Reprinted from Plant Healer Magazine – link at bottom
For those of us who love and work with animals, few things are as gratifying to see as a happy, well cared for elderly companion – dog, cat, horse, goat, ferret …a life well-lived, the result of good genes and most often, high quality care from a loving human caregiver.
Sadly, this is not always the case. Companion animals just like humans, often face some difficult time in their later life. In the case of animals, excessive vaccination, monotonous, questionable diet (or home prepared that lacks the ideal balance of nutrients) overuse of veterinary medications, close-up exposure to house and garden chemicals, genetic tendencies passed on by carelessly matched breedings can all contribute to premature aging and a host of health challenges in later years. All too often we see elderly animals plagued with many of the same conditions we humans face – diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, dementia, digestive disorders, urinary tract problems, and more. As is true for us, prevention and a holistic approach to care is ideal. While some aspects of aging are inevitable , others are very much preventable, or at least can be slowed significantly with a strategy early in life that emphasizes optimal nutrition, low toxin exposure, intelligent veterinary care, daily exercise and emotional happiness (playtime, routine, mental stimulation, positivity). The fact is, we often don’t take optimal care of our own health, and the same is true for even well-loved animals. Sometimes, an owner simply cannot afford the best food and veterinary care; sometimes, they are given advice that may not be in the animal’s best interest.. there are many reasons why we see older animals with a wide range of health issues. Older animals who present a very challenging array of issues –incontinence, cognitive decline, unpleasant odour, behavioural changes (often related to pain or unaddressed disease) are sometimes euthanized or surrendered to shelters, a nightmare for an older dog or cat. But the good news is that herbs, along with appropriate dietary changes and vetcare as indicated, can play a powerful role in symptom relief; slowing and even reversing some conditions, and supporting overall health for the older animal. In this article, I’ll address some of the common issues with the geriatric canine, and what kinds of approaches have worked for me, in my practise and with my own animal family over the years.
First, an overview of the conditions and issues I see as prevalent in older dogs. In no particular order, I see the following:
Osteo-arthritis, Degenerative joint Disease
Cardiovascular disease, congestive heart failure related to various conditions
Urinary tract infections and incontinence
BPH, benign prostatic hypertrophy in males
CCD, canine cognitive dysfunction
Skin and coat problems, alopecia, lipomas, dandruff, a wide range of manifestations
Visual problems, mostly cataracts
Dental problems – excess tartar, gingivitis, halitosis
Each of these conditions requires a full range of supportive therapy from nutritional changes to veterinary care, and it’s way beyond the scope of this article to cover all of those. Herbally, we can do a great deal, even though sometimes it’s “condition-based” – not always possible to get a full picture of the animal’s constitution, although a good Intake form can offer some important information. When I work one-on-one with an animal, I can incorporate energetics much more than in online work, but have been able to observe the power of well chosen herbs for conditions, as a starting place at the least, for helping older animals. That said, keeping the animal’s constitutional type in mind is just as important as when working with humans. It can mean the difference between offering *some*help, and making truly dramatic changes. Body temperature, skin and coat condition, weight, urinary and digestive habits all give at least a starting point, as does temperament. In my experience, humans love to talk about their dogs, in detail, and will gladly send you pictures, videos and temperature readings, so ask away. Clearcut constitutional types will become apparent even without physically evaluating the dog, and if not, I select herbs with neutral patterns of energy or balance the formula in this middle ground, at least to start and observe how they work in the animal’s body.
