Last year during April, we initiated some preemptive measures to stave off the onset of spring and summer allergies. March showers bring a profusion of April floral activity here in the Bay Area. Even I have been sniffling more than usual, indicating that something is already in the air. So last year around this time, we started giving Bowdu a Benadryl tablet every other day to block those histamine receptors before things really had a chance to go nuts. During the peak of summer, he was still getting Benadryl just about every day, though he was on no prescription meds. We got through last summer rather smoothly, but as a complex and chronic concern, I’m always looking to find out more about allergy treatment options.
A preliminary disclosure: I’m no expert; I’m just presenting the notes I collected from a talk I attended. I think I maintain reasonable skepticism of veterinary practices in general, though my own background and experiences have made me far more sympathetic to holistic care. I grew up with two scientist parents who have been employed for decades by a major pharmaceuticals company (mom works in their animal health department — there are many clinical trial reports floating about the internal document library that were edited by said employee’s teenaged daughter). Yet our entire family has frequently turned to traditional Chinese medicine than manufactured drugs to alleviate our own chronic ailments.
Which just goes to say that I don’t necessarily advocate any one “school” or type of medicine over another. As long as one is willing to counterbalance the information they receive from professionals with their own research, I think there is merit in exploring new ideas.
At the end of last month, I attended a talk on “Holistic treatments for pet allergies” hosted by a local pet boutique and headed by a well-respected local holistic veterinarian, Dr. Anne Reed. You can check her website for her credentials, as I did before I signed up for the event. The talk was booked to capacity, and the crowd consisted primarily of women, age 30 and older. Many attendees were already familiar with Dr. Reed’s services. I was not. Despite rave reviews and a decent network of resources in our area, we have not yet made the costly plunge into holistic veterinary care (for example, Dr. Reed’s current rates are $210 for a first intake, or $265 for a first house call). The $10 entrance fee to this event seemed a mere pittance in comparison.
Dr. Reed began by laying out the differences between Western medicine and holistic medicine (a term which she used interchangeably with “Chinese medicine”). As she explained it, the default position with Western medicine regards the allergen — the pollen, dander, food in rare cases of true food allergies as opposed to intolerances, etc. — as the problem. Treatment options are thus focused on eliminating the offending allergen by figuring out what to avoid (hence, the costly tests that still often register false positives), or eliminating the body’s response to allergens through specialized diets of “food-like substances” (hydrolyzed protein prescription diets), immune suppressing drugs (Prednisone and prednisolone, antihistamines, cyclosporin), or complex immunotherapy (which remains prohibitively costly and time consuming for most pet owners).
The problem is that the immune system, when suppressed for such long periods of time, relishes the opportunity to get back to “work,” so allergic reactions frequently tend to get worse over time. When your pet is taken off those drugs, the immune system kicks back in overdrive mode, so future allergic responses tend to get more extreme, or last longer, or branch out to new allergens that were never a problem before. Dr. Reed confessed to dreading the patients who come to her as a last resort because the drugs that have been prescribed to them for years no longer work; it takes a significantly longer time to undo the damage than the temporary relief of prescription drugs, and for this reason, she recommends that pet owners do everything in their power to stay away from these drugs in the first place.
Holistic medicine, on the other hand, is not concerned with identifying specific allergens, because it takes the body as the foundation for all improvements, not external factors. If the body is healthy and balanced and everything is working properly, it should be well equipped to handle the stressors of living and functioning as natural beings in a normal environment. Not so much to expect our bodies to behave, right? Well, as dog people know, ideal behaviors come through consistent and steady training, and our bodies can be conditioned in a similar way.
As a holistic practitioner, she doesn’t really look at or consider allergy tests. In her experience, the results frequently have a demoralizing effect — how is it fair, after all, that a household pet can or should be allergic to human dander or grass? The best that the tests can do, in her experience, is buy some time as she works to strengthen the body’s immune response through holistic means.
To that end, food is her essential starting block. She briefly debunked the idea rehashed by many pet owners that some common proteins are inherently evil (chicken, beef, and lamb are oft-named culprits) or that any specific breed typically does not do well with any particular protein. If certain breeds seem predisposed to reject specific types of proteins, she’s more likely to ascribe the problems to genetic factors and how the pets were bred, not necessarily what breed they are. She did not spend much time on this point, but she did allude to grave concerns that generations of kibble-fed dogs have resulted in generations of modern dogs that are ill-equipped to adapt as nature intended.
