With all the fires raging across California, and smoke thick over the whole area but also moving Eastward across the continent, the herbal world is filled with ideas to support humans exposed to the bad air…but what about our animals? I’d like to address every species, but this entry will at least talk about dogs, and how you can help them cope with exposure. I’d like to write on cats too, they can’t be included under the one heading as they really are different, physiologically, metabolically – so what works and is safe for the canine may be outright wrong for the feline. To start, here are some ideas on ways to help support respiratory health in a dog exposed to bad air, specifically smoke. If the exposure has been severe, you need to see a vet – this entry refers to chronic lower levels.
First – what does smoke exposure do in the dog’s body? Well, much the same as in our own – it irritates, dries and damages sensitive respiratory tissue, causing local discomfort, difficulty breathing in some cases, triggering allergic response and even asthma, with coughing, scratchy throat, runny nose and wheezing – and irritated eyes. You may notice sneezing, coughing, redness in the eyes, discharge from nose and eyes, attempts to rub the face into carpet or sofa (itch). As with humans, some individuals may be more susceptible to the effects of breathing in smoke – elderly dogs, dogs with heart conditions and of course, brachycephalics (flat faced breeds like Pugs, Pekingese and French Bulldogs). Even in the absence of symptoms, inhaling smoky air for any period of time places stress on the body, so the obvious ideal is to get the animal out of it.If that can’t happen, a few herbal ideas can ease symptoms and help the body to deal with the consequences.
One note here – I have seen in many places, advice to “use adaptogens which help the dog deal with stress”. This is, to put it mildly, not the best advice, however a good place it comes from. Adaptogens are potent herbs that, probably of all groups, need the greatest care in selection (to match the individual) preparation, and dosing. Please don’t just throw rhodiola at the dog; although the current trend of almost homeopathic dose levels likely won’t affect them one way or the other, it’s still not the best idea. Adaptogens (I have a blog entry here Adaptogens for Dogs – an introduction and recipe ) are wonderful tools of support when used correctly, and they work over time. In the case of smoke inhalation, you need other types of herbs first, which we will discuss below; perhaps relaxing nervines, but adaptogens can wait until the short term crisis is over and you can speak with a clinical herbalist.
So, first off – think short term – think about the following:
1) Nourishment – ensuring nutrient balance and easily digested food
2) Elimination – supporting the organs/systems in the body that remove toxins, and easing up on the toxin load
3) Immune support – we don’t need aggressive “boosting” but some herbs and fungi can be important
4) Direct relief (respiratory, eyes) -perhaps the most important element, a wide array of compresses, steams, honeys and electuaries, decoctions, glycerites and powers to ease inflammation in airways, soothe itchy eyes, loosen tough, dry mucus and more
5) Specific areas of vulnerability ( the animal with pre-existing allergies, heart disease, infectious disease)
Addressing these strategies as a group will yield better protection than focusing solely on one.
It seems obvious that nutrition is always critical for good health and helping the body cope with dis-ease. Keeping the animal nourished during times of emotional stress and exposure to smoke, provides the foundation for healing and for all other treatments, herbal or veterinary. Hydration is key – make sure they are drinking – and optimal diet may mean cooked foods here, too. If there are burns or risk of infection, I would take the extra precaution and not feed raw, if that is the dog’s usual diet (pro and con here; some dogs may be stressed enough without a diet change, others welcome cooked meals, easily digested and comforting). Of course, many dogs eat kibble, and in that case I would recommend not changing up too much; the addition of fresh food is always a good plan if done carefully (not feeding the same foods all the time, moderate fat supplementation and small bits of organ only). Bone broth, mushroom broth, simple stewed chicken with sweet potato are all nice additions if you can do it. Obviously, we are speaking here about animals safe frorm the fire zone but affected by air quality. Adding plentiful, rotated veggies eases inflammation by boosting flavonoids. I strongly support moderate levels of Vitamin C here, unless it is contraindicated (such as dogs who form bladder stones, for example, or bowel sensitivity). Think about 50 mgs for a toy/small dog, 100 for a medium, 250 – 500 for a large/giant breed. Of course you can use whole foods – but some (such as citrus and peppers) may not be welcomed and too much fiber (say, fro broccoli) can upset digestion. I’m a fan of using supplements wherever indicated, and I like Vitamin C here. Takeaway Message: nourishing foods like chicken stew or broth, steamed assorted veggies, goats milk or yogurt, sardines are all nice additions to any diet, and cooked food may be gentler on the system short term, than raw. Avoiding beef and other red meats for the duration of the exposure can ease stress on the liver. You know your dog, don’t make changes that will upset her. Some Vitamin C is a non-essential nutrient we don’t *need* to add, but can be helpful here. Dose conservatively, and stop if there is a bowel reaction (not usually at low dose, but worth checking all the same).