A word about nutrition, with dogs; I am of the school that feels we need to analyze what’s been going on, what the dog has been fed, and adjust accordingly. In other words, there is no one ideal way to feed all dogs all throughout their lives and with all conditions. My criteria for optimal nutrition pivots on three factors; first, that all nutrient requirements are met at the recommended level, or above in a few cases (home made diets routinely fall short here) two, that the most wholesome foods available be used to supply those need (commercial diet supplies the daily requirements, but not often via fresh and wholesome ingredients) and three, that the method of feeding suits the unique individual and supports them through any illness or imbalance. We aim to provide all nutrients, use the best possible foods, and always respect the individual. Dogs are not obligate carnivores like the cat , and fifteen years in fulltime therapeutic nutrition has shown me that all kinds of dietary approaches can work. Older dogs may require increased or decreased protein, or specific protein types; they may do amazingly well with raw diets or not; even kibble diets can be enhanced with fresh foods to support some of the digestive challenges of older animals and offer all the health benefits we associate with fresh vegetables and pastured meats, for example. My greatest concerns with geriatric dogs, before addressing herbs, is diet; we almost always see problems related to longterm use of cheap kibble, based on cereal and unidentified animal parts, but also with the overpriced prescription diet that provides nutrients in careful formulation but utilizes simply dreadful ingredients (corn starch, peanut hulls, I kid you not) and there are myriad problems associated with ad hoc, home made diets the owner has put together based on this or that popular feeding theory. All of these pose significant problems for older dogs. My recommendation is start with a premium commercial diet, or a balanced home cooked or raw (which one is used, is really a question of the dog and the owner’s preference). With most cancer, with renal disease, with periodontal disease, dilated cardiomyopathy and with some digestive disorders, cooked diets are vastly preferable, but must be nutritionally balanced. There is a list of resources at the end of the article for those who’d like to learn more. Commercial diets are vastly improved over the foods of yesterday, and again, some resources for selection at the bottom.
The bottom line is that nutrition comes first. For dogs with cancer, generally we strive for lower carbohydrate and higher fats, with a higher than usual percentage of total fat coming from the Omega 3 fatty acids…this is a strategy that can also work with arthritis, but a careful evaluation of foods can reveal places where inflammation may be promoted (feeding nightshade vegetables, for example, or an excess of refined carbs).
Dogs with CCD may benefit from supplemental marine lipids, VitaminE, and zinc. With renal disease, we restrict phosphorus. With periodontal disease, we don’t wish to introduce more pathogens into the body, so we use cooked, again carefully formulated cooked diets.
Next, a veterinary geriatric workup is always ideal. With the bloodwork results, we have a powerful tool for understanding what might be going on in the body that is not necessarily clear from an owner’s report on symptoms or from visual examination of the dog. One often overlooked issue for dogs is thyroid disease, which is incredibly underdiagnosed, and can lead a frustrated owner down all kinds of pathways looking for help that really isn’t going to address things at all. Vets routinely take a simple in-house test that measures just the circulating T4s and does not give an adequate picture of the thyroid health. The fullpanel test is more expensive but it can save a great deal of stress and frustration to know what’s going on. I’ve seen countless doglovers who spent thousands on holistic vets, acupuncture, special diets and more, all on the reasoning “the vet said his thyroid was fine”. Very often, it is not fine, and this is one place anyone with an older dog does well to spend the extra. A look at kidney and liver function, pancreatic health, and more can be immensely useful as you start on a programme of herbal support for your own or a client’s dog
Administering herbs to dogs
Inevitably this question comes up, and with good reason; dogs are not as difficult to administer to as cats, and some are downright accepting of anything, but others are picky, and some who are usually good eaters may not be feeling well and so refuse food with decocted or infused herbs mixed in. Like many herbalists, I prefer to use decoctions or infusions (water) as much as I can with most of the herbs I use. But these may be rejected, and so we have to get creative. I will use alcohol tinctures in many cases where the need is acute, but phase them out once a crisis has passed.(Acute infection comes to mind). I prefer not to use powdered herb in capsules or standardized extracts; we need just way too many caps and I feel the whole herb is always preferable to the extract, with a few notable exceptions. So, we can use glycerites; in some cases, we can use powdered herb in honey (not with cancer or periodontal disease) we can think about a daily goal, and administer the herb in a few different ways. For example, I’ve known a whole lot of dogs who will take reasonably nasty tasting decoctions if it’s mixed in with something super strong tasting, such as green tripe or cooked lamb. It’s not reasonable or wise to feed those things all the time, and we don’t want to resort to really bad treats, so we might think about a bit of decoction in tripe one day, some glycerite the next, an alcohol tincture the third day, and honey paste the fourth. Of course, if your dog is accepting of anything, use the infused herb, and dose “physiologically” – start conservative and build just to the point you see results. I have listed a suggested dose range for most of the herbs below,my experience with toy dogs and their fast little metabolisms is to start with drop dosing and build gently. Often the effective dose for toy breeds is still below the low end of the standard range,and the reverse is true for giants. You may need the higher end of the range for dogs over 100 pounds.
Below, a few conditions associated with aging, and some strategies to deal with them..
