Herbs and Essential Oils: What You Don't Know May Hurt Your Patients

Do you know what essential oils and herbs your clients are providing to their pets—or the potential adverse effects associated with some of these products?
Amanda Carrozza
Published: August 16, 2018
essential oils and petsThere’s no denying that the world is full of remarkable natural antidotes that have proven health benefits. Lavender has been shown to help people who have trouble sleeping, peppermint can improve mood, and ginger may even help with minor digestive troubles. Many people have begun to integrate more essential oils into their daily routines, and the trend has spilled over into the pet industry as well.  

As the prevalence of herbs and supplements in the average household grows, it’s become increasingly important for veterinarians to know which of these products their patients may be exposed to. Furthermore, clients should be advised to consult with their veterinarian before incorporating any of these supplements into their animal’s routine.

“Veterinarians would want to know what drugs a patient is taking,” Narda Robinson DO, DVM, MS, FAAMA, said. “Similarly, they should ask what herbs [pets are] taking because they can have pharmacological effects.”

Dr. Robinson, president and CEO of CuraCore Integrative Medicine and Education Centers, is widely viewed as an authority on scientific integrative medicine, and she is no stranger to cases in which well-intentioned pet owners—and even veterinarians—have used alternative therapies that turned out to be harmful to animals because of a lack of knowledge on the subject.

Harmful or Helpful?
“I have personally evaluated dogs with lymphoma who were in remission and then placed on a slew of immune-enhancing supplements,” she said, “including plant-based products such as echinacea and burdock root, who then presented to the veterinary school where I was teaching after coming out of remission.” For cases such as these, Dr. Robinson explained, “it makes no sense to me to administer botanical products that stimulate lymphocyte proliferation for animals with immune system neoplasia.”

Dr. Robinson also pointed to bloodroot as an herb that may be wrongly advised for topical and parenteral treatment of cutaneous neoplasms in companion animals. “In addition to the potential disfigurement that may result, treating tumors by applying or injecting bloodroot preparations can be severely painful.”

Her views are supported by research, including a JAVMA study that reported on 2 dogs referred for surgical removal of cutaneous tumors that had previously been treated by intratumoral injection of an herbal preparation containing bloodroot extract. The study authors cautioned: “The antineoplastic properties, therapeutic efficacy, and adverse effects of these products are poorly described in the veterinary literature. Clinicians should be aware of the potential for harm caused by the use of these products.”

While there are countless examples of similar botanicals that may do more harm than good, Dr. Robinson warned of 2 additional herbs in particular that possess potentially dangerous properties. “Comfrey continues to be promoted for use in animals even though it can injure the liver and lead to cancer. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Association of American Feed Control Officials view comfrey as dangerous—the latter has also encouraged feed-control officials to eliminate comfrey from animal products.”

“Another potentially lethal plant, pennyroyal, appears often in ‘natural’ flea preventives,” she added. However, Dr. Robinson explained that ingesting even small amounts of pennyroyal oil or tea has led to several documented deaths in humans and pets.

“A 1992 case report of pennyroyal toxicosis described a 7-year-old dog treated topically for fleas using about 2 ounces of pennyroyal oil obtained from a local health food store. After 2 days of gastrointestinal distress, bleeding problems, and seizures, the dog died despite supportive measures.”

What Can Veterinarians Do?
While Dr. Robinson’s knowledge comes from more than 2 decades of immersing herself in research and practical applications related to integrative medicine, she encourages veterinarians to familiarize themselves with the clinical benefits and potential dangers of popular herbs.

“Veterinarians who aren’t learning the science of herbs can be as much of a problem as our clients who just go to some store, pick something up, and then maybe tell their veterinarian,” she said. “If a veterinarian doesn’t have any training in the scientific basis of herbs and a client comes in and asks ‘Is this pennyroyal oil fine to slather all over my dog for fleas?’ the veterinarian might not know. But if you look into the literature you can find that there are widespread negative effects.”

PubMed is an excellent tool for learning about herbs and essential oils; other good sources include Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s About Herbs app or the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Beyond the information available on indications and contraindications, Dr. Robinson strongly advised looking into herb-drug interactions as well. 

“I think the real culprit is the lack of information being dispensed to veterinary students and clinicians so that we can guide our clients appropriately,” Dr. Robinson said.

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