By Jean Hofve, DVM
As you may know, it is potentially dangerous to give herbs to pets, especially cats. Many people commonly extrapolate a dose of hebs by using the pet’s weight compared to the “standard” 150-pound human. A large dog, however, has a comparatively slow metabolism, while a small dog’s rapid heart rate and high energy level may make it difficult to get the desired effect. Cats have very different metabolism and enzymes, and many compounds that are safe for humans and dogs (like aspirin) can be toxic to cats.
Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva) is an exception to the fears and cautions surrounding the use of herbs in animals. It is very safe and non-toxic. The part of the tree used is the inner bark, which is soft and stringy. Simplest to use is the powdered form, which can be purchased in bulk, or pre-packed in capsules, at most health food stores. It is readily available over the Internet from herb suppliers.
(NOTE: North American elm trees have been decimated by Dutch Elm Disease; make sure your source ethically and responsibly harvests their products; and don’t use more than you need! Alternatively, Marshmallow root can be substituted for most applications.)
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 can be used both internally and externally. Slippery Elm is one of the herbs used in the original formulation of “Essiac,” an herbal brew widely promoted as a cancer-fighter.
In the gastro-intestinal tract, Slippery Elm acts directly. It can be thought of as a sort of natural “Pepto-Bismol.” (Pepto-Bismol itself should not be used because it contains salicylate, a.k.a. aspirin). Its mucilage content coats, soothes, and lubricates the mucus membranes lining the digestive tract. Slippery Elm is an excellent treatment for ulcers, gastritis, colitis, and other inflammatory bowel problems. It is high in fiber, and so helps normalize intestinal action; it can be used to relieve both diarrhea and constipation. 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 can be used to help heal mouth ulcers from all causes (see recipe below).
Slippery Elm is said to relieve inflammation of virtually any mucus membrane, and has been used in the treatment of inflammatory conditions of the lungs (bronchitis, asthma), kidneys, bladder (cystitis, FLUTD symptoms), throat (tonsillitis), and joints (arthritis).
Slippery Elm contains many nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, calcium, and several trace minerals) that can be beneficial for recuperating pets, and it may stay down when other foods are not tolerated. It is known as a “survival” food; George Washington and his troops survived for days during the bitter winter at Valley Forge eating nothing but gruel made from Slippery Elm bark. However, Slippery Elm may interfere with the absorption of certain minerals and pharmaceuticals, so is best given separately from any concurrent drug therapy.
In the case of cystitis (bladder inflammation), Slippery Elm is thought to soothe the bladder lining. However, it is somewhat high in magnesium, so may be contraindicated in dogs who have an active infection with an elevated urinary pH, where struvite crystal formation may be a risk. (In cats, urinary tract infections are very rarely bacterial.) Slippery Elm bark contains natural pentosans, a class of complex sugars that contains the same compound found in the drug “Elmiron®,”the major pain-relieving treatment for interstitial cystitis (IC) in women. Pentosan has been used by the pharmaceutical industry as an anti-coagulant and anti-inflammatory for more than 40 years. (Anti-coagulant effects are not seen with normal oral administration.) 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 has been shown in humans to be more effective than single large doses.
Externally, a soothing paste of Slippery Elm powder (mix the powder with a little cold water) can be used as a poultice for hot spots, insect burns, rashes, scratches, ulcerated areas, or other shallow wounds. 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! Moisten with water to remove it.
To give internally, mix about 1/4 teaspoon of Slippery Elm bark powder with cold water for every 10 pounds of body weight. For very small dogs, it is fine to use the same 1/4 teaspoon dose. The bulk powder may be very fluffy, so pack it down as much as possible to measure it. Alternatively, use 1/2 capsule (per 10 pounds), opened and the contents mixed with water. Slippery Elm powder will absorb many times its own weight in water, so be sure to add enough to make a moderately thick 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 slightly sweet taste and is usually well-tolerated by cats and dogs when mixed with food. Give a dose 5 to 30 minutes before meals for sore throat, and before or with meals for digestive tract problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease, until symptoms resolve. (NOTE: Slippery Elm may interfere with absorption of medications; and long-term use may have some effect on nutrient absorption. It may be best to give Slippery Elm at a different time, separate from medications. Please discuss use of all supplements and herbs with your veterinarian.)
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 1 teaspoon powdered slippery elm bark. Whip with a fork. Bring to simmer over low flame, stirring constantly. Simmer 1 or 2 minutes or until slightly thickened. Cool and refrigerate. Keeps 7 or 8 days. Give a teaspoon of syrup (5 cc) for an average-size cat (again, about 10 pounds) 5 minutes before a meal to minimize diarrhea, or to soothe and heal mouth ulcers.
Slippery Elm bark is inexpensive and easy to use; it would be a great addition to your holistic medicine chest!
IMPORTANT! Slippery Elm should have a very mild, slightly sweet taste. I have received comments and emails from several readers that the Slippery Elm bark they were using tasted bitter, or turned bitter with time. The cause is unknown, but it can’t be a good sign! Therefore I must recommend that you personally taste the slurry or syrup each and every time before you give it to your pet, and if it tastes bad–don’t use it!