Preventively: consider adding Hawthorn (Crataegus spp,leaf and berry) to the diet at about 8 years for a large dog, 10 for a smaller breed. If I had to pick a go-to for prevention, this would be it. I use a mix of leaf and berry, powdered, infused in water and about ¼ cup per 20 pounds body weight, in divided dose (twice a day). I might go higher for a dog under prolonged physical stress (athletes,working dogs) or with breed predisposition. Therapeutic doses are much higher. Crataegus may potentiate some veterinary medications used for heart disease, so therapeutic use should be discussed with your vet.
Common cardiovascular issues with dogs: Dilated cardiomyopathy, Aortic stenosis, mitral valve insufficiency
Symptoms/Diagnostics: Typically the owner reports the dog is coughing, short of breath/panting, lethargic – by the time these symptoms are present there is almost always advanced disease.
Dietary Indications: Lowered carbohydrate, sodium restriction,weight reduction if indicated, marine lipids, supplemental(above the RDA) magnesium, selenium, VitaminE, Bcomplex, possible amino acids (taurine and carnitine)
With CHF: Herbal management once heart disease has set in will need to address the specifics of the case, including symptoms and veterinary meds. We can look at the following actions and select herbs accordingly:
Cardiotonics – Crataegus, Tilia platyphyllos, Collinsonia canadensis
Peripheral vasodilators– I mostly use Gingko but have recently use Forskholii with a Ridgeback who was suffering hypertension secondary to an adrenal tumour. We got 6 comfortable months extended time with a very aggressive cancer.
Diuretics – Taraxacum leaf, Buchu (Agothosma betulina) , Sambucus (flower infusion, cool) occasionally Galium aparine if there is much edema
Nervines – Tilia, Leonurus cardiac a(note; use only in dogs who have had fullpanel thyroid testing) Valerian, Matricaria
Anti-spasmodics – I prefer Viburnum in most cases
Special Considerations – breed disposition; Labrador retrievers, American Cocker Spaniels and Doberman Pinschers are all highly susceptible to DCM. Smaller breeds (Lhasas, Bichon etc) are more prone to mitral valve disease and mostly large breeds (Newfoundlands, Golden retrievers, Boxers, English and American Bulldogs) are predisposed to aortic stenosis.
Case Study – Lila, a Labrador/Border Collie mix with DCM
Lila was my own dog, who was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy at 5 years old, by accident, as she was given a chest Xray to rule out possible heartworm infection prior to surgery for a ruptured cruciate ligament. I began aggressive support using diet, some supplements (CoEnzyme Q10) and herbs, as soon as she had recovered from surgery. Her herbal formula included Crataegus, Tilia, Astragalus and pycnogenol, initially, and I added gingko, collinsonia and taraxacum over time. Lila’s enlargement was monitored yearly via ultrasound, and there was minimal progression until she was 11 years of age, at which time the condition advanced abruptly and severely (in my opinion, related to a severe emotional shock, the sudden death of her lifelong partner). We moved to vetmedin and stopped the hawthorn but continued with tilia, astragalus, pycnogenol and I added taraxacum, so we were able to wean off Lasix. Lila died 2 and a half years later from unrelated causes. She had outlived her initial prognosis of 18 – 24 months by 6 and a half years.
Without the early diagnosis, I might never have known she had the condition until it was very late. In many dogs who have a genetic DCM, death is the first symptom, as the dog collapses while exercising, often at a fairly young age. We were blessed by that accidental diagnosis so early on.
My sweet, sweet Boo, just before her diagnosis
Preventively: Weight control, fresh food diet, appropriate exercise. I start a joint support supplement at about age 7 with large dogs, as early as 4 for athletes/working dogs, and on average about 7 -8 years with smaller breeds. Turmeric is a popular preventive choice but potentially overused as I see a of GI upset cases related to longterm or excessive use . Marine lipids, antioxidants( food sources and supplements) bromelain or other proteolytic enzymes
Related conditions: Obesity, hip and elbow dysplasia ,renal failure
Symptoms/Diagnosis: Symptoms of osteoarthritis in the older dog are often slow to appear. It’s often said that by the time the dog is actually limping, the condition is likely advanced. I’ve found a range of personality types within dogs and some will make a fuss over much less pain than others. A full diagnosis requires Xrays and orthopedic evaluation, but many of my clients and acquaintances report marked success simply by implementing the herbal protocol – using the ‘can’t hurt/might help” approach and finding that indeed, help was amply supplied by diet and herbs, again.
