Can you use witch hazel on dogs paws?
Witch Hazel for Dogs: Is It Safe?
You may reach for a bottle of witch hazel to zap a blemish, soothe itching, or treat insect bites and other skin irritations. This herbal remedy can provide relief for humans, but what about our canine companions? Some veterinarians and holistic experts recommend small amounts of witch hazel as a safe and natural topical treatment for dogs, but it’s not without risks. Before attempting to treat any condition at home with witch hazel, talk to your veterinarian about whether it can be an effective remedy for your dog.
Benefits of Witch Hazel for Dogs
Witch hazel is primarily an astringent, explains Greg Tilford, a Phoenix-based holistic veterinary educator. “It reduces topical inflammation by rapidly shrinking and tightening skin tissue. This is why it is used as the primary active ingredient in many hemorrhoid preparations as well as face and skin wrinkle removers.”
These healing qualities are attributed to tannins, the chemical that gives plants and fruits their dry, bitter taste. Witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, is a small, yellow-flowered, North American shrub containing a high level of tannins.
Our conventional vet experts do not recommend witch hazel to pet parents, either because they don’t have experience with it, or because its use isn’t backed by rigorous scientific studies. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that witch hazel won’t benefit your dog. In fact, some vets are using it successfully to treat their patients.
Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian who practices in New Jersey, uses witch hazel in her ear cleaners and to reduce swelling on a dog who has been bitten or stung by an insect. “It’s soothing, decreases the itch associated with inflammation, and doesn’t sting.” She says it can also be applied to ticks to loosen their grip, making removal easier. “I also use it to clean the perianal area after emptying the anal glands,” she says. “It cleans well and neutralizes the anal gland odor.”
In addition, witch hazel can be safely used on dogs to reduce the pain and inflammation that result from flea bites and for dermatitis, Tilford says.
Using Witch Hazel on Dogs
Begin with the correct product. Tilford, who is a charter member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Animal Supplements Council (NASC), recommends using witch hazel that’s manufactured and marketed specifically for animals. Herbal, witch hazel-based ear washes formulated for dogs may contain other soothing ingredients, like chamomile extract, marigold extract, and sage oil. Morgan uses a product that combines witch hazel, tea tree oil, and aloe to clean her patients’ ears.
If using human-grade witch hazel, choose a vegetable glycerin-based product, if possible, because it’s safer if your pet accidentally ingests it, Morgan says. If you do purchase an alcohol-based product, choose one with grain alcohol instead of isopropyl, Tilford recommends. “Most commercially available witch hazel products are made with isopropyl alcohol, which is toxic if ingested.”
Witch hazel doesn’t have to be diluted, but it should be used sparingly, Tilford says. “For dogs, it can be applied once or twice daily,” he says. Morgan suggests using a gauze square or cotton ball to apply witch hazel to your dog’s skin. To clean your pup’s ears, “a few drops can be applied in the ears to help dry discharges and soothe inflammation.”
Dr. Ihor Basko, a holistic veterinarian based in Honolulu, Hawaii, often combines witch hazel with aloe vera juice (using a one-to-one ratio) as a simple home remedy for itchy skin.
Risks of Witch Hazel for Dogs
While witch hazel is safe to use topically on dogs and is not known to interact with other medications, there are some risks pet parents should be aware of, vets advise.
Tilford advises against applying witch hazel for dry skin conditions. “It tends to tighten and dehydrate, thus exacerbating such conditions.”
Given in high doses, witch hazel can cause kidney or liver damage, but this applies mostly to internal use. In humans, there have been warnings against using witch hazel during pregnancy and lactation, but these also refer to internal uses, Tilford says. “Unless the dog is actually drinking the product, it is unlikely to cause a problem if used topically.”
Some people use witch hazel as a tea or ethanol-based tincture for conditions like diarrhea or minor gastrointestinal bleeding, he adds. “But its strong astringent properties can irritate mucus membranes if used in abundance. Personally, I only use this herb topically.”
