Pets face the same health problems that their owners do. Sedentary dogs, especially older ones, often develop digestive problems, skin and coat issues, arthritis and even liver disease. Younger, more active dogs that tend to go where their owners go may require antioxidants and other forms of supplementation to aid their recovery following long hikes and other activities. And, because pets are part of the family, shoppers who use supplements for themselves will search out supplements for their pets as well.

"People are being very proactive with their pets' health, just as with their own health," says Donna Spector, D.V.M., a Brooklyn-based veterinarian who consults with Tampa, Fla.-based Halo, Purely for Pets. "The ‘big [pet] food scare' left people wondering whether their pets' diets are complete and balanced."

Natural pet health
Many natural options can aid pet health, including herbal remedies, vitamins, homeopathics and flower essences, which pet owners can use on their own or in conjunction with allopathic veterinary care, depending on the ailment.

"There are literally hundreds of remedies available, for a range of health issues including allergies, arthritis, digestive problems, skin and hair problems, anxiety, liver problems and even protection from inflammatory diseases and cancer through the use of antioxidants," Spector says.

It's important for shoppers to understand which issues they can treat successfully, and which might indicate more serious problems and require veterinary care. "We launched our line with six products that I believed would be most efficacious over-the-counter, but can also be used in conjunction with veterinary care," says Joel Murphy, D.V.M., a holistic vet at the Animal & Bird Medical Center of Palm Harbor, Fla., who recently formulated a line of pet supplements for Renew Life, based in Clearwater, Fla. The product line includes formulas for skin and coat, detox and liver, digestion, joints, calmness and an omega-3 product.

"These are unique products because they combine herbals, nutraceuticals and flower essences," Murphy says. "In addition, these products are designed for both allopathic and holistic approaches." As an example, he says that mild skin and coat issues may be successfully addressed with a combination of the skin and coat formula and omega-3s, while severe allergic reactions or advanced skin disease may require that a veterinarian prescribe cortisol. However, by using these products in conjunction with pharmaceutical treatments, Murphy says much less cortisol can be used.

The same approach may work best with digestive problems, including constipation and diarrhea. "Our digestive formula is for dogs with sensitive stomachs or chronic conditions like inflammatory bowel," Murphy says. "It's not for a dog who may have an intestinal blockage or pancreatitis or food poisoning, so pet owners should definitely consult a vet and get a diagnosis." Calming or anti-anxiety products for dogs are especially popular and are effective enough in many cases to replace pharmaceutical options.

Getting the vet involved
Luckily, more vets today know about herbal and homeopathic remedies. This represents a sea change for veterinary specialists, though there are still many vets who take a strictly allopathic approach. "A lot of vets still have no training or knowledge of holistic medicine or herbals," says Murphy, "though it's definitely better than it was 25 years ago."

Retailers might also want to compile a list of holistic vets to share with customers. One resource is the Veterinary Botanical Medical Association, based in Kennesaw, Ga., or online at www.vbma.org. Another option is the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, based in Bel Air, Md., which has a searchable online referral service at www.holisticvetlist.com.

"Botanicals have historically been used in maintaining animal health, with a rich history in Chinese medicine," says herbalist David Winston, founder of Herbalist & Alchemist, based in Washington, N.J. "There are some vets who are fabulous herbalists and have a deep understanding of how botanicals affect animals." Herbalist & Alchemist recently sponsored a teleseminar for vets in conjunction with VBMA.

Determining dog and cat dosage

In general, herbal medicines that work for humans will also work for animals when dosage is adjusted. This allows pet owners to create their own herbal formulas for pets, or to use dried herbs and tinctures mixed into foods, particularly for finicky eaters who refuse a pre-made supplement in the form of a chewable treat.

"What works for humans almost always works for dogs," Winston says. "Cats are a bit different, and require more specialized knowledge on selection and dosage. In general, for companion animals, we take their body weight and divide by the weight of an average human, so a 50-pound dog would receive one-third of a human dose."

Winston says vets have had success using his company's OsteoHerb and Muscle Joint Compound formulas for joint issues, and Carminative Compound for doggie gas—a remedy that many pet owners will likely be thankful for.

However, pet owners should exercise caution and understand that not all remedies are appropriate for pets. Murphy formulated Renew Life's line of pet supplements only with herbs that are nontoxic even in high doses, so if a pet gets into the container of supplements and eats them all, no harm is done. "We have to look at the research species by species, because what's safe for dogs is not necessarily safe for cats," Murphy says. For example, the detox system in cats is different than in dogs. Salicylates, which are found in aspirin but also occur naturally in herbals such as white willow bark, may be appropriate for dogs at low dosages, Murphy says, but any dosage that might offer relief to cats would likely put the animal in the hospital.

Where to start
There are a number of effective dog and cat supplements that will almost always create positive results, experts say, and these may be the best place to start, especially with aging pets. For example, formulas for skin and coat tend to include cod liver or other essential oils containing omega-3s, which will have a positive antioxidant benefit in addition to their direct benefit to the skin. Halo, Purely for Pets has created a vitamin C formula with a wide range of benefits that go beyond joint health, because vitamin C is a critical component of collagen and the body's ligaments and tendons.

"Antioxidants are helpful for any inflammatory process in the body," Spector says. "In addition, our formula includes cranberry, which creates a little more acid to help the bladder and urinary systems."

Probiotics formulated especially for pets are another helpful tonic. "We sell a probiotic that is not only good for digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea, but also for ear infections," says Susan Weiss, founder of Ark Naturals, based in Naples, Fla. "Cortisone products only mask the symptoms, but probiotics in conjunction with an ear cleaner can really change the underlying problem."

Antioxidants are useful, especially for older dogs, because they can help mitigate inflammatory processes that go with aging, including muscle soreness and joint pain, Weiss says. Finally, calming products, like Ark Naturals' Happy Traveler or Renew Life's Healthy Calm, can help reduce symptoms for pets that may have trouble with travel, thunderstorms, separation anxiety or other nervous reactions. Happy Traveler uses St. John's wort, chamomile, kava kava and valerian, while Healthy Calm combines GABA, lemon balm, chamomile, hops and valerian with flower essences.

Reach out to pet lovers
Retailers can take several steps to make sure customers have the information they need. First, offer contact information for veterinary associations that encourage natural remedies, especially to pet owners whose pets have serious conditions that may require a mixture of natural and allopathic approaches. Seek out local vets who practice herbal and holistic medicine for referrals. A clear knowledge of the formulations and delivery systems for these pet products is also helpful; some owners may prefer the convenience of a treat form, while others may prefer to use capsules hidden inside a dog's favorite food, for instance.

When a customer has found the right product, they'll know it. "You can trick a human, but you can't trick an animal," Weiss says. "There is no placebo effect in pets, but when you see a change in the animal you'll know its working."

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 88,92