At the same time, Dr. Reed was very pragmatic about acknowledging that a fully home-cooked or raw diet is not possible for many homes. To that end, we can only do the best that we can, but there is nothing like a good diet of fresh and balanced food to start your pet off on the right foot. She spent some time talking about the differences between home cooking and raw food. One note that I jotted down which resonated with past knowledge is that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners actually don’t advocate a diet of exclusively raw meat, because too much “cold” food (and “cold” means more than temperature here) can be damaging to the spleen and other vital organs. If your pet tends to be energetically “hot,” and allergies are symptomatic of such a state, then a raw diet can certainly help. However, bodies and metabolism do not remain stable over a lifetime, so you should be prepared to adjust as necessary. If nothing else, TCM reminds us that natural systems are constantly in flux. We may strive for perfect balance, though we cannot assume permanence!
There is much more to be said on the intricacies of traditional Chinese medicine, but rather than stray too far from her main topic, Dr. Reed recommended that interested parties do their own research. She recommended Four Paws, Five Directions: A Guide to Chinese Medicine for Cats and Dogs by Cheryl Schwartz as a good starting point for pet owners. Personally, I’ve had a look at this title in the past and found it problematic in many ways, but that’s a post for another time. Dr. Reed praises the book for giving a broad, if someone dizzying overview of TCM in current practice.
Next, she turned to specific allergy treatments that pet owners can work with. I’ve tried to organize and represent the information based on notes to the best of my ability. If I have made any transcription or factual errors, I will follow up and correct the information.
Functions: to decrease inflammation, build cell membranes, help joints, etc. Omega-3s and Essential Fatty Acids are widely touted, so you can look up the benefits with little problem.
Use: Look for a DHA/EPA number between 50 ~ 100 mg/kg, a capsule of about 1000 mg / day is a good maintenance dose.
Issues: In the past, vets could solve lots of problems fairly efficiently by giving pets just Omega-3s, but this no longer seems to be as effective because commercial pet foods are now supplementing with their own essential fatty acids. Consequently, pets need more Omega-3s in order to counterbalance the Omega-6s in commercial diets. Also, just because everyone sings the praises of fish oils and because this is a “holistic” approach doesn’t mean that there are no side effects. Too much Omega-3, for example, has been associated with increased clotting time (so animals may bleed easier and keep bleeding) — a concern if your pet is going in for surgery. Clean and sustainable sourcing of fish oils is an ongoing concern as well, so make sure to monitor the quality of your product.
- Digestive enzymes.
Functions: to help “rest” the digestive tract and allow associated organs some relief while promoting nutritional absorption and decreasing intestinal inflammation
Use: Pick a simple, plant-based enzyme (she likes Standard Process Multizyme and Prozyme), typically added at about 1/4 teaspoon per cup of food.
Issues: Digestive and skin health are closely related in holistic medicine. You want your pet’s skin looking and feeling as healthy as possible. Paw pads shouldn’t be crusty, but rather, feel “like a pair of fine driving gloves,” even though they meet concrete and ground every single day. The best way to improve skin is through digestion, and if your pet’s skin and coat are looking good, everything else is probably reasonably in balance.
- Vitamin C
Functions: to serve as a natural antihistamine, to strengthen cellular bonds, to serve as a “cooling” agent
Use: about 500 ~ 1000 mg per day, once a day, for a 50 pound dog
Issues: I didn’t get a chance to ask whether this was a temporary measure or a more permanent supplement, as I’d read conflicting information about whether or not this is necessary, or potentially harmful for pets. If i get a chance to follow up, I will update here.
- Bovine colostrum
Functions: to promote digestive health by “sealing up” the cellular walls of the intestinal tract, aiding in better digestion, among other functions
Use: look for it in powdered form, follow recommended dosing information
Issues: She didn’t get much time to talk about this one, so I may be missing some details. This is a “quick” and more short-term fix that she seemed enthusiastic to endorse, though she doesn’t use it over the long run.
- Freeze-dried nettle
Function: as a homeopathic remedy particularly useful for inhaled allergies
Use: about 1/4 tsp per 50 pounds of dog
Issues: It may cause several days to a week of itchiness or irritation until you see improvement. However, she has found this particularly effective to ward off seasonal allergies just as they are appearing. She did not say how long one should keep feeding the nettles (over a whole season?). This is also meant to be a short term remedy.
At this point, Dr. Reed started running out of time, so she blitzed through the potential uses of apple cider vinegar (messing with pH is controversial, but she recommends 1 Tbsp/50 pounds of dog in certain situations), green tripe (a “miracle food” loaded with enzymes), and green leafy vegetables (good for the liver). On Vitamin E, she has not found it absolutely necessary to add this in combination with fish oil, as some years she has recommended it, and some years she has not, yet has seen no difference either way. She thinks that pets are compensating for the supposed depletion of Vitamin E in other ways, particularly if they get a good mix of organs in their balanced meal.
IN CONCLUSION: patience and perseverance, and staying away from prescription allergy meds, puts your pet on the right track to long-term health. You may not see immediate results with the approaches that she outlined, but in the best cases, you will be able to look back after some time and account for significant differences. I know that has certainly been the case for us here at the House of Two Bows.