If your dog accidentally ingests witch hazel, signs to watch out for include hypersalivation or drooling, rubbing the mouth or nose on the floor or pawing at the mouth due to pain or ulcerations from the astringent, vomiting and diarrhea, and redness or burns on the skin.
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Natural Remedies for Itchy Pets: Gentle Ways to Calm Allergies
Rather than routinely giving drugs to dogs and cats to relieve dry, itchy, skin or food allergies, consider more gentle natural alternatives. As with people, knowing what an animal is allergic to is key to finding the right remedy and preventing future outbreaks.
With dogs, about 20 percent of itching and scratching can be attributed to food ingredients. Symptoms can show up as early as 5 months or as late as 12 years old, often combined with inhalant or contact allergies. Chronic ear infections are often traced to food allergies.
“If a pet is suffering mightily, see your veterinarian for shots or pills for immediate relief. Then ask the vet to allergy test for the specific problem,” advises Veterinarian Laurie Dohmen, owner of Purple Moon Herbs and Studies, in Hartly, Delaware. “This isn’t something you can do yourself. I’ve seen pet owners use what worked for a friend’s dog and make their own pets sicker, despite research and good intentions. What works for one pet won’t necessarily work for another.”
While food elimination testing works, it’s a long process that must be done with precision. “If your pet even just nibbles the eliminated food, you have to start all over again,” says Dohmen. Whether commercially prepared or home cooked, the number of ingredients can substantially extend a test period. Each item must be completely avoided for about six weeks for an accurate assessment.
Environmental allergies, which encompass everything unrelated to food, range from common grasses to inhaled pollutants. New carpets or rugs, cleaning supplies, a neighbor’s pesticides, dust and pollen are among the culprits that can cause an allergic reaction. Common symptoms are itchy ears or skin, ear infections, sneezing, runny eyes, scratching, vomiting or diarrhea.
Veterinarian Judy Morgan, owner of Naturally Healthy Pets, in Clayton, New Jersey, also uses herbs in her practice to alleviate food and environmental allergy symptoms. “They can be tinctures or poultices; one herb or a blended mixture. Some are applied externally, some internally.” Giving the proper dosage for the size of the pet is vital.
She particularly likes calendula for hot spots, despite its odor, because it’s antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral, followed by witch hazel to dry them, and then coconut oil or aloe to soothe and soften affected skin—plus Echinacea to boost the immune system. She uses ginger or peppermint to counteract nausea.
“Many people think an allergic pet should be switched to a lamb and rice diet. In some cases, that makes dry, itchy, skin worse,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to know what they are allergic to before trying out new foods or herbal remedies. Find a holistic vet to work with.”
Morgan often prescribes a mixture of herbs for the best results. “I like licorice because it works like a steroid without the side effects. Probiotics help keep gut bacteria and the immune system healthy. Parsley works well for dry, itchy, skin caused by a blood deficiency, or imbalance.
“Parsley brings a protein, as well as several vitamins, to the party,” notes Kimberly Gauthier, a dog nutrition blogger in Marysville, Washington. “It’s a natural anti-inflammatory and also great if your dog’s breath needs a freshness boost.” She suggests rosemary and thyme as ingredients in an antibacterial, antifungal salve; she mixes these essential oils with extra virgin coconut oil and beeswax to create paw balm.
Morgan reminds us that essential oils can be harmful, even life-threatening, for cats. “If Kitty has itchy skin, lavender tea can be used as a rinse on cooperative cats,” she suggests. “For a less cooperative feline, chamomile tea as a drink or as leaves mixed into the food soothes itches.”
Dohmen cautions, “Herbs and other homeopathic remedies or flower essences are medicine and should be given as a prescription by a qualified veterinarian.”
Connect with freelance writer Sandra Murphy at [email protected] .
This article appears in the March 2017 issue of Natural Awakenings.