Ask the average person about what to do for something like smoke exposure and you will often hear “detox”. As an herbalist, I have a love/hate relationship with this term. On the one hand, pathways of elimination (all, not just digestion) can often use a hand when dealing with an excessive and sudden toxin load. We add liver, bowel, lymphatic, urinary and respiratory support for exactly this reason – to lend a hand to the organs that purify the body. On the other hand, the whole notion of “detox” has been overstated, dumbed-down, misapplied and generally used to sell a lot of unnecessary potions to an unsuspecting and often anxious public. Ask most herbalists what they think of “detox” and a huge eye-roll will generally follow.
So, I’m not going to contribute to that by suggesting “detoxing” your dog. I do think that anytime the body is stressed as it is with poor air quality, the right type of liver support, perhaps a little help moving the bowel, and easing stress on the kidney are all good ideas. What I usually see missing is a lymphagogue – an action that describes stimulation of the lymph system, which may need a helping hand a well. I like to think about all the body’s eliminative pathways and blend a support formula to address them all. If I can work with an individual, all the better, but when I can’t, I like to see people utilize the safest and most broad-spectrum herbal approach. Think about dandelion, calendula, violet, burdock, milk thistle. Think gentle support, not aggressively trying to clean out the body with herbs.
Takeaway Message: if the body is healthy and the diet is balanced, we don’t need to use herbs aggressively to “CLEAN OUT” the body. It will do that itself, like it does all the time. We’re just helping ease the burden, on all systems. This is important, but by no means the only thing to do.
Support the Immune System
Probably tied with “detox”, in the public mind the most important thing to do is boost the immune system. And again, this is a partially great idea, that does get distorted somewhat. First thing to know – “boosting” the immune system is not our goal here, although in cases of secondary infection, it might be. For the most part, we can think about offering some extra support, in a broad way, and zeroing in on specific aspects as indicated. Very briefly, I like to add a mushroom blend, if your dog isn’t already on one. I love the Dual Extract 5-Mushroom blend from Harmonic Arts – if I could only pick one, it would be Reishi. But the blend offers the kind of support I personally like to see wherever there is lung irritation, stress to the kidney (potential) and the need for a little immune support. And you don’t need much – my 90 pounders get 1/2 teaspoon daily. Whatever brand you decide, make sure it features Reishi and hopefully, Cordyceps; follow the label instructions (or come join me on Facebook and we can talk about this more).
I also really love an elderberry preparation of some kind here.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra, canadensis) is a wonderful, safe, immune supportive herb you can prepare in several ways for your dog. How I do it, depends on whether the dog likes the taste (sometimes) or doesn’t care for it (often). Tincture (glycerin based) decoction or powdered(I like to simmer into honey) can all be useful. I wrote more on elderberry here: Herbs to Know – Elder
Lastly, if your dog is not on a probiotic, this is a good time to add one. Choosing what will work is a whole different subject and will take more time than I have here, but there are many great products, and I feel this is not the time to experiment with fermented foods, but add a wellknown and safe probiotic.
Takeaway Message – Unless there is a reason to do otherwise, such as infection, a gentle immune tonic is a better plan than aggressively trying to boost the system. Elderberry, and/or mushrooms, along with a probiotic are often more than ample to help your dog stay well. Signs of active infection – fever,heavy discharge from eyes or nose, malaise – should be handed by a vet asap.
