Many people describe their pets as true members of their family. In fact, Americans share their lives with 52.9 million dogs and 59 million cats. Because of this bond, most pet owners want their animal companions to lead long, healthy lives. As more options influence us to examine our health care habits, our views on health care for pets are changing, too.

"There's a growing desire of people to take care of their own health, and a movement toward natural medicine, of prevention, of focusing on health and not disease. And that naturally carries over into people's care of their pets," says herbalist Greg Tilford, co-author with his wife, Mary Wulff-Tilford, of All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets (Bow Tie Press). "I think the trend is just following human interest in herbs and natural foods. People are starting to realize that perhaps they should be giving the same healthful consideration to their animals," Tilford adds.

Diet and Herbs
"Across the board, dietary and nutritional therapies — looking at homemade diets and improving the quality of pets' commercial diets by using whole food supplements — are as important, if not more important, than the use of a specific herbs, homeopathic remedies or nutraceuticals," says holistic veterinarian Rob Silver of Boulder, Colo.

Tilford believes the majority of animals in this country are suffering from some level of malnourishment because of the commercial food they eat. It's best to feed pets whole foods, raw meat and a wide diversity of food if your pet can tolerate it, Tilford suggests, adding that this goes against the general theory that a change in diet will cause digestive upset.

Tilford and his wife are co-founders of Animals' Apawthecary, based in Conner, Mont., a company that makes herbal tinctures or dogs and cats and custom herbal formulations or veterinarians. They also serve as consultants and teachers for veterinarians who want to learn more about the holistic use of herbs.

If your pet is healthy and on a good diet, herbs can contribute to his or her overall health. Tilford and Silver recommend several herbs that caon be used easily and safely that can be used easily and safely (see "Herbs for Pets"). It's important to consult with someone trained in the use of herbs for pets, as some herbs commonly used for humans can be dangerous for animal — especially cats.

If you're a pet owner, it's also a good idea to bone up on your own knowledge of herbals for pets, Tilford advises. "When in doubt, call your veterinarian."

Call the Pet Vet
If you have a sick pet, of course, it's important to establish an accurate diagnosis before the illness can be treated. "The first thing a client with an ill pet needs to do is consult a trained holistic veterinarian," says Narda Robinson, DO, DVM, affiliate faculty member at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. When Robinson sees an animal, she first makes sure that it's had a complete exam so she knows nothing serious has been missed that might delay treatment and impact the animal's survival. "Ideally, an array of treatment options should be presented" that will help the client make the best decisions for the pet, Robinson says. At this point, drugs or surgery may be required. But if she believes another treatment, such as herbs or acupuncture, may be effective in the situation, "let's consider that, perhaps try it and then reassess," she says.

Choosing the best modality for your canine or feline family member can be a complicated process. It can take longer for an herb to take effect than a drug, and your pet may need more frequent dosing than with drugs. You need to ask yourself if it's worth it for you and the animal to go through the trouble, Robinson says. In her experience, dogs are easy to work with because you can coat the herbal remedy with cheese or mix it in their food. But with cats, although it's possible to treat them with herbs, she says, adding "they hate most anything you do."

Marty Traynor is the editor of Natural Foods Merchandiser and a freelance writer.

To learn more about holistic veterinary medicine or to find a practitioner, contact:
American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association
2214 Old Emmorton Road
Bel Air, MD 21015
(phone) 410.569.0795 / (fax) 410.515.7774 (includes a directory of holistic veterinarians).