QUESTION: My 10-year-old cat, Simba, has just been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. My vet wants to start him on tablets or opt for surgery. Can you suggest any natural alternatives?
T.R., via email
ANSWER: Hyperthyroidism—an overactive thyroid—is a common condition in cats, especially those that are middle-aged or older.
Cats have two thyroid glands, located on either side of their larynx, or voice box, which release thyroid hormones responsible for metabolism, growth and development. Having over-functioning thyroid glands is known as hyperthyroidism, while having under-functioning glands is called hypothyroidism. In dogs, hypothyroidism is much more common, but cats are prone to hyperthyroidism.
Integrative care is the key to successful management of cats with an overactive thyroid. As this is a life-threatening condition that can affect the heart, liver, kidneys and other organs, it's vital your cat has regular checkups with your vet, and unless it's a borderline or very mild case of hyperthyroidism, I would not recommend natural treatments alone.
That said, several holistic therapies can be beneficial for cats with an overactive thyroid, and you can work with your vet to find the right combination of conventional and complementary therapies.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Signs of an overactive thyroid in cats include increased appetite and thirst, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, aggressive or hyperactive behavior and panting. Hyperthyroid cats may also look shabby or unkempt and have thickened nails.
In most cases, your vet will be able to feel the enlarged thyroid gland at least on one side of the neck. Often, a heart murmur can be detected, and your cat's age and appearance will also give your vet important clues.
Blood tests will be done to rule out other diseases with similar symptoms and to check thyroid hormone levels. If underlying renal or myocardial disease is suspected, an ultrasound exam of the kidneys and X-rays of the heart may also be needed.
In cats with confirmed hyperthyroidism, drugs like methimazole or carbimazole, which interfere with the production of thyroid hormones, are usually prescribed for life. But these drugs must be taken by mouth, and as many cat owners know, it can be difficult to get your cat to take tablets.
In these cases, thyroidectomy, surgically removing the enlarged thyroid, may be recommended. I have performed several of these operations with a very good success rate, but as with all types of surgery, there can be complications, notably hypoparathyroidism, where the parathyroid glands in the neck near the thyroid gland produce too little parathyroid hormone, which can lead to twitching, cramps and other symptoms.
In the US, topical forms of methimazole have become available, which can be applied to your cat's ear. But these drugs may be hard to get hold of.
Radioiodine therapy, which involves injecting your cat with radioactive iodine, is another possible treatment for hyperthyroidism. It's very effective but can be expensive.
Chinese medicine. According to traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM), hyperthyroidism in cats is caused by an underlying excess of heat as well as emotional factors like anger and fear. An experienced TCVM practitioner will be able to prescribe an appropriate herbal formula that can be very effective and help to reduce the dosage of conventional drugs.
Diet. Neutral foods that are easily digestible, readily absorbable and low in fat are ideal. Good options include beef, cod, eggs, chicken gizzards, lentils, kidney beans, yams, potatoes, barley, millet, celery and spinach. Broccoli soup or steamed broccoli is another great option for Simba.
A guideline for diet proportions is 40 percent protein, 50 percent grain and 10 percent vegetables. An upside of hyperthyroidism is that because it tends to give cats such a voracious appetite, they are likely to eat anything offered.
Nutritional supplements. Panceatic enzymes can be added to Simba's diet to help with digestion and nutrient absorption. Try Pawgest Digestive Enzymes by Glacier Peak Holistics (available in the US) or Pancreatic Enzyme Powder by Chemeyes (available in the UK).
Suggested dosage: follow the label instructions
Coenzyme Q10 is an effective antioxidant that seems to benefit hyperthyroid cats by helping to lower blood pressure.
Suggested dosage: 10 mg twice/day for cats 9 lb (4 kg) and over; 10 mg/day for smaller cats
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a calming agent and an anti-spasmodic, easing tummy upsets and acting as a sedative. It's a feline euphoric too—the plant contains a chemical called nepetalactone, which has an extraordinary effect on many cats when they inhale it.
