Herbs for Animals

Herbal Remedies

There are a number of vets throughout the UK using herbal remedies alongside "normal" veterinary medicines. The use of Herbal Remedies in the treatment of animals falls into one of two quite distinct categories :-

The way each are advertised, labeled, described and sold is different and is governed by Law - herbal medicines are licensed by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate as an effective MEDICINE whereas herbal supplements, additives or remedies are not and can only be sold on the basis that they provide an addition to the diet in terms of extra vitamins, minerals and compounds, and NOT that they can cure disease. See below...

Herbs and other plants have always been used in healing but science has taken things far beyond the days when, perhaps, this was the domain of hippies and "tree-huggers". Herbal Medicines are serious Veterinary Medicines and together with Herbal Supplements form a multi-million pound industry.

The active ingredients in herbs are similar to those in Veterinary drugs - the difference being that, in drugs, the active ingredients are isolated so that the drug contains just one or perhaps two compounds. Whereas in herbal medicine the whole plant is used, often containing thousands of chemical compounds, giving the balancing effect which is thought to be the reason why there are less side effects and adverse reactions from plant medicine. See article on Polypharmacy which explains this further.

Medicines originally based on herbs

Many modern medicines were originally derived from herbs and other plants. For example, for centuries the Chinese Fir was used as a treatment for asthma & bronchitis. It wasn't discovered until the 1800's that it actually contains Ephedrine a substance used, in modern day medicine, in the treatment of pulmonary disorders and allergies. Also, it had long been known that the bark of the White Willow had pain relieving properties. Scientists isolated the active ingredients, a group of compounds called salicylates. A bit of work in the lab and they produced acetylsalicylic acid... now the main ingredient of... Aspirin!

At one time ALL medicines came from herbs and plants, then science took over and found ways of artificially creating the active ingredients, giving us the medicines that we use today. These artificially produced drugs, some might say, are more reliable than "herbs" because their active ingredients are more measurable and quantifiable - but that isn't necessarily so - because science has also given us the ability to produce Veterinary Herbal Medicines to exacting standards where the active ingredients, through quality control procedures, are also guaranteed.

Licensed Veterinary Herbal Medicines

There are only two companies producing Licenced Veterinary Herbal Medicines...

Dorwest Herbs - Dorset
Denes Natural Pet Care Limited - East Sussex

Herbal Medicines, just like ALL veterinary medicines, are licensed by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (the agency of MAFF which deals with animal medicines). The fact that a herbal medicine is licensed means that the whole production process is subject to strict controls and that the medicine is proven to be effective for the conditions for which it is licensed, so these are the only forms of herbal product that can be sold with any kind of medicinal claim or indications for the treatment of specific conditions.

The active ingredients in Licensed Herbal Medicines have to meet the specifications laid down by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. The plants used are subject to laboratory testing for correct identification, quality of ingredients and maximum levels of foreign matter such as ash, heavy metals etc. The products then have to be manufactured in Licensed premises using approved procedures and controls throughout the process to ensure the continued quality of the product. The finished product is tested again to confirm the presence of the active ingredients and to ensure satisfaction of all the other parameters laid down. Even the type of container is controlled to ensure compatibility of the container to the ingredient. Samples of the bulk materials and the finished product, along with all documentation, have to be retained for 1 year above its shelf life so that batches can be traced back. The finished products have to be re-tested at 12, 24 and 36 months to confirm the continued stability of the product and to ensure that no deterioration has taken place.

For any new medicine, safety has to be proven through double-blind trials and other rigorous testing but all the herbal medicines that are licensed in the UK are ones which were on the market prior to the 1968 Medicines Act and the Authorities accept that the safety criteria for these is proven by long term use.

How to tell if a herbal product is licensed

The label will have either a new
Vm (veterinary medicine) number or an old PL (product license) number.
This is the license number.

There will also be a square box giving the category of the medicine...
POM - prescription only medicine
P - pharmacy only medicine
GSL - general sales list

Only the GSL medicines are available over the counter - all Herbal Medicines are GSL.

Incidentally, all this is also true of human medicines... go on... have a look in your cupboard!

However, there are a relatively small number of Licensed Herbal Medicines and it is unlikely that there will ever be any others Licensed because it would not be worthwhile for any company to spend the sort of money and time required to perform all the testing and trials. Drug companies spend £millions on research, development and testing of new drugs because they end up with a new product that they have complete control (if not Patent) over and can make even more £millions. All Licensed Herbal Medicines are on the General Sales List as are the individual plants so even if a company found a new medicinal use for a particular plant or herb they have no control over it as you and I can grow it in our back garden!

In order to have been granted a License, Herbal Medicines have all been proven effective in the treatment of the conditions for which use was intended. This comes by way of formal statements from veterinary surgeons who have used the product successfully and other veterinary reports and evidence. All this evidence is considered, assessed and approved, or otherwise, by the veterinary committee of the VMD. So we can be sure that a Licensed Herbal Veterinary Medicine is effective and will do what it says it will do.

Herbal Supplements (or remedies or additives etc)

Whilst all other forms of herbal remedies are not licensed, this doesn't mean they are not useful or indeed effective! The only reason that some herbal treatments got licensed as medicines in the first place is that they were around at the time, had been for many years and were seen to satisfy the requirements in terms of safety and efficacy. There are many other herbal remedies which would, and do, satisfy these requirements.

Licensing regulations ensure the quality of Herbal Medicines but what, or who, ensures the quality of non-licensed remedies? Well... no-one... at least there is no requirement by Law or compulsion for any company producing herbal remedies to ensure quality. In theory, a company could get a bunch of any old green substance, label it as this herb or that mixture and indicate its ingredients and nutritional breakdown. This would, of course, be in breach of Trading Standards regulations.

There are only five companies producing herbal remedies for animals which are members of the BHMA, these are: -

  • Denes Natural Pet Care
  • Dodson & Horrell
  • Dorwest Herbs
  • Hiltons Herbs
  • NAF (Natural Animal Feeds)

However, the British Herbal Medicine Association, which was founded in 1964, issued a Code Of Practice in June 2000 for all members of the association who produce HUMAN remedies which are exempt from licensing. This Code of Practice lays down quality standards for the selection of plants, the manufacturing processes and the packaging & labeling of herbal remedies as well as procedures for reporting defects and adverse reactions.

Strictly speaking, this Code of Practice only relates to the production of human remedies but it is expected that those companies involved in the manufacture of herbal remedies for animals will also apply the principles of the Code of Practice to the production of remedies for animals.

Whilst the enforcement of the Code of Practice is the responsibility of the BHMA, at the present time, there are not sufficient resources available to undertake more than an occasional random sampling and testing. It is, however, expected that such a system will be eventually superseded by regulatory enforcement.

See also Ayurveda and the use of Indian Herbal remedies

Are Herbs Safe?

Myth... "Herbs are natural, so they are good for animals and they are safe."

Reality... There are many plants that will make an animal (or human) very ill, some that will kill!

Anyone with a horse should know about the dangers of Privet, Ragwort, Foxglove, Acorn, Hemlock etc.

What about Marijuana, Poppy, Tobacco or even, to a lesser extent, Coffee - all natural plants which could hardly be classed as harmless.

Sometimes one part of a plant is poisonous while another part isn't. Sometimes a particular plant is poisonous to one species of animal but not to another.

The effects of "herbs" should never be underestimated!