It seems that wherever canine hepatic issues are discussed, Milk Thistle is recommended for treatment or prevention. It has become a well-known panacea for any health issues related to the liver and, although it is extremely effective at improving liver function and clearing disease, other herbs may be more appropriate in this endeavor, as they may address the specific conditions of your dog. Remember, a holistic perspective differs from a conventional one in that it considers this dog with these conditions at this time rather than employing a one-size-fits-all approach.
We also see Milk Thistle recommended or utilized in more of a pharmaceutical manner. How is buying capsules of 450mg of a standardized isolate of silymarin different from buying a drug? Rather than using a neutraceutical, a better approach may be found in using the whole seed. Silymarin has been identified as a flavonoid compound consisting of silibinin, silidianin, and silichristine. But that’s just one of many compounds found in Milk Thistle. The phytochemistry of plants is complex, and we do not yet fully understand its symbiosis; so, while silymarin has been identified as a potent hepatoprotective, we may be losing other beneficial actions of the plant by isolating this one constituent. Using Milk Thistle in its whole state also allows the body to assimilate it more naturally and effectively, allowing you to see better results.
OK, but enough about Milk Thistle. I prefer to reserve its use for cases where there is more serious liver impairment. If you need to help damaged liver tissues to regenerate, then by all means – use Milk Thistle; but if you are trying to assist cases of bile insufficiency, inflammation of the liver or spleen, elevated liver enzymes, or just trying to prevent toxicity from drugs such as Phenobarbital or NSAIDs such as Rimadyl®, there are many other options – and ones that are likely more appropriate for your dog.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is seen primarily as a blood purifier – but it does so by stimulating the liver to function more efficiently, thus filtering waste. As a broad-spectrum alterative for the whole body, it specifically balances and restores the liver, lymph system, and kidneys, making it ideal for preventing or treating drug toxicity.
As a bitter, it stimulates digestive juices – especially bile secretion. It helps moderate glucose levels, stimulate metabolism, and release excess metabolic waste from the cells and blood, which alkalyzes body pH (use with dogs prone to hyperacidity). It’s rich in minerals – especially iron.
The diuretic action helps to eliminate waste from the kidneys, taking some of the burden off of the liver. Seed tincture is used topically in TCM for psoriasis and chronic sores (ideal for dogs with skin issues). The seeds are considered more immediate; the root slower and deeper. The root is considered better when used fresh.
This is an excellent long-term liver tonic, gentle enough for use with pre-existing liver or kidney disease. A good choice for deep, chronic issues. Its thermal nature is cold, so use with dogs that tend to run hot.
Like Burdock, Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) is one of the first herbs to consider in addressing both kidney and liver issues. It tonifies, restores, and rebuilds, and its use is not so much for an acute state as for deep, chronic issues (think of roots as going deeper). This is a slow-acting herb.
The root stimulates the liver to eliminate toxins from blood, reduces inflammation of the bile duct and liver, and clears obstructions of the spleen, pancreas, liver, gallblader, kidney, and bladder. The root milk is bitter, which increases salivation and bile production (hence digestion).
In keeping organ systems flushed, use the whole plant. There is probably no diuretic more balancing than Dandelion leaf. Where other diuretics deplete potassium, this leaf is rich in it. It balances electrolytes, as well as reduces uric acid. This is probably the best choice for an herbal diuretic. By acting through the kidneys, the leaves reduce pressure on the liver to eliminate toxins.
Like burdock, it is hypoglycemic. With diabetic pets, use the whole plant. The root helps moderate glucose levels while the leaf acts as a bitter, aiding assimilation in the digestive tract. This is also a good nerve tonic, making it an excellent choice for dogs with issues relating to nerves.
Its thermal nature is cold. Think of it for conditions where you want to dispel heat – especially in the liver and stomach (dyspepsia is an example of stomach heat).
Another herb traditionally used to detox and cleanse the liver is Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus). As with the others, it acts as an alterative, enriching the blood and skin, so is well-indicated for dogs with skin issues such as hot spots. It’s cool, bitter, and damp, making it a good choice for pets prone to constipation (herbalist Matthew Wood reminds us to think of it as a heat reducer rather than as a laxative). It improves the flow of bile and stimulates peristalsis in the intestines, helping to regulate bowel movements. This is especially useful for dogs with hyperacidity and esophageal reflux (use tea or decoction). Use caution with quantities, as it can cause diarrhea; try using a little in conjunction with other herbs.
Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) encompasses all of the actions that most support the liver (cholagogue, alterative, bitter, and diuretic), and as such is effective in almost all liver problems. It stimulates the flow of bile from the gallbladder into the small intestine, and helps remove excess bile from the system. As an antidiarrheal, it will normalize bowels (though diet changes and deeper causes should be considered in resolving cases of chronic diarrhea).
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is primarily considered a blood purifier and liver herb. It stirs up deep, stagnant, hot blood and brings it to the surface, improving peripheral circulation to rid joints of arthritic depositions and promote diuresis. It expels wind from the stomach, and its oils stimulate renal function. Its name is believed to be a corruption of saxifrage from Late Latin saxifraga, literally: rock-breaker (probably alluding to its ability to dissolve kidney stones), from Latin saxum rock + frangere to break.
This is a good stimulating liver tonic to help detox the overall system and clear blood disorders. Think of it for dogs with skin and skeletal conditions, such as acne, hot spots, and arthritic joints.
Beet root (Beta vulgaris) has traditionally been used as a blood cleanser, but the leaves, being more bitter, are more specific to liver cleansing. What I often do is just cut up an entire beet plant – root and leaves – to include in the pot of simmering roots and greens that I add to my dog’s meals.
A cousin to Milk Thistle, Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus) is a pungent bitter that works on the liver and stomach/spleen. It is best used in damp (mucousy) conditions, diminished appetite, and dyspepsia.
When thinking about liver health and eliminating toxins and other waste from the dog’s system, the discussion doesn’t end here. The herbs above represent a small sampling of plants growing right here in New England and may provide a starting point for those interested in a more targeted, holistic approach. Ask your herbalist or holistic vet about them. With all of the great herbal options out there, please consider reaching for Milk Thistle last. Give other plants a chance to address your dog’s condition(s) more specifically and effectively. Milk Thistle will still be there, should you need it.