Alternative Treatments For Cats: How To Minimize The Risk


For many cat owners, the promise of natural treatment for their cats sounds alluring. Medications are rightfully associated with potential risks and side effects so why not go for something natural? Wouldn’t that be much safer for Kitty? A homeopathic remedy or herbal supplement may or may not be effective, but surely “it can’t hurt to try”, right?

Unfortunately, there are many safety concerns when it comes to using alternative treatments for cats. The good news is that by recognizing the risks it is often possible to avoid them, and use your preferred method of treatment safely.

Types of natural/alternative treatments

Veterinary medicine is a scientific discipline where treatments have to prove their efficacy in controlled studies. Treatments can be of various types, including surgery, medications or nutritional guidelines. Ideally, they need to have a significant body of evidence that shows both their efficacy and their safety. In other words, most – though not all – of the treatments your vet suggests would be evidence-based.

Alternative treatments are the ones that do not have a scientific body of evidence to support their efficacy. Either they were never tested in controlled studies, or they were yet failed to show an effect greater than that of placebo.

That said, some alternative treatments are backed up by a possible scientific explanation for how they work. For example, herbal supplements contain chemicals produced by the plant, some of which could potentially affect your cat’s body. The absence of controlled studies doesn’t mean they don’t work, only that they have not been fully researched.

Other treatments, such as homeopathy or flower essences, have no known scientific mechanism to back up their claims. Their raison d’etre is based on things like “energies” and other concepts which were popular when these methods were invented, back in the 18th century.

Either way, don’t let the word “natural” lull you into a false sense of security. Mother nature can produce powerful toxins, and there is nothing unnatural about bacterial contamination. Before using any of these treatments, you have to understand the risks and make an effort to avoid them. Here’s how.

Risk #1: Delaying veterinary care

This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of using alternative treatments but it’s one that’s not limited to them. Every time you try to diagnose and treat a health problem on your own, you put your cat at risk. You may think that Kitty’s respiratory symptoms indicate a viral herpes infection and try to treat it by supplementing her food with l-lysine. In fact, the same symptoms could really mean a bacterial infection, possibly a secondary one. Without the right type of antibiotics, her condition is likely to deteriorate.

It doesn’t matter if you try to treat with OTC fish moxy or a herbal supplement. Delaying veterinary diagnosis and treatment is a gamble you should never take.

How to avoid this risk –
Simple enough. Don’t try to diagnose and treat a pet on your own. Take your cat to a qualified veterinarian and let him or her conduct a full physical evaluation and other tests as needed. If you’re unhappy with the diagnosis and think your vet is wrong – which could happen – seek a second opinion from another veterinarian. Trying to diagnose a cat on your own is risky and delaying treatment can be dangerous.

Risk #2: Active ingredients that could harm your cat

Herbal supplements, including many types of Chinese medicine, contain plant-produced chemicals and compounds. While these may have a beneficial effect, like all drugs they are not devoid of risks and can have side effects.

Keep in mind that some substances are harmless to humans yet toxic to cats. The delicate feline liver can’t break down some of the chemical compounds that our liver can. Take something as simple as garlic. You would have a hard time poisoning a human being with garlic, but it’s far more toxic for cats. The same holds true of many spices and herbs.

Toxic effects could be immediate or long-term, so just because your cat doesn’t seem to have adverse reactions, this does not mean the treatment is safe in the long term.

What’s more, with herbal remedies the amount of actual active ingredient is usually unknown. The concentration of the chemicals and compounds varies according to the plant’s strain and environment. Changes in sunlight, water intake and type of soil can all affect the plant’s development and the resulting concentration of active ingredients.

How to avoid this risk –
Always consult with your veterinarian to make sure it’s safe. Do your additional due diligence and carefully check every herbal treatment before giving it to your cat. The Pet Poison Hotline website has a list of poisons that covers some herbs and plants as well.

Risk #3: Other ingredients that could harm your cat

Sometimes, the active ingredients may be fine, or even non-existent – as in the case of homeopathy – but other substances in the remedy can hurt your cat.

For example, alcohol used in the preparation of some homeopathic remedies is toxic to cats. Sugar and salt used in homeopathic pills can also be harmful to your cats, depending on dosage and the cat’s condition. Prof. Danielle Gunn-Moore, who teaches feline veterinary medicine at the University of Edinburgh, told us of a case where a diabetic cat was treated with homeopathic pills. The pills were made of sugar, severely affecting the cat’s blood sugar levels and nearly killing him. In another case, a cat almost died due to the high salt content in homeopathic pills.

How to avoid this risk –
Generally, avoid preparations that were made for humans or other pets and stick to those that are made specifically for cats. Research every pill and remedy and make sure they contain no alcohol, sugar or salt.