Dietary Indications: reduce weight if indicated, fresh foods, grainfree, rotated proteins and antioxidants, abundant cooked vegetables/no nightshades, supplemental fish or krill oil
Herbal Support: The two most popular herbs used commercially for canine arthritis are turmeric and harpagophytum (devil’s claw). I use harpagophytum extensively with dogs, and have seen only a few cases of GI distress clearly related to the herb; many of these cases occurred when Devil’s claw was combined with turmeric. Some dogs seem able to tolerate both when fed separately, some simply need a moist and cooling herb to balance the possibility of excess dryness and heat. Important to remember that since dog’s temperatures run much higher than ours, 101 102.5 – and their digestive systems are significantly different, the energy of a given herb will interact in a different way from what we might expect in our own system. And as with humans, there is a huge range of individual response. Turmeric is a wonderful addition to many canine formulas for arthritis, but I see it overused and not balanced in formula, with the resulting problems of constipation and agitation in susceptible dogs.
My strategy with mild to moderate arthritis is to use the above dietary modifications with a personalized herb formula that will usually include some liver support,as well as Cimifuga, Xanthozylum americanum, Hypericum, Boswellia serrata (excellent but can be hard on an older dog’s stomach) and Zingiber (ditto).
Case Study: Tina, a Rhodesian Ridgeback female, 11 years old, 90 pounds
Tina was also my own dog, a rescue I adopted at age 8, who was showing early signs of arthritis, such as exercise intolerance, occasional limping and the classic paw-over-the nose posture.
Her weight was good, and after several months here, to adjust to the new setting, the symptoms did not abate. I put her on a home made diet with moderate macronutrient content approximately 30% protein, fat and carb) with high dose fish oil and 400 IU natural vitamin E daily. In addition, I used the following formula:
1 tsp organic turmeric powder with 3% black pepper, given with food
1/3 cup burdock decoction, in divided dose BID
Mallow root (cold infusion, added to lubricate the GI tract)
Devil’s Claw, @ 500 mgs dried herb, BID
Corydalis, 10 drops tincture(alcohol) BID (as needed) usually with Eschscholtzia, also in alcohol
Evening primrose oil, 1000 mg capsule BID
We stayed with this over her first winter here and by spring she was much more enthusiastic about going on walks. I noticed some depression and stiffness after some of the offleash rambles and added harpagophytum at a low dose, along with warmth applied to what appeared to be sensitive areas (Tina was a constitutionally cold and dry type with low body temp, easy weight gain and fatigue, worried demeanour, dandruff, pale tongue etc). By summer she was able to enjoy reasonable exercise and remained comfortable with and enthusiastic for her walks for the duration of her life.
Urinary Tract Infections and Incontinence
Preventively: Balanced diet, immune support, check urinary ph
Related conditions: low thyroid, hormone imbalance in spayed females, BPH in males, anal sac infection
Symptoms/Diagnosis: Incontinence is immediately identifiable, many dogs will leak steadily all day while others tend to release urine all at once, while sleeping. UTI manifests with straining to urinate, frequent urges, blood in urine and hunched back posture, indicating pain. Licking the area, whining (pain)
Dietary Indications: with urinary tract infection there is concurrent alkaline urine and this can be addressed with raising the total dietary protein, unless otherwise contraindicated. VitaminC will acidify urine too, but should be monitored so the ph doesn’t swing too low and create other potential problems. Low oxalate diets may be indicated with both UTI and incontinence. I prefer not to use foods as a source of phytoestrogens if headed that route, as most are not really species-appropriate.
Herbal Support: We can look at immune support, demulcents, urinary tract antiseptics/antimicrobials as a first line of support for chronic infections; in the absence of UTI, incontinence can be addressed in the female via tonifying support for the bladder and prostate herbs for the male. (NOTE: all UTI that is not cleared naturally within a few days, or where pain seems acute/urine is not passed, may be considered serious and veterinary care is urgently required. This can indicate bladder stones and may be a life threatening situation. Males passing blood may have prostate disease and diagnosis is critical).
