Herbs and intestinal health  

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Herbal medicine for reptiles* Veterinary surgeon Nick Thompson explains the risks to the intestinal health of reptiles, and herbs that can assist in promoting health in this area of the body.

Reptiles are increasingly being kept as domestic pets, and they can originate from a variety of sources. The majority of those now kept are bred in captivity; some are the offspring of imported stock, and a few are imported themselves. Their dietary needs are diverse, and it is vital to familiarise yourself with the particular requirements of species that appeal to you, before making your final choice, as their dietary and environmental needs can vary widely.

The balancing act

Although the risks of parasitic problems are likely to be greatest in imported reptiles, most individuals are likely to be carrying a parasitic burden of some sort. Stress, a poor diet and unsuitable surroundings may then mean that the health of reptiles can start to suffer. Cleanliness is a key issue. In the wild, of course, reptiles rarely come in contact with their own excrement and uneaten food; but this can be a common occurrence for those housed in vivarium surroundings.  

Various parasites can be easily transmitted via this route, building up rapidly in these surroundings. Spot cleaning of the reptiles’ quarters helps, at least to some extent, serving to ensure that there is no significant build-up of faecal matter in the enclosure, but this is not a complete solution.

Sulcata tortoises feeding on a trayThe reptile’s food can be a particular hazard, and good management is vital. If a tortoise walks over its food with faecal contamination on the underside of its shell and deposits some of this material here, it can easily spread harmful microbes. Feeding tortoises in this way also clearly favours the transmission of various intestinal parasites in this way as well. Use smaller bowls that the tortoises cannot sit in.

Equally, invertebrates such as crickets fed to a lizard may become contaminated by contact with the reptile’s droppings. They then present a real danger of spreading the parasites back to the infected lizard or its companions when eaten.

The end result of this rapid increase in parasite numbers is that the normal environmental balances break down, having serious if not fatal effects on the reptiles as the level of infection increases. A relatively small living space can promote the development, multiplication and spread of parasites and other organisms that in nature would live largely in equilibrium with their healthy hosts. By suppressing and potentially overwhelming the immune system of the reptile in an enclosed environment, and its ability to fight infections, so other health issues can rapidly emerge, threatening the very survival of the animal.

The use of herbs

Herbal treatmentsHerbs were being used long before the start of recorded history for a variety of purposes. Their medicinal qualities have been studied, tried and tested on all species, and not just humans. 'Ethnobotanic medicine' is the name now given to the study of the use of herbs drawn from diverse, remote parts of the world.

Studies can reveal plants and the active compounds within them that are being used in their countries of origin, and these may be more widely applicable in western countries keen to have new and effective ways of promoting health and countering disease.

Manufacturers have put together herbs with known functions to form herbal mixtures to promote immune function, to kill pain and to promote optimal gut function and hygiene.  Among the myriad herbs available, some of those included in readily available products to help intestinal health are listed below.

Those favoured for intestinal benefits

Quassia - herbal useThe attractive red flowers of quassia (Quassia amara) mean that it is sometimes called the coral plant. It contains an active ingredient called quassin which is one of the most bitter substances known. Quassia is, understandably, considered a bitter tonic for the liver and gall bladder. But it is also recognised for its antimicrobial activity against pathogens (disease-causing micro-organisms) in the gut, and as an anthelmintic (acting against worms in the gut).

It is valued as an insecticide in its native South America, and has been used to counter aphids on hops in Germany. There are studies showing its insecticidal effects, as far as the Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata), the apple blossom weevil Quassia bark(Anthonomus pomorum), the cherry fruit fly (Rhagoletis cerasi) and caterpillars belonging to the family of Tortricidae are concerned. The bark of quassia (shown right) can also have a number of beneficial applications, in terms of promoting health.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is another herb that has been used for a variety of purposes, having been a valuable plant in the apothecary's armoury dating back centuries. It has been used as an insect repellent, with its alternative names of ‘bitter buttons’ and ‘cow bitter’ suggesting both its cold, bitter nature and its veterinary applications.  

Tansy in herbal medicineIn days gone by, it was considered a vermifuge (used to expel worms when taken internally), and valued too as an antimicrobial, not forgetting its use as a choleretic either, promoting the flow of bile, much like quassia.

In addition, it is also a carminative, calming the gut, being similar in this respect to better-known herbs like fennel, cumin and mint. Its versatility does not end there, as the United States Pharmacopoeia still recognises tansy in the treatment of fever, feverish colds and jaundice to this day!   

The effects of garlic

Wild garlic in the countrysideYou cannot talk about digestion and the gut without mentioning garlic (Allium sativum). This wonderful bulbous herb is known to most of us, and it has been recognised for centuries for its many properties, which extent beyond promoting good gut health. There are also wild forms, such as wood garlic (Allium ursinum), shown left, that can be found growing in the countryside during the spring, across much of Europe into Asia, ultimately producing white flowers. These attractive a host of animals ranging from brown bears (as reflected in the plant's scientific name) to wild boar.

Garlic is both an antimicrobial and anthelmintic, but it also has anti-thrombotic properties, preventing blood clots, and has proved to be both an anti-inflammatory and an anti-oxidant as well. Garlic is recognised for its anti-aging properties too, although surprisingly, vampires reputedly dislike it, but perhaps they Garlic bulbsshould re-consider as they are said to live forever! Garlic bulbs consist of individual cloves, as can be seen here.

Amongst garlic’s other attributes are that it helps to protect the liver, promotes sperm production, being spermatogenic, and acts as a circulatory stimulant that lowers blood pressure. Maybe this is why the Italians have a saying that ‘garlic is as good as ten mothers’, on the basis that it looks after you so well!

Herbal products, typically, do not just contain anti-microbial and anti-parasitic elements. Manufacturers seek to nurture and heal the gut, aiming to maintain health as well as having a more obvious direct effect when it comes to Cleavers - helpful herbaddressing disease-causing elements in the gut. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is a fine example of this, and can be found in some gut hygiene products as a result. This is a weed that has a sticky, adhesive texture, and is believed to be beneficial in a number of different ways, particularly assisting lymphatic drainage in the body.

Also commonly known as clivers, goosegrass or stickyweed, among other names, this plant is sometimes described as a ‘lymphatic’; a compound known to promote and maintain lymphatic health in the tissues of the body. Lymph is important as a vital conduit to the immune system and in maintaining optimal tissue hydration, which is of course essential for good gut health. It also has diuretic effects, thereby promoting kidney and bladder health; is a vulnerary (a tissue healer) and has a calming effect on both the mind and blood pressure in humans.

Different outcomes

Conventional chemical wormers such as flubendazole or fenbendazole do what they say on the packet. They kill gut parasites and some microbes. It can be seen that the herbs which I’ve described here have qualities extending far beyond this aim, thereby promoting good gut health, healing damaged gut tissue and maintaining optimal form and function within the gut environment.

The use of effective herbal products to maintain gut hygiene is, to me, as essential as getting the mineral and vitamin balance correct in the diet of the pet reptile. This is vital for its overall health. It’s a case of no gut function - no reptile gumption, as they say!

Biographical details

Nick Thompson MRCVSNick Thompson is veterinary consultant to Verm-X, the only company in the world that exclusively focuses on producing natural intestinal hygiene products for animals.

Nick is a veterinary surgeon with over 20 years of experience. He has also trained in homeopathy, acupuncture, natural nutrition and veterinary herbal medicine. He uses both complementary and conventional approaches, plus a large dose of old-fashioned commonsense, with the aim of establishing what is really wrong with your animal and helping it to recover successfully.