Address the Respiratory Tract
So, this is the obvious one and yet I have it listed as fourth in line. So, let me say it might well be the first and the only thing you need to do. Diet, and support for the immune systems and pathways of elimination are whole -dog strategies that can strengthen your dog’s natural resources, and bolster their ability to offset secondary infection, for example. In this section I want to look at herbs to directly address the upper and lower respiratory system – and the eyes – the areas most directly and often brutally affected.
First – you need to evaluate symptoms. And the first thing to assess is mucus! Is the mucus bloody, copious and clear, is it scant but thick? And then – what other symptoms do you see? Is there sneezing? Coughs can be dry and hacking, or moist “productive” with clear mucus (or green yellow, bloody). It’s important to get a sense of the symptoms and choose herbs accordingly – the following is a super brief outline to help you with choices.
1) Dry hacking coughs need a soothing, moistening approach with anti-inflammatory support – you could consider marshmallow root, slippery elm, plantain – with elecampane to balance and support lungs. Mullein is indicated here as well but if you make a water based preparation please be sure to thoroughly strain it.. I like a glycerite formulation of mullein, wild cherry, licorice and plantain.
2) Moist boggy coughs that bring up a lot of phlegm can be better served with warming, spicy elecampane, hyssop, yerba santa and ginger.
3) If there is no cough but lots of nasal discharge, a different strategy applies. Clear and copious discharge, especially with sneezing, indicates a need for goldenrod, eyebright – possibly bromelain or turmeric(often combined as a potent, histamine lowering anti inflammatory.)
I’m not attempting to give a full differential here, but rather just point out that herbs are very powerful in addressing nasal and eye irritation, but they become much more so when matched well to the symptoms. I often like to make electuaries – warm some good quality honey and add powdered herbs – stir well, cool and roll into soft balls. These can make some of the more bitter/strong tasting herbs more palatable. I especially like this method of there is dry hacking cough; adding slippery elm, rose hip powder, mallow root into honey and applying to the roof of the mouth can greatly ease the soreness of throat, bronchial and nasal passages irritated and inflamed by smoke inhalation. Takeaway Message – – something you can and should do for your dog is add herbs to support the lungs and ease irritation. Herbs listed as “repsiratory” encompass a wide range of actions and energetics, so care is needed in selection. If air is dry, try running a humidifier; avoid essential oils but consider simmering mild, safe herbs to moisten air. In a healthy dog, with a good immune system and robust overall health, this may well be the one thing you actually need to do.
Address Specific Areas of Vulnerability
While chronic smoke exposure is not good for any animal, dogs with heart disease,allergies, cancer, laryngeal paralysis, tracheal collapse and various forms of anxiety will be more vulnerable to the effects. This is most often a veterinary call, I suggest extra vigilance with your health-challenged dog who is under this additional stress. My articles on heart health, cancer and anxiety (nervines) will provide some extra information for herbal support.
I know this is a lot of information, I tried to keep it as brief as possible. Many people may feel like it’s a lot to do, a lot to order/prepare (who has time to make electuaries??) and that’s fair enough. So in summation a few simple ways to support your dog while they are living with smoky air. Any and all can help. And if you want to make electuaries, I’m right there with you.
1) If the air is dry, and your dog has a dry cough, consider an herbal steam. I don’t use essential oils here, but thyme, calendula and conifer needles (pine, fir, spruce) make a gently moistening steam with anti-fungal, antibacterial actions.
2) If you can gear your herbs to the symptoms you dog displays, that’s ideal. If not, my choice is a glycerite of Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) administered by weight: if you are able to work with herbs like Elecampane, Marshmallow, Licorice and Hyssop, even better. A few recipes in my next article on this topic.
3) Add some good quality Vitamin C, Ester-C may be easier on the stomach. Rosehip powder is very high in C, but also very drying, so if you use it, add a bit of mallowroot powder to balance the effect. Stay conservative – in terms of dosing
4) Consider taking your dog with existing health issues to the vet.
5) These masks may help many dogs, as will indoor HEPA filters. https://www.dogpollutionmask.com/
6) As always – optimal nutrition is key. Whether it is a good quality commercial food, or a home prepared (raw or cooked) diet, make sure your dog’s diet is balanced, high quality and digestible.
More next time on respiratory health in general, and a few recipes. Stay safe!