My top herbs for UTI:
Agrimony, Marshmallow leaf and root, Uva ursi, Couchgrass, Echinacea, Usnea barbata
If recurrent, evaluate diet, consider reishi(decoction), a probiotic, astragalus
For Spay incontinence: Varuna ( Crataeva nurvala- indispensable) Cornsilk (Zea mays) Plantain (Plantago major, lanceolata) Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)
For BPH (Benign Prostatic Hypertrophy – must be properly diagnosed) – Saw Palmetto
( Serenoa repens) Hydrangea( Hydrangea arborsecens), Kava (Piper methysticum)
Note that Viburnum may be useful in any case where there is bladder spasm and pain. Nervines as indicated. Cranberry can be used as a preventive agent (seems to work, best as in humans, when used in an ongoing fashion, to prevent recurrence).
Case Study: Jasmine, a 16 year old Labrador Retriever, 75 pounds
Jasmine will be 17 next spring. She belongs to my partner and has enjoyed excellent health all through her long life. In old age, she’s suffered from bouts of incontinence and recurrent bladder infections. Initially, this was so severe we used Stilbesterol and a diaper to manage the incessant mess and discomfort she was experiencing, but I prefer not to keep dogs on the drug if we can avoid it. My herbal therapy was simple; address the infection first and see if this resolves the leakage. After weaning her off the hormone, I started her on Echinacea, mallow leaf and root, uva ursi, couch grass and agrimony, along with moderate dose VitaminC (to a acidify the urine) and high dose fish oils, with 200IU VitaminE. We saw clearing of the active infection within several days, and I changed her formula to focus on supporting bladder tone and function; I focused on Varuna, in highest dose, with a glycerite of Couch grass, mallow and agrimony used at moderate dose. We have not needed to return to either the meds or the diaper, and I have weaned off the Varuna as well. I continue with lower doses of the glycerite, with anti inflammatory foods, low oxalate diet and a little bit of pumpkin seed oil, too.
This was Jasmine in her prime. She died last month, quietly at home, and will always be missed and remembered.
CCD (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction)
Preventively: Fatty acids, exercise, optimized diet, marine lipids
Related conditions: CHF, diabetes, Cushing’s
Symptoms/Diagnosis: Anxiety, often starting at night; confusion, pacing/circling
Dietary Indications: Optimized nutrients, marine lipids, supplemental E, Bcomp, gluten restriction, antioxidants, SAMe
Herbal Support: Gingko biloba, Schisandra, Melissa, Passiflora incarnata, Tilia, Hypericum
What about the senior dog who is not showing any of the above sign or problems – who has good coat, good teeth, no evidence of arthritis of heart disease, still going strong despite a white muzzle and a little less stamina? This is a perfect place to add gentle supportive herbs, system by system, as tonics for the whole dog. Some of my favorites are hawthorn, linden, burdock, dandelion, gingko, plantain, calendula, reishi, bilberry – think nourishment and antioxidant support, and avoid in particular herbs that are too warming or carry contraindications for conditions that may be subclinical in the older dog. Turmeric is a hugely popular herb with similar applications in the dog as for the human, but can cause gastric upset short term and dryness over time. I like to use fresh herbs chopped into food, infused into water and added to wholesome nutritious meals, and pay close attention to the “whispers” – not just the subjective signs we use to assess animal health, but the subtle, intuitive connection that can alert us to problems before they become serious. Lastly, geriatrics benefit greatly from massage, Tellington Touch, from proper bedding, simple physiotherapy stretches you can learn to do yourself, from mental stimulation and games, from moderate exercise, from Flower Essences. Your dog has been a loving, intelligent and entirely devoted member of the family all his or her life, and we all owe it to them not only to provide good diet and veterinary care, but to make their elder years as comfortable and happy as we can. Old dogs are wise and magical, in a different way from pups and adults, they have much to teach us. This is our time of giving back, and there are many ways to do so.
Resources and Further Reading
Jean Dodds information on thyroid disease and reliable testing:https://hemopet.org/hemolife/thyroid-testing/
TPC – my website, features herbal and nutritional information for dog owners
Dogaware – excellent resource website, many health-related articles amassed by Whole Dog journal columnist Mary Straus www.dogaware.com
Spirits in Transition – the beautiful site by veterinarian Ella Bittel, with a wealth of information about end of life care http://www.spiritsintransition.org/about.html
TTouch – www.ttouch.com – system of bodywork , extremely helpful in old age
Plant Healer Magazine http://planthealermagazine.com/
Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th edition
Veterinary Herbal Medicine, Wynn and Fougeres
Handbook of Natural Veterinary Medicine, Marsden and Wynn
Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman
Personal experience in clinical practise, 1997 – present