Pet vet: Slippery elm often used for digestive problems
Many authorities consider the inner bark of the slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) to be an herb with excellent healing properties. It can be used internally and externally. This herb is also thought to have a wide safety margin.
Slippery elm is native to North America with a range from Canada to Florida and Texas. Historically, slippery elm was widely respected by indigenous peoples for its healing qualities and was used for treating wounds, skin problems, digestive disorders, urinary issues, respiratory conditions, eye conditions and childbirth.
Slippery elm products are made from the soft, stringy inner bark. This inner bark contains large amounts of mucilage. Mucilage is a substance that swells, becomes slippery and does not dissolve when mixed with fluids.
The mucilage, when ingested, coats the throat, esophagus and remainder of the digestive tract. It stimulates nerve endings in the digestive tract that result in increased mucus production, which adds additional protection for the lining of the digestive tract. The mucilage also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Slippery elm contains nutrients including vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium and trace minerals that may provide benefits.
There have been a small number of studies showing benefits of slippery elm for inflammatory bowel diseases in humans. These limited studies support the historic use of slippery elm for inflammatory bowel disease. Historical use has shown benefits for other inflammatory conditions including those affecting the stomach, small intestines, colon, throat, urinary bladder and respiratory tract. The anti-cough effect of slippery elm has benefits for respiratory problems like bronchitis and asthma. Slippery elm also exhibits diuretic effects that may aid in management of urinary bladder disorders.
Uses in dogs and cats have focused on the treatment of digestive tract problems like inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, colitis, diarrhea, constipation and nausea. Other uses when ingested have been for inflammatory conditions outside the digestive tract including urinary bladder (cystitis) and respiratory tract problems. There may also be a benefit for reducing urinary bladder pain, which can be a common issue for cats.
When using slippery elm long term, keep in mind that it coats the walls of the digestive tract and may interfere with absorption of some drugs, supplements or herbs.
Before starting treatment with slippery elm, it is important to have a clear diagnosis. There are conditions that present as a digestive disorder that are not directly caused by an intestinal problem. For example, liver disease can present with diarrhea, vomiting and weight loss. Relying on slippery elm as the treatment for the diarrhea may result in delays of diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Keep in mind that slippery elm may be a component of the treatment plan once the diagnosis is obtained.
Slippery elm is widely available in a powdered form. The powder can be mixed with water to the consistency of gruel. The slippery elm absorbs many times its weight in water so you may be surprised how much water is needed. Treatments are typically given between meals and separated from other medications.
For skin problems, mix slippery elm with water to make a paste. This can be smeared onto the affected area and allowed to dry. It may stay in place for a few hours if the pet will allow it.
If you have questions about any problems with your pet, contact your veterinarian. For questions about slippery elm and its use, contact a veterinary herbalist.
Ron Carsten 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 Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.