Risk #4: Getting the dosage wrong

Sola dosis facit venenum – or “the dose makes the poison” – is a basic principle in toxicology. A substance can be safe in a certain dose yet lethal in a higher one. This principle applies to humans too, but even more so to cats, with their small body weight and sensitive liver. Getting the dosage wrong with any medication can be dangerous and this holds true for herbal treatments and even nutritional supplements.

Prof. Gunn-Moore shared with us the story of two young cats who presented what appeared to be a form of lymphoma – a cancer of the lymph nodes. It was a strange presentation, typical in dogs but rarely seen in cats. Further investigation revealed the cause: The cats’ owner liberally added a herbal supplement called echinacea to the cats’ drinking water. She had hoped to strengthen their immune system but instead sent their lymph nodes into a frenzy. Once supplementation stopped, the cats gradually returned to good health.

How to avoid this risk –
Research the appropriate dose for cats and stick to it. When consulting with your vet about the safety of an alternative treatment, ask about the dose too and write down the answer. Don’t assume that any dose is safe just because the treatment is labeled as “natural”.

Risk #5: Drug Interactions and Contraindications

Just as every medication has a list of contraindications and drug interactions, so do most alternative or holistic treatments.

Contraindications refers to health conditions that affect the treatment, putting the patient at special risk. For example, some treatments are not suitable for cats with diabetes, a chronic kidney disease, or possibly for kittens or senior cats.

Drug interactions refers to a clash between two medications. Some medications should not be taken together, and the same is true for alternative treatments and nutritional supplements.

How to avoid this risk –
Even if you’re convinced that a treatment is safe for an average healthy cat, be cautious when applying it to kittens, older cats or cats with any background disease. Consult with your vet and make sure the treatment does not contradict any medication that your cat is already on.

Risk #6: Heavy metals and toxins

Arsenic, lead, mercury and other harmful substances are often found when testing herbal medicines, especially those originating from China, as this report indicates

These substances can be present in small amounts, small enough for a human to ingest without apparent immediate damage. However, a cat’s small body and delicate liver may have a hard time dealing with any of these contaminants in smaller amounts.

How to avoid this risk –
This one is hard to avoid. Unless you send the exact batch of the product you use for expensive lab testing, you have no way of knowing if it’s contaminated. The only thing you can do is use the products of reputable manufacturers and hope for the best.

Risk #7: Biological Contamination

Industry standards for pharmaceutical preparations require the products to be sterile and free of bacterial or fungal contamination. Ideally, the same should be expected of alternative medicines. Traditionally, alcohol is used as the base of most homeopathic remedies for its preservatives qualities but it’s rightfully absent in pet preparations. If you’re using a homeopathic product for pets, find out what kind of preservatives are used. None? Then the chances of a bacterial contamination are high.

How to avoid this risk –
Stick to preparations made by reputable companies. Once you open the bottle, keep it refrigerated and don’t use the product beyond the expiry date. If it has no expiry date, don’t use it to begin with, as it should have one. If your cat experiences any symptoms of food poisoning, such as diarrhea or upset stomach, contact the manufacturer to report the problem. It may not help your cat, but hopefully improving their standards could save other pets from suffering.

Risk #8: Creating a nutritional imbalance

Using nutritional supplements may seem harmless but it really isn’t. Some substances are beneficial to your cat’s body, yet given in excess could cause an imbalance, leading to health problems. This is especially true for kittens, pregnant cats, sick cats and seniors.

How to avoid this risk –
Do not supplement your cat’s diet unless instructed by your veterinarian to do so. Consult with your vet before trying new supplements to make sure it’s not harmful to your cat and make sure that you have the right dosage.

Using a natural approach – safely

Just because something was manufactured in Mother Nature’s plants (pun intended!), doesn’t mean it’s safe or beneficial for your cat. Evaluate any treatment and don’t give your cat anything under the false premise of “it can’t hurt to try”. The truth is, it can.

Your veterinarian is your ally. If you’re a fan of alternative treatments, find a veterinarian who knows the field and can help you make safe choices for your cat. Don’t follow online marketing hype. Research everything and keep in mind the safety concerns detailed above.

Ask yourself the following –

  • Is this product manufactured by a reliable and reputable company?
  • Has this product been tested for possible contamination?
  • Could the active ingredients in this product be harmful to my cat?
  • What is the concentration of the active ingredient? If the seller doesn’t know, don’t use it.
  • Does this product contain alcohol, sugar or salt?
  • Could this product interact with other treatments my cat is taking?

Talk to your vet about the pros and cons of any treatment for your cat – natural or not – and don’t forget to discuss dosage as well. Sticking to these rules can help you provide the best possible health care for your cat.

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