Kava, a member of the pepper family, is well known for its use as a sedating herb due to its kavalactone and other chemicals. One of the most active of these is dihydrokavain, which has been found to produce a sedative, painkilling, and anticonvulsant effect. Other kavalactones include kavain, methysticin, and dihydromethysticin.
Therapeutic Uses of Lava in Pets
Kava can be used in place of chemical tranquilizers and may be helpful for pets with epilepsy. The effects appear to occur by action on the limbic center of the brain or the amygdala, different from the actions of enzodiazepenes (such as diazepam), opioids, and nonsteroidal medications. Suggested actions include modulating of neurotransmitters including GABA, MAO, dopamine, and 5-HT. Unlike other sedatives, kava does not appear to interfere with motor function or cause a depression of mental function.
Kava also exhibits analgesic properties in a manner unlike other traditional pain-relieving medications. Kava, unlike other sedatives, does not lose effectiveness with time (a condition called tolerance that can be seen with some sedating medications). Kava also shows muscle-relaxing properties that are superior to the benzodiazepenes. Finally, kava may prove useful during the recovery period following brain injury (similar to the proposed use in stroke patients).
Kava kava can be toxic to the liver in excess. Do not use in pets with liver disease. Do not use in pregnant animals. Little is known about its safety in pets, although it appears to be safe when used as directed by veterinarians. It is not recommended for long-term use. Typical products are standardized to 29 to 31 percent kavalactones. Excess use can cause liver disease. Use of kava may potentiate anesthetics and other sedatives. In people, excessive use of high doses of kava beverages causes kava dermatitis. For people, the Commission E monograph recommends using kava for no more the three months.
When used appropriately, kava appears to be safe. Animal studies have shown dosages of up to four times that of normal cause no problems at all, and 13 times the normal dosage causes only mild problems in rats. A study of 4049 people who took a low dose of kava (70 mg of kavalactones daily) for seven weeks found side effects in 1.5 percent of cases. These were mostly mild gastrointestinal complaints and allergic rashes. A four-week study of 3029 individuals given 240 mg of kavalactones daily showed a 2.3 percent incidence of basically the same side effects. However, long-term use (months to years) of kava in excess of 400 mg kavalactones per day can create a distinctive generalized dry, scaly rash. It disappears promptly when the kava use stops.
The German Commission E monograph warns against the use of kava during pregnancy and nursing. Kava should not be taken along with prescription tranquilizers or sedatives, or other depressant drugs as there have been reports of coma caused by such combinations. Kava can also cause severe drowsiness when combined with hypnotic drugs. Kava might increase blood-clotting time. Safety in young children and those with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established. Similar precautions in pets are probably warranted.
If your pet is taking drugs in the benzodiazepine family, switching to kava will be very hard. You must seek a doctor's supervision, because in people, withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even life threatening. It's easier to make the switch from milder anti-anxiety drugs, such as BuSpar and antidepressants. Nonetheless, a doctor's supervision is still strongly advised.
Shawn Messonnier, DVM
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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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