Herbal Help for Rat Respiratory Problems

An herb called echinacea may be able to help your rattie friends fight off respiratory disease. Numerous scientific studies indicate that this herb might improve immune system function in your rats, and that this in turn could lead to fewer and less frequent respiratory problems.

Although it's important to exercise extreme caution when using "home remedies" with our rats, I believe that echinacea may be worth trying if you have rats with respiratory problems. Not only is there scientific evidence that it may help, but also - and this is just as important -- there appears to be very little risk. All indications are that the chances of toxicity are low. Furthermore, the treatment is inexpensive: The herb costs about $9 for a one-ounce bottle of the tincture form (an extract in alcohol or another solvent), for an amount that would provide many months' treatment for many rats. And finally, my rats actually seem to like the taste of echinacea!


Echinacea is an extract (often from the roots but possibly also from other parts) of plants from the species Echinacea. The best known representative of this species is Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower, a plant native to North America.

According to Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado., and a member of the federal Commission on Dietary Supplement Labels, echinacea is "the best known and one of the most researched of immunostimulants." Long and widely used in the treatment of respiratory diseases (he says it was used by at least 14 Native American tribes), echinacea has been the subject of more than 300 studies of its effectiveness, McCaleb writes in an article appearing at the Herb Research Foundation's Website (http://sunsite.unc.edu/herbs).

In the March 1996 issue of Herbs for Health, herbal medicine expert Steven Foster states, "In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 180 volunteers, German researchers found that an alcohol extract of E. purpurea root helped lessen the symptoms and the duration of such flu symptoms as nasal inflammation, swelling of the lymph glands, and coated tongue." In another placebo-controlled German study, fresh juice extract of E. purpurea lessened the severity of colds and flu symptoms in 54 patients who had been determined to be highly susceptible to infections based on an analysis of their T-cell counts. (T-cells are a component of the immune system.)

According to McCaleb, "The most consistently proven effect of echinacea is in stimulating phagocytosis, or the consumption of invading organisms by white blood cells and lymphocytes. ... Extracts of echinacea can increase phagocytosis by 20-40%." He adds that echinacea causes an increase in the number of immune cells, stimulates production of such immune-system products as interferon, and combats inflammation, among other effects.

Ironically, most of the research on echinacea seems to have been done using humans. (Now, there's a switch!) However, there is evidence that echinacea could be equally as beneficial to rats as it is to us.

Steve Carter, a research associate at the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Diego, California., told me that researchers there have completed but not yet published research showing that echinacea has a significant effect on several measures of the immune system in rats. According to Carter, as compared to the rats who served as controls, rats given echinacea showed a short-term increase in numbers of white blood cells. This effect was strongest in the first week and disappeared after a couple of weeks. Rats treated with echinacea also showed a steady improvement in their ability to produce antibodies when exposed to an antigen. Unlike the effect on white-blood-cell count, this effect persisted throughout the study: When the study was concluded after six weeks, the rats that had been treated with echinacea produced significantly more antibodies when exposed to an antigen than did rats that had not been treated with echinacea.

In short, there is plenty of reason to think that echinacea would at least be a helpful adjunct to antibiotic treatment in controlling respiratory symptoms in rats. Brett Jacques, ND, a naturopathic physician on the staff of the Eclectic Institute of Portland, Oregon., a well-regarded manufacturer of herbal remedies, told me that he "absolutely" believes that echinacea would be beneficial in the treatment of rats. "It's a general immune system stimulant," he said. "It helps the body help itself, whether it's a rat body or a human body."


Sally in the foliage. Photo by Grove Pashley.

Sally in the Foliage

Of course, a responsible rat owner will want to be absolutely sure that a treatment such as echinacea has no dangerous side effects. (As the Hippocratic Oath states, "Above all, do no harm.") Fortunately, there is good news here, as well.

In administering any plant-based food or medication, one must always be alert to the possibility of an allergic reaction. Echinacea presents this danger just as does any plant product you might offer your rats. However, even though echinacea has been widely studied, there are few indications that it can cause any serious side effects other than a slight possibility of an allergic response. According to McCaleb, "Echinacea has an excellent safety record. After hundreds of years of use, no toxicity or side-effects have been reported except rare allergic reactions in sensitive individuals."

Steve Carter has seen little or no evidence of toxicity from echinacea in his work with rats. "In all the research we've done, the toxicity appears to be very low, especially in the short term," he said. (Always remember, however, that it's important to exercise common sense and caution in dosing yourself or your rats with any medication!)


Personal anecdotes are not a good basis on which to make treatment decisions concerning beloved pets. There are a host of reasons why one person might have a good experience - or a bad one, for that matter - with a particular treatment regimen.

