This month’s column was going to focus on the use of herbs for companion animals, the subject is so broad I decided instead to provide an overview of alternative remedies used in animal care. Having a houseful of cats and a garden of foxes has given me ample opportunity to see for myself the benefits of alternative techniques, in some cases when there were no other options available or where conventional medicine failed. That said, there have been instances where all the herbs and healing available have not helped and conventional medicine has stepped in to make a miracle.
This brings me to my first point. I am not a qualified herbalist or practitioner and the advice I give here is that of an enthusiastic amateur. It is what has worked for my animals and for people and animals I have had the opportunity to know and care for. Herbal medicine and aromatherapy can be as effective (and dangerous) as conventional medicine and I strongly advise anyone with a sick animal to seek the advice of a vet in the first instance. If you are lucky you will have a vet who believes in the effectiveness of complementary medicine and who will support its use. No reputable complementary therapist would advise you to rule out conventional medicine.
My interest in practising healing in particular came about when I got my two boys cats as kittens. They were dreadfully ill with cat ‘flu and its after effects. The weakest, Arthur, was not expected to survive. So I set to work, understanding everything there was to know about cat ‘flu and its effects on cats who survive. The kittens slowly started to come right but every time they looked like they were going to make it, the weakest one would take a turn for the worse.
He was the cutest, softest, sweetest cat who absolutely loved as much life as he could live, even if this was just looking at me and purring. At last knockings, when it looked like he was going to be allergic to every type of food on the market and every type of food I could make at home and the vet was talking about giving up because to continue would be cruel, I laid my hands on a marvellous book about alternative healing which included a section on energy healing.
Arthur and I sat for hours, me practising until I could feel the energy come off my hands in waves and him lapping up every bit of it. I am pleased to say that he survived and is now a happy, energetic cat who has the odd bout of allergic reaction to fleas and food but who is able to eat his fish and biscuits with relish and whose first foray up a tree when he was 18 months old was greeted by as many tears of relief as peals of laughter. He still loves life and still purrs whenever he lays his eyes on me.
Energy healing can be used in a variety of ways. In my experience, the best way is always in person. If you can’t be with the animal or person, some time spent thinking specifically about them, wishing them love and peace and healing and picturing them well comes a very close second. Distance healing also works and I am part of a healing circle who works in the main for strangers we have never met.
Occasionally, healing is not about life, it is about ending it peacefully. Few healers talk about this but it is important to mention here. When someone is terminally ill, it is better to send them love and strength and peace than send them healing which will draw them back, time and time again, to a frail and uncomfortable existence. Only you and they will know when it is time to change their healing from life-saving to life-enhancing. In these instances, I never wish for a quick death but just wish for the best quality of life possible for the person or animal and send them as much peace and strength to cope that I can.
Energy healing is a broad term for a number of different disciplines including Reiki. Reiki requires formal training but other methods (such as the one I applied above for Arthur) are easy to learn and very effective provided they are applied with a bit of thought.
This can be used on its own or in combination with energy therapy. The basic rules for massaging animals are similar to those for humans, as follows below. However:
(i) Only massage the larger, furrier varieties of animals. Our hands are too big and exert too much pressure to safely massage birds and small mammals (don’t even think about doing this on your fish!).
(ii) Do not massage an animal who is pregnant, ill with cancer, high blood pressure or heart problems
(iii) Do not massage over broken skin or sores
(iv) Do not use oils when massaging animals. They won’t thank you for it and if you use some aromatherapy or fragrance oils you risk poisoning them.
(v) Only massage animals who are completely comfortable with you and with being massaged.
(vi) Do not ever try and massage wild animals, even if they are of the larger, furrier variety
(vi) Use stronger, deeper strokes towards the heart and lighter strokes away from it.
Another form of alternative therapy I use a great deal is aromatherapy. Aromatherapy oils can be wonderful to use in instances where animals have sensitivities to chemicals. However, some aromatherapy oils should never be used on or near certain animals. Cats in particular are very sensitive to oils – mainly because their bodies process them differently and their bodies retain some oils instead of excreting them, leading to toxic build up. Some have died because their owners have applied incorrect doses or the wrong oils.
In some cases, animals have developed fatal sensitivities to certain oils previously thought safe to use. This includes tea tree (Melaleuca alternifoila). Thus one should also be careful about what oils are used in the home. I have often seen aromatherapy oils being touted as a safer alternative to chemical-based detergents and this is not true at all.
If you wish to use aromatherapy oils in your home or on your animals, it is best to obtain advice from your vet and to obtain some good reading material before you start. Kristen Leigh Bell’s “Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals”, ISBN 1-899171-59-2, is well-researched, includes some of the science behind aromatherapy and its effects and errs on the side of caution regarding the use of oils. The book covers in the main aromatherapy for cats, dogs and horses and includes some lovely blends and recipes.
