Some people may be wary of using herbs like slippery elm for pets. Others may be a little too enthusiastic, trusting all sorts of herbs for pets when many that are safe for humans are inappropriate for our four-legged friends. You see, many people think “if it’s natural, it’s safe.” But this isn’t always true, especially when it comes to herbs. It’s potentially dangerous to give herbs to pets, and cats in particular. Cats’ livers lack the enzymes that humans, and in many cases dogs, have for breaking down foreign substances. In some cases, they can’t metabolize the herbal compounds, and in other cases, the breakdown process itself produces toxic byproducts.
Then there’s the issue of dosage. It’s common to extrapolate a pet-sized dose of herbs by using the pet’s weight compared to the “standard” 150-pound human. A large dog, however, has a comparatively slow metabolism that may be susceptible to overdosing, while a small dog’s rapid heart rate and high energy level may make it difficult to get the desired effect at a small dose.
Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) is a happy exception to the fears and cautions surrounding the use of herbs in animals. In fact, slippery elm for pets is very safe and nontoxic. The part of the tree used is the inner bark, which is soft and stringy. (1) Its texture, however, can make it challenging to use. It doesn’t succumb easily to a mortar and pestle, so it may be easiest to buy it in capsule form, which is available at most health food stores or Internet sources. That way, it’s already ground to a fine powder and can easily be mixed into dosage form.
Slippery elm contains many nutrients, including carbohydrates, protein, fat, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, calcium and several trace minerals. These nutrients make slippery elm for pets a beneficial choice, especially for recuperating pets. Another perk? It may stay down when other foods are not tolerated. In fact, slippery elm is known as “emergency” food. George Washington and his troops survived for days during the bitterly cold winter at Valley Forge on nothing but gruel made from slippery elm bark. (2) However, slippery elm may interfere with absorption of pharmaceuticals, so it’s best given separately from any concurrent drug therapy.
Benefits of Slippery Elm for Pets
Herbalists attribute many wonderful healing properties to slippery elm: demulcent (soothing, mucilage-forming), emollient (soothing and protective for skin), nutritive (providing specific food nutrients), tonic (promoting healthy function of one or more body systems) and astringent (constricting, binding or drying effect). It also possesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Internally, the mucilage softly coats irritated, inflamed or damaged tissues, forming a protective barrier; externally, it can be used as a poultice to draw out infection and help wounds heal. (3)
Slippery elm is one of the herbs used in the original formulation of “Essiac,” also called “Ojibwa Tea,” an herbal mixture widely promoted as a cancer-fighter.
In the gastrointestinal tract, slippery elm acts directly. Think of it as a sort of natural “Pepto-Bismol.” (However, Pepto-Bismol itself should not ever be used in pets because it contains salicylate, aka aspirin). When it comes to slippery elm for pets, the plant’s mucilage content coats, soothes and lubricates the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract. That makes it an excellent treatment for ulcers, gastritis, colitis and other inflammatory bowel problems. It’s high in fiber, which helps normalize intestinal action. This means it can be used to relieve both diarrhea and constipation. (4) It may also help alleviate nausea and vomiting in pets suffering from non-GI illnesses, such as kidney disease. A syrup made from slippery elm bark is helpful in healing mouth ulcers from all causes (see recipe below).
Slippery elm is said to relieve inflammation of virtually any mucous membrane and is used in the treatment of inflammatory conditions of the lungs (bronchitis, asthma), kidneys, bladder (cystitis, FLUTD symptoms), throat (tonsillitis) and joints (arthritis). (5)
In the case of cystitis (bladder inflammation), slippery elm is thought to soothe the bladder lining, even though there is no direct connection between the digestive and urinary tracts. But its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components may be at work. Slippery elm contains magnesium, so it may not be a good choice if your pet is dealing with an elevated urinary pH or if a bacterial infection is present. Why? Because struvite ( magnesium ammonium phosphate) crystal formation may be a risk, causing more serious urinary problems.
