Integrative Pet Vet column: Frankincense and myrrh have health benefits for pets

Historical patterns of herb use, their medicinal applications, and their impact on society can be fascinating and informative. Frankincense and myrrh are part of the Christmas tradition, but they have historical roots extending into ancient times long before becoming gifts for the Christ child. Along with gold, they were considered gifts fit for kings in the ancient world. In addition to their symbolic and religious significance, frankincense and myrrh were valued for their medicinal properties. There is evidence that frankincense and myrrh were used and traded over 5,000 years ago. The Babylonians and Assyrians may have burned them as incense during religious ceremonies. Ancient Egyptians used them in incense, perfumes and salves for wounds. In part, because of its antiseptic properties, myrrh was an ingredient used for embalming the bodies of pharaohs. The ancient Romans and Greeks used frankincense and myrrh in religious ceremonies and recognized a wide range of medicinal effects. Traditional Chinese medicine has used these resins for improving blood circulation, treating traumatic injuries and masses, arthritis and other health problems.

Frankincense and myrrh are resins collected from trees. Trees providing the frankincense and myrrh are related and grouped in the same plant family classification. They are found growing in the harsh environment of the Somalia and Arabian Peninsula. Resin is collected when it oozes from cuts in the tree bark. The resin can be used in multiple ways including burning as incense, inclusion in herbal formulas, or extracted as an essential oil.

While the history and symbolism of frankincense and myrrh are interesting, their medicinal benefits are being explored. One fascinating study found that frankincense has anti-depression and anti-anxiety effects in mice, giving rise to speculation that there may be more than symbolism involved with the use of frankincense in religious ceremonies. In other studies frankincense has shown clear benefits for managing osteoarthritis pain and may be more effective than use of a NSAID for some patients. Myrrh has also been shown to reduce pain. Frankincense and myrrh both have benefits for inflammatory problems like irritable bowel disease and asthma. In addition, they have anticancer effects and aid wound healing.

Herbs have been an increasingly important part of health care over the last decade (see “Properly selected herbs provide effective therapies,” April 28, 2017). For example, it is now estimated that 91 percent of human cancer patients worldwide use some form of complementary and alternative medicine with the focus on herbs and nutritional supplements. The use of herbs and nutritional supplements has also played an important role for pet health care. Frankincense has received attention for its medicinal effects in dogs and cats. Less attention has been given to myrrh even though it clearly has potential for a wide variety of conditions.

Use of frankincense for dogs and cats has focused on the essential oil and on the resin in boswellia herbal products. Benefits were found for reducing pain, stiffness and lameness in dogs with osteoarthritis. Clinical observations support the use of boswellia for inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. These observations are consistent with results of clinical studies in humans. Myrrh has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, pain modulating benefits, antibacterial properties and anticancer attributes. Some advocate the use of frankincense and myrrh together with the thought that there is a synergistic effect. This has not been evaluated in the dog and cat. While frankincense and myrrh essential oils are considered safe in cats (see “Essential oils can be toxic to cats,” March 26, 2016) caution should always be exercised.

The holiday season reminds us of the rich history of use of frankincense and myrrh in ceremony and for their health benefits. Growing use in dogs and cats highlights their medicinal properties. If you have questions about the use of these herbs, contact a veterinary herbalist.

Enjoy the holiday season with your furry companions.

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. 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.

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