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 most would agree that they are not what we would generally accept as safe. Arsenic and lead from the mineral kingdom and yew berries, death cap mushrooms and foxgloves from the plant world are all natural but also all good examples of this. However, many more common substances are very toxic when taken to excess; alcohol, coffee are good examples of this.
So are all herbs and herbal medicine safe ? The correct definition of a herb is a plant whose leaves are more aromatic than its flowers, although nowadays all plants which are 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 a low toxicity whereas others such as digitalis or opium poppy are very strictly controlled under the poisons regulations. Every medicine is evaluated in reference to its "risk/benefit" ratio, thus those drugs with a high risk of toxicity or side effects must also have proved evidence of an expected high benefit to the user in order for the risk to be acceptable. All herbal medicines licensed for general sale for animal treatment are generally used for chronic or non-life threatening conditions. They will have a low risk of side effects or adverse reactions, but they will be just as effective although their benefits are generally more moderate in effect as they work in harmony with the whole system.
Nevertheless it is important that any medication given to an animal, natural or otherwise, is appropriate for it and this usually means that it must have been formulated for that specific animal and have withstood the test of time - a very long time in the case of herbal medicine which has been used for centuries by all civilizations. Some people will unthinkingly give their animals medicines or supplements that were formulated, manufactured and tested for treating people without giving proper thought to the possible consequences. They believe that "if it's pure enough for me it must be the best possible for my dog or cat". This of course is a totally false and potentially dangerous belief and one that can have dire consequences. The commonest and most widely used human medicine, aspirin, is fatal for example if given to a cat. Yet many people continue to give human medicines and supplements to their animals convinced that they are giving them the best, when commonsense should tell them that people have a much bigger body mass and longer life span than most domestic animals and that their digestive systems and metabolism are entirely different. Unfortunately some manufacturers who are inexperienced in canine nutrition and treatments actually perpetuate this myth by using this 'human quality' tag to endorse their products.
To return to the 'natural' theme, it is definitely true to say that the herbal medicines that you can buy for your dog are safe to use, have minimal side effects and are effective in their actions. The product would not have obtained a licence if the data supporting it was unable to prove all of these things. Nevertheless, it is worth bearing 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. Of course some human medicines and supplements can be given to other species but this should only be done on veterinary advice or under veterinary supervision.
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 major Championship shows so that product information, assistance and advice on the use of these medicines is always available from trained and experienced personnel.
To sum up - not everything that is natural is by definition safe, but the herbal medicines available in this country for dogs and cats are extremely safe with almost no recorded side effects and most can be given in conjunction with orthodox treatment if necessary. Many herbal medicines use quite common herbs and plants, often using extracts of the individual herbs in order to obtain the correct strength for a small animal in a single tablet. The majority of herbal supplements which are available will have been carefully formulated and produced for dogs by experienced manufacturers and these are also excellent to maintain general health when they are given in the correct quantities.
So by using your commonsense and being discerning in your choice, you can safely use all the herbal medicines available for dogs today. These together with quality supplements will make an important contribution to your dog's condition and well-being. They give the benefit of the oldest form of treatment, and one upon which all modern medicine has been based. It may be natural but in this case it is also safe!
By Mary Boughton
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