Holidays are a time for celebrating our family and friends by gathering and eating. It is easy to overeat with the abundance of good food and camaraderie. As our companions, our pets can also overeat when we give them special treats or they get into leftovers. This can lead to digestive upset, which is common in pets in the days following holiday gatherings. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is an herb often used for digestive issues.
Chamomile has been used for human health care for at least 5,000 years. Today, chamomile is the most popular herbal tea with an estimated 1 million cups consumed daily. Beyond tea, chamomile dried powder and extracts can be taken internally or used externally as a wash or mixed into a salve or cream. The dried flower and its essential oils have been used widely for a range of health conditions, and the essential oils have been used in cosmetics and for aromatherapy. It is also often used in combination with other herbs.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, chamomile has also had a long history of use in animals. Descriptions of its use can be found in early veterinary textbooks from the 1850s. Chamomile is considered a very safe herb that is well tolerated by dogs and cats.
Traditional use has been for conditions affecting the stomach and intestines such as inflammatory bowel disease, diarrhea, vomiting and bacterial infections. It also has topical benefits for assisting healing of inflammatory conditions and bacterial infections of the skin and mouth when used as a wash, salve or cream. Use as a mild sedative and anxiolytic have been reported.
Current research is exploring and validating many traditional uses and providing insight into new clinical applications. Chamomile has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects with similar mechanisms like the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. In clinical trials, chamomile increases wound strength and the rate of wound healing and reduces bacterial contamination. Improvements were shown in individuals with generalized anxiety. Chamomile extracts have a benzodiazepine-like activity.
Chamomile, like all herbs, has a list of clinical benefits, and effects are the result of chamomile’s active constituents and their influence on cell targets. These results are dependent on the dose and length of cell contact of these active constituents. Traditional doses have been described and continue to be used. While chamomile is considered safe, allergic reactions have been described, and excess doses can be a concern for potential impacts on blood clotting. There is potential for increased sedation or depression when used in combination with opioid and benzodiazepine drugs. Chamomile may cause miscarriage and impact on the fetus when used in pregnant animals.
It is always important when using any herb or supplement that a clear diagnosis is obtained so that appropriate therapy is initiated in a timely way. This is important when using an herb like chamomile for gastrointestinal problems in pets because there are numerous causes for vomiting and diarrhea. Some problems, like a simple upset stomach (i.e. gastritis), are easily managed with an herb while other problems are not well managed by an herb alone. For example, a vomiting cat with a string foreign body in the intestine potentially needs urgent surgery to address the problem. Other issues like a bacterial overgrowth in the intestines from eating too many leftovers, may respond appropriately to the chamomile, but its antimicrobial effect may not be sufficient alone to control an aggressive infection.
Enjoy the holidays with your pet companions, but remember that they can overeat or get into digestive problems just like a person. Chamomile may be a gentle way to ease them through those issues and help deal with the holiday stress and anxiety. Always seek advice from your veterinarian when you have questions or concerns about your pet.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.