Try making a catnip tray for Simba—sprinkle generous handfuls of loose dried catnip into a clean deep tray, at least 14 inches wide by 20 inches long (35 × 50 cm), and 4 inches (10 cm) deep—and encourage him to roll around in it. You could also try making catnip biscuits for Simba.
Astragalus membranaceus is often used in hyperthyroid cats, especially those who've lost a lot of weight. Avoid it if your cat has diabetes, an autoimmune condition or is FELV- or FIV-positive.
Suggested dosage: As a powder, give a pinch twice daily. Alternatively, try PetAlive Thyro-Pet, a liquid supplement containing astragalus, and follow the label instructions.
Bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus) is useful in cats with mild or borderline hyperthyroidism, although it shouldn't be used in pregnant or nursing cats.
Suggested dosage: As a powder, give ½ tsp daily, or try Only Natural Pet Feline Thyroid Wellness or Pet Wellbeing Thyroid Support Gold for Cats, both of which contain bugleweed, and follow the label instructions.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is known to reduce thyroid output and blood pressure, which makes it useful in feline hyperthyroidism. It is believed to block iodide uptake and inhibit antibody attachment at the thyroid cells.
Suggested dosage: As a powder, give ½ tsp daily. Or try Only Natural Pet Feline Thyroid Wellness or Pet Wellbeing Thyroid Support Gold for Cats, both of which contain lemon balm, and follow the label instructions
Impatiens is a flower remedy that can help your cat relax. Bach is one brand offering this flower remedy, and it's widely available online.
Suggested dosage: add a few drops to your cat's water daily, or use a dropper to give the remedy to your cat directly (3 drops, 2-3 times a day, especially when your cat is overly vocal or agitated)
Catnip feline biscuits
4 oz (115 g, or about 2 cups) dried catnip
1 cup (115 g) self-rising flour
1 free-range egg
2 Tbsp catnip-infused sunflower oil (see recipe below)
1 Tbsp honey
1) Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Grease a 8 × 11 inch (20 × 29 cm) baking sheet.
2) Mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl to form a soft dough. Spread mixture ½ inch (20 × 29 cm) deep on the baking tray. Bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm.
3) Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut into bite-
sized squares. Keep in an airtight, labeled container in the fridge for up to five days or freeze for up to one month.
1¾ oz (50 g, about ¾ cup) dried catnip herb
18 fl oz (500 mL) sunflower oil
1) Fill a dry, sterilized glass jar with catnip and cover completely with the sunflower oil—keep pouring until you reach the slope of the shoulder of the jar, leaving a small space for the oil to breathe.
2) Screw the lid on tightly and leave the jar in a warm place, in direct sunlight or on a sunny windowsill, for between four and six weeks—or until the oil has taken on the color of the plant material. Shake the jar vigorously every day.
3) After the oil has infused, strain the herb off into a sterilized measuring jug and put the oil in a (preferably dark) bottle.
4) Label, date and store in a cool, dry place. Use within three months. If unsure, smell and taste the oil, and do not use if rancid.
Homeopathy can be beneficial for cats with hyperthyroidism.1 You could try the following remedies, although it's best to see a homeopathic vet for a personalized prescription.
Suggested dosage: consult a homeopathic vet as the dose will vary from pet to pet
Suggested dosage: 200 C; a single dose upon diagnosis and repeat after 4 weeks if blood T4 levels are higher or still high
Acupressure is a massage technique you can try on Simba yourself. Using your index finger, apply gentle pressure twice daily for 30 seconds to a minute on the following acupoints:
LIV3. Liver 3 is located on the rear leg between the second and third metatarsal bones at the base and at the junction of the metatarsophalangeal joint.
SP6. Spleen 6 is located on the inside of the rear leg four-fifths down from the knee on the back of the leg bone.
For a detailed guide on how to give acupressure to your cat, see my book You Can Heal Your Pet.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com