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IN CHINESE HERBAL MEDICINE, ephedra is a well-known herbal supplement for people and pets with respiratory conditions including asthma.

Therapeutic Uses
Ma huang was traditionally used by Chinese herbalists during the early stages of respiratory infections, and also for the short-term treatment of certain kinds of asthma, eczema, hay fever, narcolepsy, and edema. However, ma huang was not supposed to be taken for an extended period of time, and people with less than robust constitutions were warned to use only low doses or avoid ma huang altogether. Japanese chemists isolated ephedrine from ma huang (only the Asian species of ephedra contains the active compounds ephedrine and pseudoephedrine). It soon became a primary treatment for asthma in the United States and abroad.

Ephedra’s other major ingredient, pseudoephedrine, became the decongestant Sudafed. Dieters now use ephedrine as a weight-loss supplement.

When used properly, ephedra may be useful as a short-term treatment for sinus congestion and mild asthma.

In people, it is recommended that ephedrine not be used for more than one week. In view of the documented dangers of ephedrine, medical supervision is highly recommended when using ephedra. Some holistic veterinarians recommend not using it in pets due to the potential side effects.

The pet should be prescribed the lowest dosage possible and strict veterinary supervision is essential. For pets with asthma, long-term therapy will probably be necessary, and close monitoring by your veterinarian is essential.

Safety Issues

Those with enlargement of the prostate, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, glaucoma, or hyperthyroidism should not take ephedra. Furthermore, it should never be combined with MAO inhibitors or fatal reactions may develop. If symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, anxiety or restlessness develop, see your veterinarian.

Cats exhibit idiosyncratic reactions; for this reason, it should probably not be used in cats. Ephedra, most commonly prescribed for pets with asthma or respiratory problems, can cause heart arrhythmias and high blood pressure. Use with great caution in all pets. It should always be combined with other herbs to allow the use of the lowest dose of ephedra possible.

Ephedrine mimics the effects of adrenaline and causes symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, agitation, insomnia, nausea, and loss of appetite. Unscrupulous manufacturers have promoted ma huang as a natural hallucinogen (herbal ecstasy) and not as a bronchial decongestant. Dosages of ephedrine required to produce psychoactive effects are exceedingly toxic to the heart; the FDA has documented deaths of otherwise healthy young people who reportedly used ephedrine for psychedelic purposes.

Ephedra is not recommended for young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe liver, heart or kidney disease; similar precautions are probably warranted in pets.

The leaves and stems of the mature coltsfoot plant are often recommended by herbalists for the therapy of various respiratory disorders.

It is recommended for pets with asthma, and respiratory infections, including kennel cough. It acts as an antimicrobial, expectorant, and cough suppressant.

Safety Issues
The flowers (not the leaves and stems) contain small quantities of alkaloids that can cause liver damage or cancer if taken in large quantities. Use only as directed and for short periods of time (one to two weeks). Do not use in pregnant animals or pets with liver disease.

Lobelia may be useful in certain respiratory condition in dogs and cats, including bronchitis and asthma, and as a general respiratory stimulant.

While useful for respiratory problems, lobelia can act as a nervous system depressant. This may make it useful for pets with excess nervous system stimulation, such as those with epilepsy or hyperactivity.

While generally safe, at high doses lobelia can cause vomiting. An active ingredient in lobelia has nicotine-like actions. It should not be used during pregnancy or lactation, and care should be used if combined with other supplements or medications that can depress the nervous system.

Feverfew contains several chemicals; the major one of interest is the lactone parthenolide. For many years, it was assumed that this was the active ingredient. Numerous articles were published explaining that parthenolide caused platelets to release serotonin and reduce the synthesis of prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes. Based on this premature explanation, authors complained that samples of feverfew on the market varied as much as ten-to-one in their parthenolide content.

However a study found that an extract of feverfew standardized to a high-parthenolide content is entirely ineffective. Apparently, this high-parthenolide extract lacked some essential substance or group of substances present in the whole leaf. What those substances may remain mysterious.

Therapeutic Uses Feverfew is often recommended in people with migraines and for its anti-inflammatory effects, which help pets with asthma. It might also be of benefit for pets with arthritis. This herb inhibits platelet clumping and inhibits the formation of histamine and serotonin, which may be of benefit to pets with asthma or allergies. It contains (especially the flowers and upper stems) pyrethrins and can be used as a natural flea control rinse.

It may be useful as a safe “aspirin substitute” in cats as it does not contain salicylic acid.

Avoid during pregnancy to prevent abortion. The fresh foliage can cause mouth ulcers, and only the dried herb should be used. Feed a test dose first to check for oral irritation and sensitivity. Do not use internally for more than one week at a time. Do not use in pregnant animals.

Do not use in animals with platelet problems or bleeding disorders.

Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe kidney or liver disease has not been established; similar warnings probably apply in pets.

Shawn Messonnier, DVM

As my thank you for reading my articles, enter code “drshawn” at my natural products web store,, to save 10% on all your future purchases!

Shawn Messonnier DVM Past Supporting Member, Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians Author, the award-winning The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and Breast Choices for the Best Chances: Your Breasts, Your Life, and How YOU Can Win The Battle!

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