With that said, however, I am happy to report that my rats have responded very well to treatment with echinacea. Dottie, about one year and seven months old at this writing, and Serif, about one year and two months, have suffered from respiratory problems since they were each about two months old. Until I started using echinacea about 10-and-a-half months ago, Dottie in particular had spent most of her life on antibiotics. Each antibiotic treatment suppressed her symptoms briefly, but the symptoms typically returned within a few weeks once she had been taken off the medication. Furthermore, while on antibiotics alone, she never seemed to completely stop sneezing.

For the record, I am usually skeptical of claims made on behalf of so-called "alternative" medications. I believe that many of the alternative medications now on the market are probably ineffective, while some may even be dangerous. Herbs certainly can be quite toxic. Thus, they should be used with great care.

However, I do have quite a lot of confidence in the recommendations of Andrew Weil, MD, a Harvard-trained physician who is also an ethnobotanist. The author of several books on alternative medicine, Dr. Weil is appropriately cautious but also is willing to endorse an alternative medication if he sees evidence that it may be helpful.

About 11 months ago, I began to get extremely worried about Dottie and Serif because, even after being on Tylan (tylosin) for two weeks, they continued to sneeze and show other signs of respiratory problems. I decided it was time to think about an alternative medication.

Checking Dr. Weil's Natural Health, Natural Medicine (Houghton Mifflin, 1990), I found that he recommends echinacea for treatment of infections. He calls the herb "a natural antibiotic and immune-system enhancer" and recommends using it as "a first line of defense against common infections before resorting to conventional antibiotics."

Having first been careful to check multiple sources to make sure there was little chance that this herb could harm my rats, I tried it. And, on the whole, the results have been wonderful. Both Dottie and Serif do continue to show respiratory symptoms at times, and sometimes they have to be put on antibiotics. However, in the last 10-and-a-half months, I have only had to use antibiotics three times, for two weeks each time (a total of six weeks). In contrast, had I not been using the echinacea, previous experience suggests that Dottie and Serif might easily have spent half of this period - roughly 14 weeks - on antibiotics. The difference between 14 weeks and six weeks is, I think, quite significant.

What's more, Dottie and Serif have had long stretches when they have been completely free of respiratory symptoms. We actually had one stretch of five months where neither Dottie nor Serif sneezed (that I noticed, anyway)! My veterinarian has listened to the girls' lungs and confirms that they are healthy. (In fact, he told me that, if I hadn't assured him that they do have respiratory problems, he never would have suspected it.)

Equally important, I've seen no sign that any of my rats (I also give echinacea to Serif's sister, Tilde) has had any adverse response to echinacea. On the contrary, they really like it! Serif once found a bottle of the tincture that I'd inadvertently left in the rattie room and chewed the rubber top off it. She showed no ill-effect (not even a hangover), even though I have reason to think she may have given herself a super-dose.


Echinacea Blossom

Purple coneflower is often grown as a garden plant, and even grows wild in some areas. For medicinal use, however, most of us are best off purchasing extract of echinacea from a reputable company. Dr. Weil and other experts recommend products made by the Eclectic Institute, 14385 SE Lusted Road, Sandy, OR 97055 (800-332-4372). I use Zand from McZand Herbal Inc., PO Box 5312, Santa Monica, CA 90409, which I purchase in the natural foods section of my grocery store

According to Dr. Weil, the best way to purchase any herb is either freeze-dried or as a tincture (an extract in alcohol or some other solvent) because these forms are most likely to keep their potency. (Ordinary dried herbs, in contrast, tend to lose their active ingredients over time.) I prefer to use echinacea in tincture form because it's easy and my girls really seem to enjoy it that way. Each gets a drop of tincture on a little piece of bread - and they really seem to enjoy it. They like it so much that they practically line up for their "wee dram" on the nights when they receive their echinacea! If you don't like the idea of giving alcohol to your rats, however, Steve Carter suggests heating the tincture, causing the alcohol to evaporate.

Dr. Weil says you can check to make sure that the echinacea preparation you have purchased contains an effective dose of echinacea. Do this by putting a bit of it on your tongue. If effective, it should produce "a curious and distinctive numbing sensation when held in the mouth for a few minutes."


Most resources say that you should not administer echinacea continuously, as there is evidence that it loses at least some of its effectiveness over time. Dr. Weil recommends a "two weeks on, two weeks off" schedule for humans who are trying to build immunity. Rob McCaleb reports that clinics in Europe, where echinacea is used more than it is in the United States, use a "three days on, three days off" dosing schedule. I've also seen recommendations that people taking echinacea for immune-system enhancement follow a "10 days on, five days off" schedule.

