Hyperthyroidism is a common disease that typically affects middle-aged and older cats. It is caused by an excess production of thyroid hormones, which are produced by the thyroid gland, located inside the cat’s neck. Thyroid hormones affect nearly all organs, which is why thyroid disease can sometimes cause secondary problems such as hypertension, heart and kidney disease.
There are currently three treatment options: lifelong medication, surgery, and the gold standard, radioactive iodine therapy.
There is also a new feline prescription diet on the market that is said to cure feline hyperthyroidism in 3 weeks. The diet has not been available long enough to really know whether it is safe to feed longterm, and it is only effective therapeutically when it’s used as the sole source of nutrition. No treats, no supplements, no table scraps. You can read more about the diet, and my take on it, here.
There may be another option: at a recent meeting of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, Dr. Steve Marsden, one of the chief educators of veterinarians worldwide in complementary veterinary medicine, with board certifications in Chinese herbology, acupuncture, and naturopathic medicine, shared his experience of treating hyperthyroidism with herbal medicine. These medicines may be useful with early cases, as well as during the stabilization phase, and they can easily be integrated into conventional treatment programs. While these herbal formulas are not as powerful as pharmaceutical drugs, they are generally safer and have fewer side effects. At a minimum, they may be able to lower the dose of conventional drugs.
Human trials have shown that Chinese herbal treatments can effectively reduce symptoms, thyroid antibody status and thyroid function in humans with hyperthyroidism.
Herbal medicines may be especially effective in early cases of hyperthyroidism. They may abort or reverse the development of the disease. Interestingly, the formulas that work do not directly impact the thyroid gland, but rather, act on the digestive tract. “Diet and digestion has long been linked epidemiologically to the incidence of feline hyperthryroidism.” said Dr. Marsden. “Although its exact role remains speculative and unclear, the feeding of processed diets (canned foods in particular) correlates strongly with its incidence. Conversely, clinical experience suggests the incidence of hyperthyroidism appears lower in animals that hunt for their food.”
Cats who become hyperthyroid often have a history of chronic vomiting, which would further support the theory that processed diets and the systemic inflammation they cause may play a major role in the development of the disease.
Herbal medicine can also help support renal function in hyperthyroid cats by increasing glomerular filtration and renal concentrating ability. The most well-known formula used for this purpose is the Chinese herbal blend Rehmannia Eight. One study of its use in human medicine showed a 91% efficacy in reducing renal damage.
“Herbal medicine, particularly Chinese herbal medicine, allows the optimal management of hyperthyroid patients and integrates well with conventional therapies,” said Dr. Marsden. “Perhaps one day in the future, it may be relied upon as a primary treatment option.”
If you would like to explore herbal medicine for your cat, you’ll need to work with a holistic veterinarian trained in herbal medicine. Herbs are powerful medicine and should only be given under the direction of a veterinarian. For a state by state directory, please visit the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.