Yesterday, a member of my Facebook group asked a simple question, and it prompted this post. In keeping with my commitment to adding shorter but still detailed articles, I thought I’d elaborate my answer here for those who need it. And since digestive issues in dogs are so common, that may mean, any of you.
Here’s what my Friend asked: “Just a quick question that I have come across a few times , regarding Gut issues , some people say Marshmallow in the long run is better than using Slippery Elm … would appreciate any comments thanks “
I posted a quickie answer on my Page here https://www.facebook.com/ThePossibleCanine/
But really, there’s more to explore, so here’s a little overview of these two enormously useful herbs, their actions (similar and unique) applications and why you really want to have both on hand, for our own use as well as with cats and dogs.
First, Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra). This wonderful plant medicine has become one of the most popular go-to herbs for canine gastric issues, and with good reason. The medicinal part is the dried and powdered inner bark, and the applications are many. Energetically this Elm is sweet, moist and neutral (not as cool as Mallow) and it is a first choice demulcent herb – which means, it contains a high amount of mucilage, a type of polysaccharide that becomes viscous in water, and serves to coat, soothe and protect inflamed tissues, whether inside the body or out. Slippery elm is also astringent, meaning it not only soothes and moistens tissue, but gently tightens and tonifies it as well, making it a better choice for diarrhea than mallow. Elm is also nutritive, although we generally don’t rely on herbs to supply essentials in the canine diet, I have used elm in gruels for very ill dogs that needed any source we could get into them, in several cases dogs recovering from toxin ingestion. Topically, slippery elm (and the less widely used Siberian version) are wonderful poultices for boils and abscesses, to help draw infection to a head and drain.
Next – Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is an amazing demulcent as well, with up to 35% mucilage in the root – and the leaf is useful as well especially for the urinary tract (I tend to use both in my formulations for UTI and other ladder/urethral conditions). Mallow is also mildly diuretic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, expectorant and hypoglycemic (the leaf). Mallows (wild mallows are interchangeable, but you must identify them with 100% certainty if you plan to harvest and prepare on your own) are lovely gentle plants whose actions are especially helpful with stomach issues such as acid reflux, and I include mallow in many respiratory formulas, where there is heat and dryness, or heavy, “stuck” mucus that needs to be moved.
Since these actions obviously overlap, how to decide when to use which? Well, first off, they can be used interchangeably – I use both Slippery elm and Marshmallow root for my own bouts of GERD ( can no longer drink wine, sadly without quite horrible reflux) and both help, for example. Both herbs serve to soothe, strengthen and tonify mucus membranes internally and soothe skin as well. But ,as we’ve seen, there are differences – with dogs, here’s what I would suggest.
Marshmallow is especially indicated for urinary tract conditions, is important in respiratory formulations and is my first choice for many upper gastric inflammations. I use mallow root with kennel cough, with tracheal collapse, with mega-esophagus, with gastritis and reflux (which can often occur secondary the veterinary medications). I use the root and leaf with cystitis, bladder cancer and along with other herbs for incontinence, especially when there is burning around the vulva related to urine leaks. Mallow root is a specific for any kind of urolith, all stones and crystals. Topically I like it whenever there is slow healing after an injury or infection.
Elm is a go-to for some types of diarrhea, especially when it has been an acute infection that has just passed and the dog is on the mend, or with a food intolerance issue (obviously, you can’t clear up food intolerance with any treatment, not elm, pumpkin or probiotics, but you can ease symptoms, and there is much to be said for that) and for topical use with infection that has not come to the surface and drained. Elm is wonderful with IBD, to help heal the intestinal lining, and I find it works much as pumpkin does, to normalize bowel function, so it is useful with either diarrhea or constipation. Made into a gruel, slippery elm’s unique nutritive properties make it a helpful food for debilitated dogs, dogs recovering from surgery, or post-toxin ingestion, or in palliative care. Note that elm is one of the four original ingredients in ESSIAC tea, and has long been considered to have anti-cancer actions. I tend to use elm in cancer protocols only if called for by symptoms, but it’s certainly true this herb has longstanding traditional use and may well have actions outside of what I have described here. I have, rarely, seen dogs who developed loose stool with even moderate amounts of elm (my own very sensitive Ridgeback Danny is one) so I recommend starting small when administering for the first time. Which brings us to…
Preparation and Dosing
As a general rule, mucilaginous herbs do best when prepared as a cold infusion – in other words, steeped in cool water, instead of the more usual hot. With both these herbs in powdered form, a little goes a long way – I use a teaspoon in 8 ounces of water and get a very thick, slimy end product. This viscous gel can then be added to the food, or mixed with other herbs, or administered in a little bone broth or tripe, between meals., I especially recommend this latter method if you are adding meds of any kind to the food. Since both are mucilaginous, theoretically they can interfere with absorption of medication, so give either one at least 2 hours after administering meds. If you give the meds separately from food, then it’s fine to stir your gel into the meal.
These are both extremely safe herbs, that can be used as foods, but it’s still possible that a dog can react to one or the other (as with anything) so it makes sense to start small and build the dose up to your goal. (You may have heard to to use elm with dogs who have environmental allergies, but that’s really too vague, many dogs can and do benefit from slippery elm despite multiple allergies. It depends on what, precisely, the dog is allergic to). Think about 1/4 cup per 20 pounds bodyweight divided into three servings per day. Use more if needed and less if in formula.
Lastly – if you weren’t aware, please take note that Slippery elm is listed as “at-risk” now, and should always be purchased via an ethical company such as Mountainrose Herbs. For more information on at-risk and endangered plant species, check out (and support!) United Plant savers here: https://www.unitedplantsavers.org/species-at-risk
And I hope that helps a little – look for more from me on all the herbs we discuss, in future articles and publications. And feel free to ask questions here, I do my best to get back to everyone.