Herbal support for geriatric animals

Health issues, from cognitive to musculoskeletal to cardiovascular, often arise in our geriatric patients. Herbs offer beneficial affects to a variety of body systems to help prevent these problems.

Gerontology is the study of declining function as an individual ages. The big picture approach to geriatric health in veterinary medicine involves supporting the ongoing effort to maintain and repair body tissues as they become more and more inefficient. A variety of herbs can play an important role in the mitigation of aging in veterinary patients.

Causes of age-related illnesses

There are many theories of aging. According to an Anatomy & Physiology textbook1 used to teach OMD (Oriental Medical Doctor) students, aging from a Western perspective may be caused by one or a combination of the following:

  1. Limit on cell reproduction
  2. Nutrition, injury, disease and environmental factors (epigenetics)
  3. Slow-acting “aging” viruses
  4. The “aging” genes that regulate apoptosis or other cell functions (pre-programmed aging)
  5. Autoimmunity, when the immune system attacks its own tissues
  6. Mitochondrial degeneration, which means less ATP and an increase in free radical production.

The prevention of aging

Western and Traditional Chinese herbs have a strong tradition of increasing longevity and preventing aging. For centuries, they have been used as elixirs of longevity. Western herbal supplements are now routinely started in older patients; an example is the use of glucosamine for the prevention and palliation of arthritic symptoms.

What more could we start recommending to our animal patients to delay the aging process before symptoms arise? Many body systems will begin to show wear and tear as animals age. The integrative veterinarian can slow this “inevitable” decline by choosing from an herbal smorgasbord of system-supportive ingredients. The primary systems needing support in aging pet include:

Cognition/special senses

Poor cognition in many pets will manifest as abnormal gaits, vocalization or incontinence, and may even be overlooked as a primary cause. Herbal preparations like Ginko biloba, Rhodiola rosea or Bacopa monniera should be part of a preventative program.

Special senses like hearing, sight or even smell may diminish and suffer poor repair, declining slowly and unnoticed. Antioxidants play a major role in slowing aging within all tissues, especially the special senses.


Neuroendocrine and adrenal support is crucial to a healthily functioning autonomic nervous system. Rhodiola rose, Panex ginseng, Ashwagandha and Eleutherococcous can support the overall system of regulation and control. Use tonic herbal blends for everyday support and repair.

Free radical damage/mitochondrial

Free radical prevention and repair is crucial to the anti-aging process. Mitochondrial support is needed to continue supplying an ample amount of ATP, or “Chi” for the body. Herbs like bilberry, milk thistle, grape seed extract, green tea extract and lycopene taken as prophylactics can both prevent and repair the decline in these aging mechanisms.


Support can delay congestive heart disease, even in inherited mitral murmur cases. Feed the organ system vital nutrients in the form of herbs such as lycopene, hawthorn berry, Astragulus and Coleus forskolii.


The immune system is often treated as overactive, using immunosuppressive drugs. Adaptagenic herbs like green tea extract, Astragalus, Larch arabinogalactian and a variety of medicinal mushrooms can support an often-overloaded immune system.

Hepatic/detoxification management

Support is crucial for keeping waste products from building up in the body. Many pets are subjected to multiple pharmaceutical and chemical products throughout their lifetimes, which stresses these pathways. Gentle herbal tonics like green tea, turmeric, dandelion and milk thistle can repair and keep these systems operational.


The gastrointestinal system is subjected to a variety of foods, often not from the diet of natural selection, so it can become less and less functional as the years pass. Chronic inflammation in the digestive tract can lead to malabsorption, maldigestion, cancer and many other GI mishaps. How many pets are put down because of digestive issues like anorexia and chronic diarrhea? Administration of herbs like marshmallow, rosemary, cinnamon, ginger and slippery elm, along with antioxidants can increase the health of pets significantly. Many other microbiome-supporting supplements can be very beneficial.

Musculoskeletal/connective tissue

Supporting these tissues with herbs like boswellia and turmeric may enhance the properties of glucosamine products and Adequen®.


The renal system is often neglected, yet in most humans, over 50% of functioning nephrons are lost by the age of 50.2 The kidneys serve as the organ of excretion for the majority of pharmaceuticals used over the lifespan of our patients, aging the nephrons even faster. Supportive herbs include Rheum officinale, Codonopsis and Eleutherococcous.

Top 3 aging issues most likely to lead to euthanasia

  1. Anorexia of aging/wasting disease
  2. Lack of energy/disorientation
  3. Musculoskeletal deterioration

Top 10 herbs for longevity and preventative medicine programs

1. Rosemary

Rosemary has positive effects on appetite, memory and hair growth. Processing meats at high temperatures (especially for dry food) creates HCAs (heterocyclic amines), potent carcinogens implicated in several cancers. HCA levels are significantly reduced when rosemary extract is mixed into beef before cooking, say Kansas State University researchers. “Rosemary contains carnosol and rosemarinic acid, two powerful antioxidants that destroy the HCAs,” explains lead researcher J. Scott Smith, PhD.3

Rosemary extract helps prevent carcinogens that enter the body from binding with DNA, the first step in tumor formation, according to several animal studies. “Rosemary has shown a lot of cancer-protective potential,” says study author Keith W. Singletary, PhD.4

2. Turmeric

Turmeric is a strong antioxidant for the GI system and helps prevent gastritis and arthritis symptoms. Turmeric contains curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory that works similarly to Cox-2 inhibitors, drugs which reduce the Cox-2 enzyme that causes the pain and swelling of arthritis.5

According to a small clinical trial conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, curcumin can help shrink precancerous lesions known as colon polyps.6 Researchers at UCLA also found that curcumin helps clear the brain of the plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.7 Both these studies indicate anti-inflammatory properties tissue-wide. More studies need to take place in animals to fully substantiate these correlations.

