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Correct application of herbal medicine in equines
2637_horse_small.jpg Picture: © Bayer Animal Health
Use of herbal medicine in equine practice is growing rapidly, mostly because clients are using more herbs. Plants can offer an excellent way to treat chronic disease without the side effects of long-term drug therapy. But it is also well-known that very potent toxins are of herbal origin. What needs to be considered before using them?

Herbal medicine is gaining popularity among horse owners and veterinarians.

As with any form of medicine, potential for abuse and incorrect use exists. Correct use of herbal medicine requires training and understanding of the disease process. Herbal medicines are generally recognized as safe, however, herb quality and skill of the herbalist making the formula are important in determining the outcome. Clients often purchase herbs but they mix many products, which creates a potentially confusing picture for the veterinarian.

Herbal history
Herbs are the oldest form of medicine that has been used by most cultures for ages. Any history of veterinary medicine would be incomplete without many references to herbal medicine.

The actions of some herbs are well documented since many present-day drugs are derived from herbs. The major herbal preparations available in this country are based on European, Native American or Chinese principles. Many journals are devoted to scientific research on herbal medicine.

Adverse effects of herbs
Since most herbs have been in use for centuries, their safety is well proven by clinical experience, but not always by scientific research. The few cases of adverse effects of herbs are often heavily reported in the media. However, the adverse effects of drugs are rarely publicized beyond the insert sheet, unless thousands of people or animals become involved.

Most cases of adverse effects from herbs have involved incorrect usage of herbs by unqualified practitioners and lay people. The use of the Chinese herb, Ma Huang, is a classic example. Chinese herbalists consider Ma Huang a toxic herb that is useful in a carefully balanced formula for short-term use in asthmatics. The contraindications for use of the herb include high blood pressure and heart disease, conditions that occur frequently in overweight people. In the United States, many diet pills contain Ma Huang. Any adverse effects are directly related to the misuse of the herb, not to the correct Chinese use of it.

Herbs are traditionally combined into formulas. A correct formulation will have herbs that act synergistically more effectively than when used alone. Because there are many chemical compounds in each herb in a formula, traditional research finds it difficult to isolate the active principle and decide exactly how an herb works. However, herbal research lends itself well to efficacy studies.

Western (American, European) herbal prescribing by a trained herbalist includes treating the whole symptom picture. However, because there are only a few trained veterinary herbalists, most western herbal treatments are done with prepared products for a single symptom.

Chinese herbal prescribing is based upon a complete Chinese medical diagnosis similar to that done for acupuncture. Chinese herbology requires a great deal of study beyond acupuncture training and only a few veterinarians in the United States have studied Chinese herbs in detail. However, some herbal formulas prepared by well-trained herbalists can be used successfully with minimal training in Chinese diagnostics.

Preparation of herbs
Doses for herbs vary approximately with the metabolic rate of the animal. In other words, small animals require significantly more herbs per pound than horses. Horses generally respond well with two to four times the human dose, as long as the herbs are of high quality. The dose of herbs is usually about 30 grams to 60 grams daily, depending on the formula and size of the horse. Horses eat raw whole or ground herbs readily and are capable of digesting raw herbs. Raw herbs have a shelf life of only one to two years, while herbs processed as alcohol extracts and tablets last longer.

External preparations of ointments and gels are available and are easily used in equine practice. To make such preparations, herbs are mixed with lanolin, oils, beeswax, honey or water-soluble gel.

Wound healing preparations are most common and clinically give rapid healing with minimal scarring. Compresses are made by soaking cotton in a hot tea or infusion. Poultices can be made with fresh or dried whole herb with a carrier such as water or vinegar. Liniments are prepared with alcohol extracts. Most topical preparations can be used with or without bandages.

Quality control
Very little quality control exists in the natural products industry, and herbal companies contribute to the problem. However, certain individual companies do focus on quality control and willingly answer all related questions. Call the company and ask for details. If they are not forthcoming or give you the runaround, look for other sources. The veterinary industry has an organization working toward national quality control standards (National Animal Supplement Council (NASC)). Look for companies that are members of NASC.

The quality and efficacy of an herbal formula is also dependent on the herbalist or manufacturer, which may or may not be well educated. Companies should be forthcoming with the names, experience and training of their formulators, not just indicate that a veterinarian has approved it. Interspecies differences in sensitivities to herbs are worth noting - i.e., herbs that are safe in humans may not be safe for horses. Be wary of companies that have adapted human formulas without knowledge of equine physiology.

The quality of Chinese herbs has been scrutinized, as it is known that some contain heavy metals and other contaminants. However, herbs sold to professional U.S. markets are the best quality that China produces. They are generally not sprayed with pesticides though there may be elemental sulfur added as a fungicide. Much more caution is advised with Chinese herbs sold over-the-counter in health food stores and elsewhere.

Treatment with herbs
Most illnesses and injuries can be treated with herbs, though surgical problems may still need surgery. Herbs can be combined with conventional medicine, and many clients are doing this often without informing the attending veterinarian. Herbs are powerful medicines, and can interact with drugs so it is advisable to know the herbs being used in each case. More data is being gathered about herb-drug interactions, but very little is researched in the equine.

Herbal formulas are most commonly and successfully used for chronic problems, though acute diseases can also be treated. Among the conditions responsive to herbs and frequently seen by practitioners are: arthritis, respiratory conditions, behavior problems, mare reproductive problems, inflammatory conditions, bleeders, immune system weakness, ulcers, hormonal imbalances, liver problems and skin disease.

Herbs are slow to make a clinical change, so some clients will not wish to wait for the response. Healing occurs in weeks to months rather than days, however, healing may be more complete than with conventional medicine.

Source: Joyce Harman (2003): Herbs and horses can mix for better health: Correct application of herbal medicine in equines depends on extensive understanding of disease process, practitioner says. In: DVM Newsmagazine November 1, 2003. www.dvmnewsmagazine.com/dvm/

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