My dog, Jasper, and cat ,Toby, love the summer, and enjoy playing out on the lawn and in the shrubs. But I'm concerned about insect bites and stings—we had to make a couple of trips to our vet last summer because of this. Can you suggest any natural treatment options that we can try at home in the event of a bite?
S.C., via email
Most dogs and cats love the outdoors, and enjoy exploring bushes and hedgerows, and chasing insects, birds and bees. Their fur coats can act as a protective barrier, but it can also conceal any insects, parasites or stings. So it's important to check your pets' fur thoroughly after they've been outdoors. Less hairy areas of the body, like the abdomen and face, are especially vulnerable to bites and stings.
While the majority of these are not serious and tend to be more of a discomfort to your pet, some bites and stings can become an emergency situation.
Just like us, our pets can also suffer severe anaphylactic reactions from an insect bite or bee/wasp sting—often when a pet tries to swallow an insect and gets bitten inside the mouth or throat.
This kind of severe reaction will usually become apparent within 20 minutes of the incident.
Your pet's face, throat and airways may swell, thereby compromising breathing. This kind of anaphylactic shock requires emergency veterinary care, as the animal may die without treatment.
Take your pet to a vet immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms:
Shaking or trembling
Weakness/collapse/inability to stand
Sudden vomiting or diarrhoea
Very rapid swelling of the face, lips and brisket (throat area)
Very pale/blue or angry red tongue colour.
Some dogs and cats may also react to a bite or sting by developing hives (urticaria) all over the body. In this case, it's also important to see your vet. If in any doubt, always call your vet for advice.
Thankfully, the majority of bites and stings won't cause such life-threatening allergic reactions. Here are my top tips for treating such cases at home.
Remove the stinger
Sometimes bees and wasps can leave their stingers behind in your pet's skin, where they can then continue to secrete their venom/poison. Remove these by squeezing the site of the sting with your fingers, or gently extract it with tweezers.
Let them lick
It's natural for dogs and cats to immediately lick the region where they've been bitten or stung, especially when the area is accessible to licking. As salivary enzymes can help to neutralize the poisons, don't stop them from doing this initially. This licking can also help you to localize the site of a bite or sting if you didn't witness it when it happened.
This potent anti-inflammatory and antiseptic spice can be used topically to help reduce swelling and the risk of infection. Add a teaspoon of turmeric to some distilled water to make a paste, then apply it to the bite or sting. You can also mix turmeric powder into chicken broth and add it to your pet's food. This will work internally to reduce inflammation.
- Add ½ tsp 2-3 times daily for pets weighing < 15 lbs
- Add 1 tsp 2-3 times daily for pets weighing 15-50 lbs
- Add 2 tsp 2-3 times daily for pets weighing > 50 lbs.
Note: If you add too much turmeric, your pet will find it unpalatable.
Calm with chamomile
This simple, water-based topical wash can help soothe bites and stings as well as ease hot, swollen, inflamed skin. Add two chamomile teabags to 600 mL (1 pint) of boiled water, steep for two hours until cool, then apply the liquid to the affected skin with a clean sponge, but avoiding the eyes, mouth and genitalia. If time is of the essence, soak a cotton ball or swab in chamomile tea once it comes to room temperature and apply it to the sting for 15 minutes. Repeat this three times a day. This will help reduce inflammation and stop any infection.
Make a cold compress
If your pet lets you, place a bag of frozen peas or sweetcorn wrapped in a towel, or an ice pack, on the bite or sting to reduce the swelling. If your pet has been stung inside the mouth, offer ice cubes or ice water for them to lick and drink. (Remember, though, that stings in the mouth carry the increased risk of swelling around the airways, so it's important to monitor your pets closely and ensure that they're breathing properly.)
Use baking soda
Good old baking soda can be used as a topical treatment for bites and stings. It works well if the wound is on a less furry part of the body like the belly. Simply mix a pinch of baking soda with distilled water and apply the paste to the wound.
Go for aloe
Aloe vera has natural antihistamine and antiseptic properties, mainly thanks to saponins (a soapy substance which acts as a cleansing agent). Using it topically can help to relieve itchiness and soothe the skin.
You can buy aloe vera gel from health-food shops and online, but make sure you check the ingredients first. A good-quality product will list aloe first as the main ingredient, and the gel will be stabilized, unfiltered and not concentrated. Unfortunately, there are many claiming to be 'aloe vera' products that contain very little of the plant, and these will not be as effective. (In my experience, Forever Living Aloe Vera products are of high quality.)
To use, gently massage the gel between your fingers and apply to the skin. Inevitably, there may be some fur in the way, but continue to work it in around the hair follicles. The gel will be absorbed very quickly.
You can also grow aloe vera yourself at home or buy a ready-grown aloe plant, and use the sap directly from the leaves (see box, page 51, for a basic aloe
vera gel recipe).
Soothe with essential oils
Mix 3 drops of lavender or thyme essential oils with a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar and dab the solution onto bites. This will quickly alleviate the irritation and itching.
Ease with oatmeal
If there are multiple bites or general itchiness, use a good quality oatmeal shampoo to bathe your dog. Puppies that have been bitten by ants will benefit from this. Alternatively, bundle 1 cup (8 oz) of oatmeal in a muslin cloth, tie off with some string and place it in a tub of cold water. You can then soak your dog for 20 min in the water, or use the water for a daily wipe down to soothe irritated or itchy skin.
This Indian herb (Withania somnifera) can help to reduce the inflammation caused by bites and stings. It's available from health shops and online stores like Organic India (www.organicindia.com). Simply add the powder to your pet's food.
Give ¼ tsp 2-3 times daily for pets weighing < 15 lbs
Give ½ tsp 2-3 times daily for pets weighing 15-50 lbs
Give 1 tsp 2-3 times daily for pets weighing > 50 lbs
Treat with neem
This Indian herb (Azadirachta indica) has antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral qualities, but should only be used topically and never taken internally. It helps with many skin conditions, including ringworm, eczema, flea and tick bites, mange and mites. Neem can also be used to prevent bites and stings (see box, page 51, for a recipe for a neem-based insect repellent).
Ledum 30C (2-3 pills), given orally every 30 minutes for 2-3 hours post-bite or -sting, can rapidly prevent swelling as long as it's given in the immediate aftermath of the incident. If your pet won't take the pills, try dissolving them in a teaspoon of water first.