It's possible that, although some benefits of echinacea may decline in long-term use, others might persist. The Veterans Administration Hospital research seems to suggest that improvements in antibody production continue with long-term administration of echinacea. However, Steve Carter pointed out to me that this improvement might have occurred even if the rats in their study had been taken off echinacea after a couple of weeks. (There are indications that echinacea continues to provide clinical benefits even after you stop taking it.)

The bottom line here is that no one knows exactly what dosing schedule works best. The safest course certainly is to give your rats regular "breaks" from echinacea treatment rather than trying to medicate them continuously. I usually start my girls on echinacea the moment I detect any respiratory symptoms and keep them on it until a few days after all symptoms have stopped. This usually happens within a week, and the longest I have kept them on echinacea is two weeks.

Given the research I've seen on echinacea, I would definitely expect to see signs of improvement in rats with respiratory symptoms within 10 days if I were going to see any improvement at all. I would certainly not wait any longer than that before beginning to administer a more conventional treatment, if my rats were still showing symptoms. Of course, you could continue to administer echinacea while putting your rats on antibiotics as well. I have given my rats echinacea while also administering Tylan, and did not notice any ill-effects. But it is important to be alert to the possibility of an adverse drug interaction; the safest course would be to avoid giving echinacea and an antibiotic at the same time.

As for the size of the dose, Dr. Weil recommends a dropperful of tincture twice a day for humans who are trying to build immunity, and twice that dose for humans who are already sick. But what about the dose in rats? Again, nobody knows for sure. Steve Carter told me that, in their research with rats, his group used a dose equivalent to approximately 2.2 drops of tincture per ounce of water. If an average rat drinks about an ounce of water a day, this would mean they used a dose of about two drops a day per rat. (However, Carter also told me that, at least initially, the rats in this study were reluctant to drink the water that had been treated with echinacea. Thus the rats in this study may have been receiving a smaller dose. Also, the rats in his research were predominantly male, meaning that the dose per gram of bodyweight might be lower for these rats than for a group of female rats like mine.)

To be on the safe side, I have used the smallest convenient dose, a drop per day per rat, and have had good luck with it. I believe it would probably be safe to try a bigger dose, however. If my current one-drop-per-day dose ever ceases being effective, I'll probably try two drops a day.


As happy as I am with the results of using echinacea to help my girls, I cannot stress enough the importance of continuing to work with a licensed veterinarian experienced in the care of rats. In fact, if you are using an alternative product, you may want to take your rats in for routine veterinary checkups, just to make sure you're not overlooking an important symptom.

A recent experience of mine may illustrate this point. Around Christmas, we'd had nearly five "sneeze-free" months in our rattie room, and I felt so confident about our rats' health that I decided to bring in a new baby rattie. Within a month of coming home, Martini started making odd little snuffling noises. However, she wasn't sneezing, so I thought she was just "talkative." (In my defense, I should note that I never had a rat before Dottie, so I still have a lot to learn about rats.) After too much delay, my husband and I finally realized that poor Martini was very, very sick. (Yes, I do feel very, very guilty.) As more experienced rat owners probably already have guessed, the vet found that Martini had pneumonia! She seems to have pulled through on antibiotics, but she has taught me an important lesson about the danger of being over-confident.

Meanwhile, though Serif and Dottie definitely respond well to echinacea, they have not been completely cured of their respiratory problems. In fact, since Christmas they've been on antibiotics twice, for a total of four weeks. Maybe the echinacea is no longer working well for them. Maybe Martini brought in some new "bug" that doesn't respond to the echinacea treatment. Maybe this is just a coincidence, and I'll be able to go back to treating them successfully with echinacea once this round of the antibiotic is done. I don't know. The important point here is that echinacea is not a "magic bullet" - a complete cure -- and it is certainly not a substitute for caution, common sense, and regular attention from a qualified vet!

Still, I do believe that echinacea has helped Dottie and Serif, and may eventually help Martini as well. Thus, I encourage anyone whose rats have chronic respiratory problems to give echinacea a try. You and your rats have much you could gain and, as long as you're careful, relatively little to lose.

If you do try echinacea with your rats, I hope you will be more responsible than I have been and keep detailed records of what dose you use, how often you administer it, and what results you get. If enough of us do this, we may compile data that will help us establish with more certainty whether echinacea really is beneficial to rats with respiratory problems, and figure out the best dose and dosing schedule.

Please share your experiences using echinacea with your rats. Write to Flora Skelly c/o this magazine or e-mail FSkelly@aol.com. The author wishes to extend special thanks to Steve Carter and colleagues at the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Diego, who went to the trouble of translating the doses of echinacea used in their research into terms that would be more useful for pet owners.