Do natural and herbal always mean safe for our pets?

As the use of supplements and alternative therapies continues to rise for our pet population, it’s important to consider the safety of our furry family members.

While the terms “natural” and “herbal” have a reassuring sound, they are not indicators of either quality or safety in a product or service. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently requested public comment on the use of the term “natural,” but it is not currently regulated on pet food or supplement labels.

There is no official definition and there are no requirements for making this claim. In fact, there are supplements and therapies that can actually be harmful to pets.

Here are just a few examples of natural and/or herbal therapies that can be dangerous for pets:

  • Tea tree oil: Application of concentrated tea tree oil to the skin or oral exposure is considered moderately to severely toxic and may be life-threatening to pets. Symptoms include vomiting, weakness, incoordination, seizures, liver toxicity and coma in cats and dogs. Even lower concentrations can cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals.
  • Garlic and onion: Ingestion of these foods from the allium family by dogs or cats can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, collapse and anemia, as well as possible increased bleeding tendencies at surgery.
  • Alpha lipoic acid (ALA): Found in many supplements, ALA can cause hypoglycemia, seizures and liver toxicity in pets at higher doses.
  • Aloe: When ingested, aloe in its various forms can result in vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy and rarely tremors.
  • Ephedra/ma huang: Found in some weight loss products and herbal decongestants, this stimulant can cause hyperactivity, racing heart rate, fever, tremors, seizures and death from cardiovascular collapse.
  • White willow bark: Typically used for its possible anti-inflammatory effects, this herb contains salicylates that are particularly toxic to cats. It can also have dangerous interactions with anti-inflammatory medications and heart medications that are prescribed to pets.
  • Pennyroyal oil: While considered a pest/flea repellant, this oil is extremely toxic to pets if ingested and can cause vomiting, difficulty breathing, liver toxicity and death.
  • Marijuana and cannabinoids: Ingestion of any formulation and/or inhalation of smoke from marijuana may result in hypothermia, incoordination, seizures, coma and even death. Safe dosing of marijuana and its various formulations has not been determined for cats and dogs.

Even supplements that are generally considered safe can be dangerous when over-consumed by a pet. This is particularly concerning given the number of supplements that are increasingly incorporated into appealing, flavorful treats. For example, when ingested in large quantities, joint supplements can lead to gastrointestinal upset, liver toxicity and blood sugar regulation problems in pets.

There is also a general lack of regulation and monitoring of supplement health claims, especially for pet-specific products. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 requires that product labels with claims regarding beneficial health effects also have the statement: “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” However, the FDA and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have taken the positions that this act does not apply to animals.

Supplement quality and efficacy are not closely regulated either. A label description of ingredients and dosages may vary significantly from the actual dose delivered, and there are risks of supplement contamination with potentially harmful substances. Product contaminants such as heavy metals may be harmful, especially with long-term use. Ensuring that a supplement has been tested by an independent laboratory is helpful.

Listed below are some websites that may be helpful in evaluating supplements, but keep in mind that websites can be fallible, and there is variation from batch to batch in the manufacturing of any product:

  • Maintained by the FDA, this site describes regulation of supplements and reporting of adverse events.
  • This site by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) lists human supplements that have met independent testing requirements for quality, potency and safety. USP audits the manufacturing facilities for these supplements as well.
  • Labdoor is an independent company that tests supplements through FDA-approved laboratories for label accuracy and contaminants.
  • This site charges a fee for members to access their reports evaluating primarily human supplements.

Ultimately, your veterinarian can be your partner in helping you assess the need for supplements, as well as safety concerns and potential for interactions. It’s important to always inform your veterinarian of all supplements your pet is taking, especially if you’re having your pet evaluated for illness or prior to surgery.