By Paula Fitzsimmons
You may reach for a bottle of witch hazel to zap a blemish, soothe itching, or treat insect bites and other skin irritations. This herbal remedy can provide relief for humans, but what about our canine companions? Some veterinarians and holistic experts recommend small amounts of witch hazel as a safe and natural topical treatment for dogs, but it's not without risks. Before attempting to treat any condition at home with witch hazel, talk to your veterinarian about whether it can be an effective remedy for your dog.
Benefits of Witch Hazel for Dogs
Witch hazel is primarily an astringent, explains Greg Tilford, a Phoenix-based holistic veterinary educator. “It reduces topical inflammation by rapidly shrinking and tightening skin tissue. This is why it is used as the primary active ingredient in many hemorrhoid preparations as well as face and skin wrinkle removers.”
These healing qualities are attributed to tannins, the chemical that gives plants and fruits their dry, bitter taste. Witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, is a small, yellow-flowered, North American shrub containing a high level of tannins.
Our conventional vet experts do not recommend witch hazel to pet parents, either because they don’t have experience with it, or because its use isn’t backed by rigorous scientific studies. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that witch hazel won't benefit your dog. In fact, some vets are using it successfully to treat their patients.
Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian who practices in New Jersey, uses witch hazel in her ear cleaners and to reduce swelling on a dog who has been bitten or stung by an insect. “It’s soothing, decreases the itch associated with inflammation, and doesn't sting.” She says it can also be applied to ticks to loosen their grip, making removal easier. “I also use it to clean the perianal area after emptying the anal glands,” she says. “It cleans well and neutralizes the anal gland odor.”
In addition, witch hazel can be safely used on dogs to reduce the pain and inflammation that result from flea bites and for dermatitis, Tilford says.
Using Witch Hazel on Dogs
Begin with the correct product. Tilford, who is a charter member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Animal Supplements Council (NASC), recommends using witch hazel that’s manufactured and marketed specifically for animals. Herbal, witch hazel-based ear washes formulated for dogs may contain other soothing ingredients, like chamomile extract, marigold extract, and sage oil. Morgan uses a product that combines witch hazel, tea tree oil, and aloe to clean her patients’ ears.
If using human-grade witch hazel, choose a vegetable glycerin-based product, if possible, because it's safer if your pet accidentally ingests it, Morgan says. If you do purchase an alcohol-based product, choose one with grain alcohol instead of isopropyl, Tilford recommends. “Most commercially available witch hazel products are made with isopropyl alcohol, which is toxic if ingested.”
Witch hazel doesn’t have to be diluted, but it should be used sparingly, Tilford says. “For dogs, it can be applied once or twice daily,” he says. Morgan suggests using a gauze square or cotton ball to apply witch hazel to your dog’s skin. To clean your pup’s ears, “a few drops can be applied in the ears to help dry discharges and soothe inflammation.”
Dr. Ihor Basko, a holistic veterinarian based in Honolulu, Hawaii, often combines witch hazel with aloe vera juice (using a one-to-one ratio) as a simple home remedy for itchy skin.
Risks of Witch Hazel for Dogs
While witch hazel is safe to use topically on dogs and is not known to interact with other medications, there are some risks pet parents should be aware of, vets advise.
Tilford advises against applying witch hazel for dry skin conditions. “It tends to tighten and dehydrate, thus exacerbating such conditions.”
Given in high doses, witch hazel can cause kidney or liver damage, but this applies mostly to internal use. In humans, there have been warnings against using witch hazel during pregnancy and lactation, but these also refer to internal uses, Tilford says. “Unless the dog is actually drinking the product, it is unlikely to cause a problem if used topically.”
Some people use witch hazel as a tea or ethanol-based tincture for conditions like diarrhea or minor gastrointestinal bleeding, he adds. “But its strong astringent properties can irritate mucus membranes if used in abundance. Personally, I only use this herb topically.”
If your dog accidentally ingests witch hazel, signs to watch out for include hypersalivation or drooling, rubbing the mouth or nose on the floor or pawing at the mouth due to pain or ulcerations from the astringent, vomiting and diarrhea, and redness or burns on the skin.