Carsten column: The lowly dandelion and pets

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet

Love them or hate them, dandelions (Taxacum officinale), the helpful herb or the nuisance weed. Not as prolific now as they are in spring, a few dandelion flowers can be seen emerging from yards around town as they go to seed before winter. It is a reminder of how resilient plants can be and why dandelions thrive around the world.

Some consider the dandelion the most successful plant that exists. Originally a native plant in Europe and Asia, it can now be found worldwide. This widespread distribution was aided by humans who transported dandelion for both its medicinal and crop uses. All parts of the dandelion are considered safe to eat. They are highly nutritious, providing a range of vitamins (i.e. some B complex, C, E, and K) and minerals (i.e. potassium and calcium) depending on the part of the plant used. Common uses are leaves in salad, roots as a coffee/tea, and the flowers used to make wine or fritters. Medicinal uses include dried leaf, root, or whole plant, teas, and tinctures. A look back at its traditional use is valuable.

Use of dandelion as an herb has been ongoing for centuries. It was, reportedly, included in the U.S. Pharmacopeia as a tonic and diuretic medicine in 1831 where it remained as a part of the American pharmacy for almost a century. Eventually it was replaced as interest grew in the use of drug therapies. However, in other parts of the world, dandelion remains an important herb.

Traditional uses were as a digestive tonic, a liver tonic, and a diuretic. These properties contributed benefits for managing stomach and intestinal problems, skin disorders, liver and kidney conditions, and pancreatitis. Understanding the medicinal use of dandelion requires familiarity with the terminology and rational for its use. A tonic is a substance that stimulates well-being by supporting overall health, vitality, and wellness. This occurs because the tonic contributes to improved function by nourishing the tissues and/or stimulating organ function or elimination processes. Some effects of dandelion are the result of its action as a “bitter tonic.” This property is based on the effect of the bitter taste of the leaves which stimulate secretion of digestive juices (i.e. saliva, gastric secretions, bile) promoting improved digestion, appetite, and adsorption of nutrients.

Dandelion has anti-inflammatory effects that benefit the liver. In addition, dandelion is able to support the liver by improving the production of bile in the liver and release of bile from the gall bladder. These actions aid the digestive process and absorption of nutrients. Increased release of bile can facilitate some aspects of detoxification. The diuretic effects of dandelion can benefit the kidneys as well as assisting the process of detoxification.

Dandelion supports healthy gut flora through a number of processes including providing prebiotics like inulin, antimicrobial effects against some bacterial pathogens, and ability to improve the amounts of beneficial gut flora organisms. The anti-inflammatory and immune modulating properties contribute to dandelion’s ability to assist with intestinal ulcers and stomach inflammatory problems.

With any herb, the benefits and effects are dependent on the amount of the active factors ingested and how long those amounts are maintained in the body tissue of interest. In other words, if inadequate amounts reach the liver, its effectiveness is reduced. Determining the appropriate dose is essential as well as deciding on which part of the plant to use. The intended use will influence the part of the plant chosen. For example, the root is a good source of the prebiotic inulin and fiber while the leaf provides diuretic effects (as well as other important benefits).

For pets, dandelion is considered a safe herb. However, caution should be exercised when using dandelion in certain situations like when there is bile duct obstruction, diuretic medications are already being used, and when administered at the same time as quinolone antibiotics. Avoid using dandelions that have been treated with herbicides or other chemicals.

If you have questions about the use of dandelion for your pet companions, contact your veterinary herbalist.

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. Dr. Carsten is the 2022 Colorado Veterinary Medical Association Distinguished Service Award recipient.

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