3. Ginger

Ginger affects metabolic vigor and tonifies digestion. A powerful antioxidant, ginger works by blocking the effects of serotonin, a chemical produced by both the brain and stomach when you’re nauseated, and by stopping the production of free radicals, another cause of upset in the stomach.8

4. Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola rosea is helpful in maintaining muscle mass.9 This herb is also used for fatigue, poor attention span and decreased memory.

A review published in the American Botanical Council’s journal reported that numerous studies in humans, animals, and in cells have shown that Rhodiola helps prevent fatigue, stress and the damaging effects of oxygen deprivation. The evidence suggests that Rhodiola has an antioxidant effect and enhances immune system function.10

5. Cordyceps sinensus

According to Andrew Weil, MD,11  Cordyceps sinensus is used as a tonic and restorative. This Chinese fungus can help overcome general weakness and fatigue and increase physical stamina, mental energy, vigor and longevity.

6. Eleutherococcus senticosus

Eleutherococcus senticosuscan help address lethargy, fatigue and low stamina, according to Dr. Weil.12 Both Cordyceps and Eleutherococcus have a long history of use in TCM.

7. Milk thistle

Milk thistle extracts have been used as traditional herbal medicine remedies for almost 2,000 years. Milk thistle contains high levels of bioflavonoids that increase immunity and slow down oxidative stress. The herb is also used for its anti-inflammatory properties. It can aid digestive function, increase bile production, boost skin health, fight the appearance of aging and help detoxify the body.

A review of clinical trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of milk thistle found that it has protective effects in certain types of cancer; data shows it can also be used for patients with liver diseases and hepatitis. Milk thistle extracts are known to be safe and well-tolerated.13

8. Green tea extract

Studies have shown that tea polyphenols offer a protective effect against free radicals, cardiovascular damage, some cancers and infections.

9. Boswellia

Boswellia is known to reduce pain and inflammation in both the joints and tendon and ligament attachments. It is also known to strengthen connective tissue resiliency. Boswellia serrata offers many benefits, such as reducing body inflammation and helping to treat conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritisand inflammatory bowel disease. It’s also a painkiller, and can help inhibit cartilage l Boswellia can be used to alleviate asthma and may have protective effects against diseases like leukemia and breast cancer.14

10. Ashwagndha and Astragalus

These are adaptogenic herbs. In TCM, Astragalus is used as an immune adaptogen. It is strongly antioxidant, antimicrobial and heart protective. Ashwagandha is used in Ayurvedic medicine for its high antioxidant levels and infection-fighting properties, and is also used to address depression and reduce the effects of stress.

In addition to the herbs discussed above, nutritional supplements like CoQ10, probiotics and vitamin D3, as well as TCVM herbal tonics like Liu Wei Di Huang Wan or Sheng Mai San, are routinely used in longevity medicine. The best cure for aging issues is prevention, so offer these herbs and supplements to your clients early on.

Look for quality products

Herbal supplements are classified as dietary supplements by the U.S Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which means they’re not tested to prove their safety and efficacy, unlike prescription drugs.

Some manufacturers sell herbal products that aren’t completely pure. When buying herbs, investigate the company’s GMP and QC. This ensures you get high quality products that aren’t weakened with less expensive additives, or grown with pesticides or contaminated with heavy metals.

Botanical medicine may also cause allergic reactions or interact with conventional drugs.


1Patton and Thibodeau. Anatomy & Physiology, 8th edition, Elsevier 2013. Pages 1118-1119.

2Patton and Thibodeau. Anatomy & Physiology, 8th edition, Elsevier 2013. Page 1120.

3Kanithaporn Puangsombat and J. Scott Smith. “Inhibition of Heterocyclic Amine Formation in Beef Patties by Ethanolic Extracts of Rosemary”, Journal of Food Science, 75, 2, (T40).

4Keith W. Singletary, Joan T. Rokusek. “Tissue-specific enhancement of xenobiotic detoxification enzymes in mice by dietary rosemary extract”. Feb 1997, Plant Foods for Human Nutrition.

5Prevention Magazine, June 2007, Page 195.

6“Curcumin in Treating Patients With Familial Adenomatous Polyposis”. National Cancer Institute (NCI), Johns Hopkins University/Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, Baltimore, Maryland, United States, 21287, September 2017.

7Prevention Magazine, June 2007, Page 195.

8Suzanna Zick.Can Ginger Ale Really Soothe Nausea?” The Atlantic, October 30, 2016.

9Frank Mayer, et al. “The Intensity and Effects of Strength Training in the Elderly”. Deutsches Aerzteblatt international, May 2011 DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2011.0359.

10Richard P. Brown, Patricia L. Gerbarg, Zakir Ramazanov.Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview” HerbalGram. 2002; 56:40-52 American Botanical Council.

11Andrew Weil MD, drweil.com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/herbs/cordyceps/.

12Andrew Weil MD, drweil.com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/herbs/siberian-ginseng/.

13Andrew Weil MD, drweil.com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/herbs/milk-thistle/.

14Dr. Mercola, articles.mercola.com/herbs-spices/boswellia.aspx.