. For example, a protocol for using dandelion root in cases of inappetence and gut stasis in rabbits or milk thistle for cases of liver damage can guide the team in making quick, informed decisions.

Where to start with herbal medicine in veterinary practice: use what’s already on the shelf

Many practices already stock some herbal products either as standalone items or as part of nutraceuticals. Here are some examples of being able to quickly add herbs into your day!

Many practices already stock some herbal products either as standalone items or as part of nutraceuticals

Milk thistle

Milk thistle is commonly found in hepatic support supplements and is renowned for its liver-protective effects. Although it is reduced to one of its active components, silymarin or silybinin, using the whole herb gives a more broad-spectrum, or synergistic, action.

FIGURE (1) Milk thistle

Try incorporating it into treatment plans for pets with liver disease or those on long-term medications that could impact liver function, such as phenobarbitone, corticosteroids and even some non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Raised liver enzymes without any other evidence of disease is a common presentation where milk thistle can be used. There is also good evidence to support its use in acute toxicities or poisonings; this should be started as soon as possible to help prevent liver damage.

There is also some evidence that it can help prevent acute renal damage from certain medications. As we currently have little else on the shelf for these cases, milk thistle can prove invaluable.

Boswellia

Boswellia is an anti-inflammatory herb now found in several over-the-counter supplements. It is particularly useful for animals with musculoskeletal pain. Better tolerated and somewhat safer than turmeric, it is a useful adjunct to medications in animals with osteoarthritis.

FIGURE (2) Boswellia

Chamomile

Although it may not be on the medicine shelf, chamomile is often found in the tea cupboard! Known for its calming properties, chamomile is actually incredibly versatile and can be used to manage gastrointestinal disturbances, treat skin conditions and assist with mild anxiety.

Offering good-quality organic tea to dogs with acute intestinal upsets can help reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract and speed recovery. Chamomile is well tolerated and easily accessible to clients, even out of hours! The tea’s combined antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and wound-healing effects also make it very useful when used topically. Chamomile tea can soothe red inflamed skin, which can help when cleaning feet with atopic dermatitis, bathing eyes with conjunctivitis and cleaning areas of skin irritation, for example.

FIGURE (3) Chamomile

Calendula

FIGURE (4) Calendula

Another herb that is useful for treating skin conditions is calendula, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial (including anti-fungal) properties when used topically. The resins in the herb are astringent and particularly good for drying out wet, oozing areas of inflammation. Using this to clean areas of pyoderma, lip fold dermatitis and even some wet otitis cases can reduce the requirement for antibiotics.

Dandelion

Dandelion root tincture is not as easily available but can be obtained from suppliers to herbal practitioners. This tincture is mentioned here because it is generally safe, easy to dose and very useful for those seeing any rabbits in practice.

FIGURE (5) Dandelion

Dandelion root helps to gently stimulate appetite and is easily combined with food that is being syringe fed. It can be given post-surgery to increase eating, as well as in cases of non-surgical gastrointestinal stasis alongside the conventional medical routine and can significantly reduce the recurrence of symptoms in rabbits affected by gastrointestinal stasis. 

Valerian

Valerian is found most notably in Pet Remedy spray. The smell is very recognisable – you either love it or hate it! However, most cats find the smell calming and anxiolytic. In some cases, the spray can be sufficient, but an oral tincture can give better, longer-lasting results.

The use of anxiolytics in cats is almost universally beneficial, particularly when there are obvious symptoms of stress. These can include behaviour issues as well as feline interstitial cystitis and stress-related gastrointestinal problems.

FIGURE (6) Valerian

Slippery elm and marshmallow root

Slippery elm is quite well known as a useful prebiotic powder that can be helpful in acute and chronic intestinal diseases. However, it is a tree coming under increasing threat from over-harvesting, so sustainable sourcing is essential.

FIGURE (7) Marshmallow

A good alternative is marshmallow root, which is also very high in polysaccharides that coat and protect an inflamed gastrointestinal tract. This can be useful in mild cases of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease or alongside medications that can trigger mild abdominal discomfort, as well as acute diarrhoea and chronic constipation.

Herbal combinations

With a bit more specialised knowledge some basic herbal combinations can be pre-made, ready to be dispensed. A popular one is a kennel cough mix: a combination of anti-inflammatory liquorice, antimicrobial thyme, soothing and expectorant marshmallow and immune-enhancing echinacea. This combination helps shorten coughing episodes and allows veterinary professionals to dispense a product to clients instead of antibiotics.

Final thoughts

By focusing on education, streamlining your inventory and effectively using what’s already on the shelf, veterinarians can seamlessly integrate herbal medicine into their busy practices

Incorporating herbs into veterinary practice offers a complementary approach that can enhance conventional treatments and improve patient outcomes. By focusing on education, streamlining your inventory and effectively using what’s already on the shelf, veterinarians can seamlessly integrate herbal medicine into their busy practices.

Incorporating herbs into veterinary practice offers a complementary approach that can enhance conventional treatments and improve patient outcomes

As pet owners increasingly seek holistic care options, being equipped with knowledge and resources in herbal medicine can set a practice apart and provide comprehensive, compassionate care to animal patients.

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