Integrative Pet Vet column: Medicinal mushrooms have health benefits for pets

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet

Medicinal mushrooms have been used for centuries for a variety of health problems in humans. Mushrooms have frequently been an important ingredient in herbal mixtures. Interest in their use for dogs and cats has been growing as research that demonstrates their benefits becomes available. Keep in mind that the medicinal mushrooms referred to here are not the psychedelic mushrooms that contain compounds like psilocybin. Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound.

Medicinal mushrooms that are receiving attention for therapy include turkey tail (Coriolus versicolor), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Maitake (Grifolia frondosa), Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus). Each species of mushroom has health benefits that are similar to other mushroom species; however, there are unique effects that have been shown.

Benefits commonly associated with these medicinal mushrooms range from immune support, anti-inflammatory properties, anti-cancer effects, anti-bacterial or viral activity, and kidney, liver and cardiovascular support. Mushrooms contain a range of important compounds. These compounds include polysaccharide-protein complexes like beta-glucans and D-fraction, proteins, vitamins and antioxidants. The presence of and amounts of these compounds depend on the species of mushroom, the growing conditions, stage of development of the mushroom at harvest, and the part of the mushroom used.

The turkey tail mushroom has been historically used in humans for a variety of cancers, chronic hepatitis and infections in the digestive and upper respiratory systems. More recently, it is being used to stimulate immune function. For humans, turkey tail is being used along with other cancer therapies. Interestingly, cancer survival rate was statistically increased in patients receiving a polysaccharide extract from turkey tail.

For dogs with hemangiosarcoma, a polysaccharide extract was shown to significantly prolong survival times. Hemangiosarcoma in the spleen of dogs is a difficult cancer with median survival time of 19-86 days with spleen removal only and 141-179 days with the addition of chemotherapy.

Dogs treated with spleen removal and only the turkey tail polysaccharide had a median survival time of 199 days. This is significant because of the increased survival time and lack of chemotherapy side effects. Turkey tail extracts have also been advocated for immune support in geriatric dogs and for dogs recovering from surgical procedures.

The reishi mushroom appears to improve immune function, have anti-cancer effects, reduce inflammation, modulate allergy responses, reduce anxiety and help protect the kidney.

Maitake mushrooms have been reported to have similar health effects as the other mushrooms but may be more effective. While more research is needed, the D-fraction component has excited interest because of the anti-cancer effects.

In addition to the immune benefits, anti-cancer effects and anti-viral properties, shiitake mushrooms also appear to improve circulation.

Lion’s mane mushrooms have beneficial effects on the brain and nervous system. Slowing of aging effects on brain function and improved recovery from nerve injury have been reported. There appears to be benefits for reducing anxiety, healing ulcers in the digestive tract, improving fat metabolism, and enhancing immune responses.

Unfortunately, a large amount of research on the health benefits of medicinal mushrooms is not available because it appears in foreign language journals. This contributes to challenges when choosing the appropriate mushroom species and determining the optimal amount to administer. The mushrooms discussed here are generally considered safe but there have been some reports of problems. It is not clear if the problems were from the mushroom itself or from the processing required to produce the product.

While the mushrooms discussed here have many similar health benefits, they also have some distinct properties. This is one of the reasons that multiple mushroom species are often used in combination. When choosing mushroom products, it is also important to consider if the product is an extract, the whole mushroom or a part of the mushroom (i.e., the cap). Since there are advantages for using extracts and advantages for using the whole mushroom, some practitioners use combinations.

If you have questions about mushroom use for your pet, seek the advice of a veterinary herbalist knowledgeable about mushrooms. For general questions about your pet’s health, contact your veterinarian.

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.

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