Turmeric for Pets: Potential Benefits, Caveats and Best Practices
Looking for a holistic way to keep your pet healthy? You may want to give turmeric a try. The bright yellow spice, best known for its use in mustard and curry powder, has been gaining attention recently for its potential health benefits for humans and kids, as well as their furry friends.
Traditionally regarded as an immune system booster by cultures in the Eastern part of the world, turmeric is ground and dried from Curcuma longa, a plant related to ginger that grows primarily in Southeast Asia. A staple of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, it’s been used for more than 4,000 years as a tonic for everything from pain and fatigue to respiratory, digestive, and skin problems, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
While turmeric contains hundreds of useful compounds, including beta-carotene, flavonoids, vitamin C, fiber, iron, potassium, niacin, and zinc, its most active ingredients are found in its root, which gives turmeric its golden hue and optimal concentration of antioxidants. Its most bioactive chemical, curcumin, has been the subject of numerous research studies over the past decade as it is said to “aid in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia,” according to a 2017 review of its effects on human health. Some veterinary experts say that turmeric for pets can offer many of the same potential benefits, including support for the immune system, digestion, normal liver function, and more.
How Turmeric May Help Pets
Many turmeric-based products on the market today make bold promises about what the spice can do, but more research is needed to back many of these claims. Human and animal trials do show that properties in turmeric- and curcumin specifically - are capable of bolstering the immune system in several ways. Its antioxidants help to remove free radicals and support detoxification and the healthy development of new cells.
Curcumin has also been shown to help disrupt the function of bacteria, as well as promote healthy immune responses by redirecting molecules that mistakenly cause white blood cells to attack healthy tissues and organs. Studies are being conducted to examine how curcumin may support digestion, liver function, respiratory health, and brain function, but research is still inconclusive in many of these areas. Researchers have explored how curcumin and other properties in turmeric can promote pet health in the following ways:
- Protection from ticks - One of the most recent studies explores the use of turmeric oil for warding off ticks. A team of British scientists from the University of Bristol dragged blankets coated in essential oils and repellents through undergrowth and counted the ticks collected. They found turmeric oil to be the best deterrent to ticks in the trials they carried out, even more so than DEET and other commonly used ingredients in tick repellents. Researchers concluded that turmeric oil might work well as an alternative repellant for stopping ticks from attaching themselves to animals and infecting them.
- Temporary relief from occasional pain - Some clinical trials suggest that curcuminoids in turmeric may provide an effect that is comparable to some over-the-counter painkillers when used for support for joints or other occasional discomforts. One study compared the effect of curcumin on dogs with osteoarthritis to a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Researchers found that while both helped ease the joint pain in the dogs, the curcumin disrupted the expression of inflammatory molecules in ways not observed in the NSAID. The results led them to conclude that “curcumin offers complementary anti-inflammatory support for OA treatment in dogs.”
- Disrupting abnormal cell growth - A 2008 study explored the potential of using nutraceuticals to inhibit neoplasia, or abnormal cell and tissue growth, in dogs. The study examined five ingredients, including turmeric, which could be incorporated into pet food and their interaction with various chemotherapies. Researchers found that the “turmeric extract was the most potent,” and when combined with a rosemary extract, “had an additive or synergistic effect with chemotherapeutic agents.” They noted that the use of combined turmeric and rosemary extracts for neoplasia was worth investigating further, as long as it posed no adverse interactions with traditional chemotherapies.
Proponents of turmeric for pets say that one of its advantages is the fact that it causes few side effects compared to expensive steroids and prescription drugs. A 2007 review of hundreds of turmeric studies published in the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies even concluded that “turmeric appears to outperform many pharmaceuticals in its effects against several chronic debilitating diseases, and does so with virtually no adverse side effects." Still no studies have found enough evidence to suggest replacing turmeric with prescription medication. Some veterinarians do, however, support the practice of using herbs like turmeric alongside NSAIDS and prescription drugs, since research shows that its curcuminoids can target inflammatory pathways at the molecular level.
Caveats of Giving Turmeric to Pets
One of the drawbacks of the exhaustive studies on turmeric is that while the biological effects of curcumin show promise, the chemical seems to be poorly absorbed and rapidly eliminated when taken orally, requiring researchers to use large quantities of it in studies to achieve detectable levels in the bloodstream.
Researchers have found that combining turmeric with fat or piperine - the active compound in black pepper - can improve absorption of curcumin significantly. Because just 2 to 5 percent of turmeric root contains curcumin, it may also require large volumes of the powder to replicate the dosages used in studies. That’s why many turmeric supplements in stores contain piperine or photosomes to aid absorption as well as more than 75 percent curcumin.
Though turmeric is considered safe as an oral or topical supplement, too much of it can cause side effects such as stomach upset, nausea, acid reflux, and constipation. Experts discourage its use in people or pets that are pregnant or prone to iron deficiencies, kidney stones, or gallstones. It can also act as a blood thinner, so it’s best to avoid if your pet takes medication for diabetes, has heart issues, or has a surgery coming up. Too much turmeric over time may also interact adversely with medications or change how they are metabolized, so check with your vet before starting your pet on regular turmeric regimen.
How to Give Turmeric to Your Pet
You can easily mix turmeric powder or the grated fresh root into the food you give your pet or bake it into a homemade treat. The spice has a slightly bitter, peppery taste, so adding a little water can make it more palatable and digestible.
The proper amount of turmeric for pets depends on their weight. Smaller breeds of animals should get less of the spice than larger breeds. For dogs, the average dosage is ⅛ - 1/4 of a teaspoon (or 15–20 mg) for every 10 pounds of body weight. It’s best to expose your pet to turmeric slowly to test their tolerance for it, then work up to the maximum dosage. Stop use temporarily if your pet develops vomiting or diarrhea and restart a few days later with a smaller dose.
If your dog is a picky eater and won’t eat turmeric, you can try capsule supplements, but read the labels carefully before feeding any to your pet. Many turmeric supplements contain high levels of curcumin, which may be too much for your pet to ingest in a single dose. It may be safer to use a brand specifically developed for pets rather than trying to adjust the dosage. Keep in mind that herbal supplements aren’t as closely regulated as medication, so consult with your vet about best practices for using them.
An easy way to increase the bioavailability of turmeric for pets is by making golden paste, a mixture of turmeric, ground black pepper, and coconut or olive oil. The oil and pepper can help slow the metabolism of curcumin in the liver and enhance its absorption in the bloodstream. And the paste may also be easier to feed to pets, especially dogs who love to lick the spoon. Try this basic recipe!
- ½ cup turmeric powder (choose an organic brand if possible)
- 1 cup water
- 1 ½ tsp ground pepper
- ½ cup coconut or olive oil
Combine turmeric powder and water in a pan and gently stir over low heat for 7 - 10 minutes or until a paste forms. Mix in ground pepper and oil, then stir slightly. Cool before serving or store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Turmeric paste can stain, so mix it well into food or add some water so your pet doesn’t sport a golden mustache!