After CBD, medicinal mushrooms have become the next big focus of interest among dog parents and veterinarians. Mushrooms offer potential health benefits to dogs, not only for maintaining health and wellness, but also for addressing difficult-to-manage problems such as cancer, canine dementia, stress and anxiety, and seasonal allergies, to name just a few. This article is a comprehensive introduction to medicinal mushrooms and how they can be used to improve canine health and well-being.
ANSWERING FOUR KEY QUESTIONS
Dog parents and veterinarians want to offer their companions and patients the health benefits medicinal mushrooms provide, but there are four questions that need to be answered first.
1. What do mushrooms contain that offers so many health benefits? Is it one compound — or multiple compounds, as with cannabis?
Mushrooms are very complex organisms, neither plant nor animal. They belong to the Fungi Kingdom, which plays a huge role in the health of our planet by recycling dead and dying matter into usable nutrients. They are the sources of drugs such as penicillin and cyclosporin, and also contribute to many foods we enjoy, such as kefir, kombucha, cheese, beer or wine, and breads.
Mushrooms contain multiple compounds, most of which have health benefits. The fibrous wall of a mushroom cell makes it essential that you cook mushrooms in order to release their powerful active agents. Heat releases beta glucans and chitin from the cell wall. The soluble and insoluble fiber in the mushroom’s cell walls also feeds your dog’s microbiome.
Beta glucans signal the cells of the immune system to wake up and be vigilant about a potential threat. They are key to boosting your dog’s immune system to fight cancer or other health problems that improve with better immune function. Beta glucans have been found to improve vaccine titer protection in immunocompromised shelter puppies.
Active compounds are also found inside the mushroom cell. For example, terpene molecules can pass the blood-brain barrier and affect mood and cognition. They have potent anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties as well. Terpenes are also found in the cannabis plant. In fact, the terpenes in cannabis and mushrooms work in synergy with the cannabinoids in cannabis, and the beta glucans in mushrooms.
Fast Fact: Many other active compounds are found in mushrooms, including flavonoids with their potent antioxidant effects.
2. Are mushrooms safe for dogs, and can they be used with other supplements and pharmaceuticals an animal might be taking?
The answer depends on which mushroom your dog is consuming. Any mushroom that is safe for people to eat will be safe for dogs as well. Again, it’s important to cook the
mushrooms to release the “goodies” they contain. Mushroom extracts may be given to dogs that also are taking other supplements or drugs, but there are some qualifications. It’s best to talk to a holistic or integrative veterinarian to discuss your individual dog’s situation
3. What should you look for in a medicinal mushroom product, and how much should you give your dog?
To answer this question, let’s first look at the complex life cycle of the fungus that grows into mushrooms. Spores from a mature mushroom are dropped onto a suitable growing material, usually leaf litter, soil, or dead and dying wood. The spores germinate to form a tangled mass of “mycelium” with digestive enzymes that break down the growth medium to feed themselves so they can grow and mature. When conditions are right, the mycelium organizes itself into a mushroom, which then arises from the forest floor and produces spores, which then drop to repeat the life cycle, over and over again. The mycelium is an amazing stage of the mushroom’s life cycle, helping to recycle dead and dying matter on our planet.
Fast Fact: Mycelial beds can be found under forested areas. One area in Oregon has a mass of mycelium that’s 2,385 acres in size!
The pharmaceutical industry has tamed mycelium by growing it in a special nutrient broth; after sufficient growth, scientists have been able to isolate active molecules, such as the Turkey Tail extracts used in the study mentioned at the end of the article.
In the commercial cultivation of mushrooms, spores germinate into mycelium on sterilized grain called “spawn.” It’s then used to inoculate the appropriate growing material for that particular mushroom, be it compost or wood. Some companies believe that mycelium grown on grain has medical properties, but studies that measure active compounds like beta glucans have found big differences between the mycelium grown on grain and in the actual mushroom itself.
As well, mycelial products contain at least 50% carbohydrates from the grain. In a time when we are trying to avoid feeding too many carbohydrates to our overweight, arthritic dogs, or those with cancer, it doesn’t seem healthy to give them these grain-based mycelial products. For these reasons, the recommendation is to seek out products that contain mushroom, not mycelium grown on grain.
Historically, it was the mushroom itself that was used medicinally. Only recently have companies started selling grain and mycelium blends as health supplements. As of this writing, there are no studies to support the clinical value of mycelium grown on grain products.
Most companies will use hot water to extract the beta glucans and other active compounds from the dried and powdered mushroom. Some will standardize their products to always contain the same amount of beta glucans in each batch. You should choose a product that tells you how potent it is, in terms of its beta glucan content, as that will help you decide how much is appropriate to give your dog. I recommend administering mushrooms based on their beta glucan content, your dog’s weight, and the seriousness of his health condition:
- Wellness and mild conditions: 1 mg of beta glucan for each pound of body weight
- Moderately serious conditions: 2.5 mg to 5 mg of beta glucan for each pound of body weight
- Serious conditions: 10 mg to 15 mg of beta glucan for each pound of body weight
4. Do different mushrooms have different effects? There are ten to 15 mushrooms with health significance. How do you choose the right one for you dog?
Briefly, all mushrooms possess similar properties based on their beta glucans, which are common to all mushrooms. This means they all offer good immune system benefits. It is the other molecules — the terpenes, flavonoids and other compounds — that make for the differences of clinical activity between individual mushrooms. Here are a couple of examples:
- Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) has potent beta glucan content. This explains the published studies that show it benefiting cancer patients and wound healing. But Lion’s Mane also contains certain large terpene molecules called diterpenes and triterpenes, which have an effect on mood and mentation. This mushroom is therefore a natural stress reducer.
Fast Fact: Not surprisingly, Lion’s Mane is the most popular mushroom in these highly stressful times.
- Turkey Tail was used historically by indigenous peoples to treat cancer and viral infections. It has the highest beta glucan content of any mushroom, and contains a variety of different beta glucan molecules and a large number of different triterpenes, all working together as a result of the Entourage Effect to have such a strong influence on cancer cells.
In summary, medicinal mushrooms are safe for dogs, and contain multiple bioactive constituents that can strongly benefit his health when given in adequate amounts for a sufficient period of time.
The huge popularity of the Netflix documentary, Fantastic Fungi, is just one example of our current fascination with mushrooms. This interest in mushrooms started with people experiencing great benefits from their own use of mushrooms. The search for products to protect against viral diseases during the pandemic invariably led many more people to discover medicinal mushrooms. From there, they naturally wanted to share these same benefits with their beloved dogs.
The first event that boosted popular interest in giving mushrooms to animals occurred in 2012 when the University of Pennsylvania published a pilot study in dogs with hemangiosarcoma, a very aggressive malignancy of the spleen and heart. The researchers used an extract from Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor), and the results were astounding!
All the dogs in the study had their spleens removed, which is done to prevent the cancer from spreading further. But their families refused chemotherapy, and instead opted to try this mushroom extract instead. The study tested different doses of Turkey Tail extract to see which yielded the best benefits.
It found that dogs who received the highest dose of mushroom extract lived far longer than dogs who were splenectomized and received chemotherapy. It shocked the world of oncology that a natural product could succeed where conventional pharmaceuticals failed. As a result of this study, sales of Turkey Tail increased astronomically as people sourced this mushroom for their own animals’ cancers.