25 January 2013

Herbs: Echinacea

As you may have noticed, I do use various herbs when treating or supplementing my cats.  I know most traditional Western veterinarians scoff at the effectiveness of herbs in treating serious diseases and medical conditions.  I also know, based on first-hand observations, herbs can be a powerful tool to restore health to a cat.

One of the most common, and unfortunately now one that is widely touted, herbs is echinacea.  Echinacea usually refers to the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) but can also refer to several closely related species of echinacea, each with varying degrees of medicinal properties.  The plant grows naturally on the prairies and scrublands of the US, but as it has a pretty purple flower, it's now grown as an ornamental.

Echinacea has been used by many people, including Native Americans, to help fight infections.  While echinacea does not kill bacteria or viruses directly, it does strengthen the immune system to attack these 'germs'.  And it does work.  Isabel, my silver Persian, has had a runny nose lately, probably from a chronic sinus infection.  So, for about a week, I have been adding drops of echinacea to her food.  That's really all I have changed and now, her nose is clearing.  While this may be a coincidence in some people's view, I have seen this occur with other problems -- from URI to abscesses.  For infections, this is a great herb to use.

But there is the problem -- it does work.  And if it works on one thing, then there are people that suggest it to be used on everything!  I've seen claims that it will cure ringworm, cancer, and even stud tail in cats.  I personally think it might help, but I doubt it would cure any of those three without some other medicine.  Echinacea's effects are noticeable, but with very serious infections or diseases, it generally does not seem strong enough on it's own.  Still, if you look in a grocery store, there it will be.

Unfortunately, what is in the grocery store may not be the most helpful.  The cheap, common version is powdered leaves and stems compressed into a tablet.  There's two problems:  First, the buyer has little way of knowing how much active herb is in the tablet.  Second, leaves are considered less potent.  From my readings and my own use, it's the roots which are the most effective.  And they are the most effective as an extract in alcohol.  The glycerate form is fine and a bit more palatable to cats, but does spoil quicker. (Extracts can remain usable for over 5 years!)

There are two constraints when I use echinacea.  First, since it boosts the immune system, the immune system must be functioning to some degree.  Some conditions like FeLV so destroy the immune system that there is little left to work with.  Other problems such as cancer, overwhelm the immune system.  In either case, echinacea can help but I wouldn't use it as the primary treatment option.  Second, since it boosts the immune system, it can only be given in short cycles and not as daily treatment.  What I mean is, after 2-3 weeks, it's effectiveness diminishes, so I have to rest the cat's immune system for at least a week before again using the echinacea.  Many books recommend 3 on, 1 off, but I've found 2 on, 1 off to be better for most minor problems.

Here's how I used echinacea to treat Isabel's nose:

  • I used it because this was a minor, not-life-threatening and chronic infection
  • I use the glycerate extract from roots, which she doesn't mind
  • I give her 2-4 drops mixed in food, twice a day for 2 weeks, then I'll stop for a week before giving her another round

Mandatory disclaimer:  I am not a vet.  If your cat is sick or injured, take your cat to a vet.  The information I have here is what I do for my cats.


Barbara said...

In your experience, is echinacea useful for cats with autoimmune conditions? I have been told that colitis (IBD) is an autoimmune disease.

L.M. Hornberger said...

Colitis, IBD, IBS, etc -- all have autoimmune components. The body attacks the lining of the intestines and causes various digestive issues.

As for echinacea being useful for this, probably not. I've never used it for IBS (and I've had several cats with it) and I can't recall other herbalists mentioning it for that. I think the main issue is that echinacea boosts the immune system, which with autoimmune problems is not a good thing. The immune system needs to be 'toned down' or redirected. There is also the problem you can't keep a cat on echinacea indefinitely without it losing its effectiveness.

Barbara said...

That's a good point. I did not think echinacea would be appropriate for an autoimmune diseased cat, but wondered if it could be used for some other ailment in the same cat. I guess not.

L.M. Hornberger said...

Sorry, I thought you meant the echinacea to be used for the IBS.

In terms of using it for something else in a cat with any autoimmune problem, I would use very cautiously and I would try other herbs or supplements first.