Slippery elm bark also contains natural pentosans, a class of complex sugars that contains the same compound found in the pharmaceutical drug Elmiron®, which claims to be ”the major pain-relieving treatment for interstitial cystitis (IC) in women.” Pentosans have been used by the pharmaceutical industry as anticoagulants and anti-inflammatories for more than 40 years. (6) (Anticoagulant effects are not seen at normal doses.) Since bladder disease in cats is very similar to that in women, slippery elm may be especially beneficial for our feline friends. Small, frequent dosages of pentosan have been shown in humans to be more effective than single large doses, and the same may be true for cats.
Using Slippery Elm for Pets
Give a half capsule (per 10 pounds), opened up and the contents mixed with cold water, when using slippery elm for pets. (This is assuming you are working with 200-milligram capsules.) Slippery elm powder will absorb many times its own weight in water, so be sure to add enough to make a gruel. This gruel can be given before meals by syringe or eyedropper, or added to baby food, canned food or a homemade diet. It has a mild, slightly sweet taste and is usually well-tolerated by cats and dogs when mixed with food.
Creating a Syrup
Author Anitra Frazier gives the following recipe for Slippery Elm Bark syrup in her book, The New Natural Cat, which applies equally well to our canine companions when adjusted for weight: Into a small saucepan place 1/2 cup cold water and 3/4 teaspoon powdered slippery elm bark. Whip with a fork to break up clumps. Bring to simmer on low heat, stirring constantly. Simmer 1 or 2 minutes or until slightly thickened to a syrup or molasses consistency. Cool and refrigerate for up to 7 days. Commercially made syrups are also available.
For long-term use, it may be best to give slippery elm apart from meals, supplements and medications by at least an hour, and again at bedtime. Since cats and small dogs are ideally fed 3 to 4 times a day, that often makes a reasonable schedule for slippery elm, as well. A separate dose at bedtime will allow it to work, undisturbed, to enhance its benefits.
Medications should be given 1 to 2 hours before a dose of slippery elm, since the mucilaginous coating it creates can inhibit their absorption. (7) Because it is itself so nutritious, there is much less concern about giving it with or near feedings. Most informational sources don’t make any distinction regarding timing of doses.
This is important. Slippery elm bark should be light grayish-tan and have a mild, sweet taste. Some products are darker and taste bitter or turn bitter with time. Be sure to taste it before giving it to your pet, and taste again daily to ensure its freshness. If it looks, smells or tastes bad — don’t use it!
For Gastrointestinal Problems
Give a dose 30 to 60 minutes before, with or just after meals. If the problem is known to be in the upper GI (stomach or small intestine), taking it before meals will provide the best protection. For problems in the large intestine, such as constipation or inflammatory bowel disease, it may be better to give with food or just after meals. Give a half capsule or a half to 1 teaspoon of syrup (2.5 to 5 ml) per 15 pounds of your pet’s body weight.
For Mouth and Throat Problems
To soothe and heal mouth ulcers, give by syringe, coating the ulcerated tissue, at least an hour before or after food. For sore throat or cough, give by syringe and coat the back of the throat as much as you can; of course, stop immediately if choking occurs.
The dose can be adjusted for your pet’s size. Use plenty, but don’t get crazy; remember, this is an endangered plant. For a cat, 5 ml is more than enough, but for a large dog, 20 or 30 ml may be quite reasonable.
For Cystitis, Asthma or other Inflammatory Problems
Give 3 to 4 times a day.
For Skin Problems
Make a soothing paste of slippery elm powder (mix the powder with cold water) as a poultice for hot spots, insect burns, rashes, scratches, ulcerated areas or other shallow wounds. Smear onto the wound and allow it to dry. Native Americans used slippery elm bark to stop bleeding. It forms a natural “bandage” that can be left in place for several hours — if you can convince your dog to leave it alone! Just moisten with water to remove it.
Slippery elm bark (as well as the similar marshmallow root) is inexpensive and easy to use;and would be a great addition to your holistic medicine chest.
An Important Note on Sourcing Slipping Elm
Between Dutch elm disease, elm leaf beetles and irresponsible harvesting, elms are becoming endangered in America. Make sure your source ethically and responsibly harvests their products. Please do not use more than you need! Alternatively, marshmallow root can be substituted for most applications.
Of course, please discuss use of all supplements and herbs with your veterinarian.