Because of my cats’ sensitivities to chemicals, I use aromatherapy oils for cleaning and disinfecting instead of chemical cleaners. Mainly, I use (very diluted) tea tree and lavender oils on the carpets (disinfects as well as keeps fleas away) and tea tree oil in the kitchen (disinfectant), ylang-ylang and geranium as air freshener (this is a lovely fresh, not too floral combination) and occasionally a bit of lemon oil when cleaning windows (although I’m careful with this as cats are very sensitive to monoterpene hydrocarbons found in citrus and pine essential oils. I have in the past sparingly used diluted tea tree oil on the cats (on wounds) but have since learned that the risks far outweigh the benefits so have switched back to ordinary wound powder.
Another sensitivity to be aware of is that tea tree oil can cause temporary paralysis in dogs so should never be used on dogs without consulting a vet who has an understanding of aromatherapy oils (and who preferably practises both conventional and alternative healing).
The cats and I also enjoy valerian essential oil, evaporated in a diffuser, during firework season. The smell initially is quite offputting but develops into a heady, earthy fragrance that calms everyone completely. Once again, valerian essential oil should be used with caution as it can be addictive and too much produces hyper-active symptoms.
Many cats and dogs also enjoy valerian in plant (root) form. I had to shut away my herb store as Merlin was continually raiding it to extract the valerian pouch. Wonderful toys can be made from mixing catnip and valerian and inserting the mixture into a felt mouse or ball. Valerian root is excellent as a sedative and I have also used it when taking stressed cats to the vet. Be aware though that it could interact negatively with anaesthetic so do not use it (or any other herb) if you know that there is a possibility of the animal needing conventional sedation or undergo an operation.
Many herbal tinctures contain alcohol. Too much alcohol (and in some cases, any alcohol) could be damaging to your pet. One way round this is to place the tincture in a tablespoon of just boiled water and leave for 15 minutes. The water will evaporate the alcohol and cool sufficiently to allow you to give the remedy to your pet safely.
Flower essences work mainly on the emotions and can help with a wide-range of emotional and behavioural problems (stress, inter-personal/ animal relationships) as well as offer complementary support in illness where an imbalance of emotions can affect healing. The most famous of these is Rescue Remedy which is used by many people on themselves and their pets and also be many vets.
Because their effects are so subtle, they are virtually (with one exception) side-effect free and interact well with conventional and alternative medications. The exception is that, although Rescue Remedy is now available in tablet form, many flower essences are supplied in a base of alcohol which as stated above could do more harm than good. You can follow the same guidelines as for evaporating alcohol in herbal tinctures above.
Be aware of the size of the animal you are treating and the appropriate dosage, especially when dealing with an emergency. One of my cats caught a rat last summer. I love rats and managed to catch it in time although it was very stressed. I put it in a shoebox with plenty of soft toilet paper and gave it Rescue Remedy. It was so sweet – it caught the dropper between its paws and lifted up its head to drink the drops. Unfortunately, I gave it too much and it went peacefully to sleep, never to wake up again. You do not want to make the same mistake with one of your pets.
This is a funny old therapy. Despite being continually debunked by professional conventional medical research, it has continued to be used for a wide range of ailments and used by people from all walks of life. Like plant essences above, homeopathy works on a subtle, vibrational level. Homeopathic preparations are made by diluting plants and animal matter to a dilution where in some cases, no trace of the original product can be found. And yet, they work.
The big defence the medical establishment use is that they are placebos only. I disagree with this. Homeopathy does very little for me. However, it has worked well on animals to whom I have given the remedies, who in most cases hate pills and would not think that pills benefit them.
There is a homeopathic preparation for mange containing arsen alb. and sulphur which works wonders in the first and second stages of mange. I’ve used it even in cases of severe mange, as a complement to antibiotics (the best way to administer any pills to foxes is in a honey or marmite sandwich). Nux vomica works well also for mil cases of throwing up or nausea from car sickness and Rhus tox works well for inflamed, sore skin and also for flea bites.
Homeopathy for pets is quite well-researched and there are several books which specialise in this therapy for pets and other animals. I have derived a lot of knowledge and benefit from Martin Zucker’s “Veterinarians’ Guide to Natural Remedies for Cats”, ISBN number 0-609-80373-5 as well as a variety of other books on animal holistic health care.
One last word on homeopathy – many homeopathic preparations should never be used as preventatives – they can induce symptoms of the very illness you are trying to avoid. It is also worth knowing that many preparations should be stopped the moment the body is seen to be responding. This is because they stimulate the immune system to kick-start healing and once this has happened, continued application of the preparation may over stimulate the immune system and worsen the illness.
And finally …
The three rules for all alternative therapies should be:
(i) If in doubt and definitely in cases of serious illness, consult a vet immediately.
(ii) All animals (like people) are different and will react differently to different remedies. Obtain advice from a qualified professional and do your own research before giving your pet any alternative therapy (apart from energy healing)
(iii) Less is more. Rather risk under dosing than overdosing and never go beyond stated guidelines.
Remember too that far less research has been done on alternative than conventional therapies and there is a lot less information available about them, specifically around contra-indications and sensitivities.