As a dog owner, you only want what’s best for your pet. You’ve probably already done lots of research into what he can and can’t eat, and what products are safe for him. But, as with any research, the Internet can produce some confusing results!
One thing that often trips owners up is the safety of natural products. It’s easy to assume that natural is best, simply because it lacks the chemicals, additives, or other synthetic ingredients contained in many manufactured products. We know that these things are harmful to dogs, so it makes sense that natural products, such as plants and vegetables, would be safe—right?
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case! While many plants and herbs harbor great benefits for both dogs and humans, some do not. In fact, some plants can be quite harmful.
That’s the case with aloe vera. Aloe vera is a type of flowering succulent plant with many amazing therapeutic benefits. It’s often referred to as a ‘wonder plant’ thanks to the many useful qualities of its gel-filled leaves. But it seems that dogs and aloe vera are not quite compatible—for several reasons.
In a nutshell, aloe vera gel is safe for topical use, but not for dogs to ingest. Here’s a quick biology lesson! Each aloe vera leaf comprises three layers:
The therapeutic and safe part of the aloe plant is the inner leaf juice, or gel. This part is not only perfectly safe for both internal and external use, it harbors a huge range of benefits. Aloe vera’s inner leaf juice is a powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and can heal all kinds of abrasions: burns, wounds, eczema, lesions, and rashes. It contains vitamins A (beta-carotene), C, and E, which are important antioxidants. It also contains vitamin B12, folic acid, and choline, plus a variety of beneficial enzymes and minerals. All of these can aid in wound healing when used topically.
Before you go cutting open an aloe vera leaf and slathering it on your dog’s paws, wait! Although aloe vera has some wonderful medicinal benefits when used topically, certain parts of it are quite toxic to dogs. These parts can pose all sorts of serious risks to dogs when ingested in large enough quantities.
You might have heard that aloe vera is helpful as a laxative and can be used by people with constipation. This is partly because of the saponins in the aloin. Many people can take aloin internally as a safe and effective means of improving bowel function. The latex in aloe vera also contains saponins, which are a class of plant glycosides called anthraquinone glycosides. These are the yellow or orange sap-like residue of the leaf rind.
The particular saponins in the aloe vera plant are purgatives: substances that encourage the bowels to move more quickly than usual. This is fine for treating constipation in humans, but not so good for your average canine. When dogs ingest aloe vera, these glycosides are broken down in their gut by intestinal bacteria. The glycosides then form compounds that increase mucus production and the amount of water in the colon. Large amounts of mucus and water can lead to vomiting and diarrhea.
Unfortunately, this powerful laxative effect means aloe isn’t necessarily suitable for dogs. It’s known to irritate the intestines, which can cause not only an upset tummy and bloating, but severe diarrhea. If not treated, this diarrhea can lead to excessive electrolyte loss.
The saponins also bond to sugar in the blood, which can cause your dog’s blood sugar levels to drop dramatically and cause even more problems. Serious signs following aloe vera ingestion include lack of energy, loss of appetite, changes in the color of the urine, and sometimes even tremors.
If you suspect your dog has eaten some form of aloe vera, call your veterinarian as soon as possible. Bring a sample of the plant or whatever aloe vera product your dog has eaten. The vet will be able to assess your dog’s responses and check for any signs of poisoning.
It’s important to note that the aloe vera plant isn’t the only plant dangerous to dogs. The harmful saponins in aloe are also present in buckeye, English holly, English ivy, and nightshade.
Although raw aloe vera also has some amazing benefits as a topical treatment, there’s a high risk that a dog will lick it off his skin or fur if you treat him with it. And, because ingesting raw aloe vera is so dangerous to dogs, it’s not recommended for use topically unless it’s in an area where the dog is unable to lick.
While most commercial aloe vera products don’t contain aloin (the substance that contains the saponins), there’s a good chance that these products DO contain synthetic chemicals and additives, which aren’t good for your dog anyway!
If you want to use natural products to treat topical abrasions or wounds on your dog, there are plenty of other options. Herbal tea rinses can be used to clean wounds and applied as a spray, rinse, wash, or compress. Some great herbs include comfrey leaf and root, St. John’s wort, calendula, or plantain. Simply add to boiling water as if you were making a tea, then allow to steep and cool before treating your dog’s wounds.
Coconut oil is also excellent for treating burns and small abrasions. Coconut contains medium-chain fatty acids that can fight harmful bacteria, viruses, yeasts, fungi, and parasites, and its thick texture makes it a perfect salve for cuts and wounds. It’s also totally safe (and healthy) if your dog happens to lick it off!
Learn more about foods dogs can and can't eat