Who doesn’t love honey? The golden, sweet, gooey nectar seems to enhance the taste of just about everything. But although you may love a generous slathering of honey on a piece of toast or a dollop in a cup of tea, why on earth should you give honey to your animal companion? Well, it turns out there’s much more to honey than meets the eye (or, more appropriately, the sweet tooth). Let’s take a closer look.
What is honey?
Honey is a part of the honeybee’s beautiful symbiotic relationship with flowers—a relationship that results in pollination, or sexual fertilization, and plant reproduction. Pollination is vital to all life on earth. Honey is comprised of simple sugars — mostly glucose and fructose — manufactured by honeybees from the nectar of flower blossoms.
But if simple sugars are bad for you, then why eat honey for health or give it to our companion animals? The answer lies with the type of honey you choose, as this will determine its health benefits.
Not all honey is created equal
You can either purchase honey in its raw, unprocessed state (which is typically thick and “milky” in appearance) or you can purchase a pasteurized (heat treated), filtered version. This processed commercial version typically looks clear and smooth and may even be so thin that you can pour it. The healthful, nutrition-packed honey that can benefit you and your pet originates from wild, raw, unfiltered honey—not from the processed honey contained in the likes of those bear-shaped plastic bottles found at the supermarket!
Raw honey contains many beneficial properties, including:
• Alkaline-forming food
• Antimicrobial effect against a number of fungi and bacteria
• High in antioxidants
• Natural enzymes and nutrients
• Powerful antibacterial and antimicrobial properties
Pasteurization compromises these beneficial properties.
Medical studies have identified raw honey’s ability to help heal ulcers, manage diarrhea and soothe sore throats. And, since it becomes alkaline and does not ferment in the digestive system, it is also useful in counteracting indigestion.
Raw honey is also beneficial in treating topical wounds, an ability that arises from a chemical reaction that occurs between the glucose in honey and an enzyme added by honeybees called glucose oxidase. When the honey comes in contact with the skin, the right conditions occur that enable the glucose oxidase to break down the glucose into hydrogen peroxide, which is antibacterial. Honey also retains moisture, drawing it away from the wound. Pasteurized honey, however, is not a viable wound care treatment.
Some common uses for raw honey include:
• Healing minor wounds
• Healing ulcers
• Managing diarrhea
• Soothing indigestion
• Soothing sore throats
• Treating sunburn and mild burns
Locally grown honey may help prevent seasonal allergies
Both canine and human anecdotal evidence suggests that eating locally grown honey may help prevent seasonal allergies. The theory is that locally grown honey contains local pollen spores picked up by the bees, so consuming it can slowly build immunity to the pollen.
A study published in 2011 supports the anecdotal evidence. The study followed 44 patients diagnosed by their physicians with birch pollen allergy. The purpose was to evaluate the effects of the pre-seasonal use of birch pollen honey on the patients’ allergy symptoms and medication use during the birch pollen allergy season. The participants consumed incremental amounts of birch pollen honey from November 2008 to March 2009 and then recorded their daily allergy symptoms and medication use during the birch pollen allergy season, from April 2009 to May 2009. An additional 17 patients serving as the control group took only their usual allergy medication. The results were highly encouraging. During the 2009 birch pollen allergy season, the patients who consumed the birch pollen honey reported:
• A 60% lower total symptom score
• Twice as many asymptomatic days
• 70% fewer days with severe symptoms
• 50% less antihistamine use compared to the control group
Manuka: the “king” of honey
While all types of raw honey are beneficial, the “king” of honeys — celebrated for its super health benefits — is Manuka honey from New Zealand. Made from the nectar of flowers from the medicinal Manuka bush, Manuka honey has been shown in clinical trials to kill more than 250 strains of bacteria, including:
• MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus)
• MSSA (methicillin sensitive Staphylococcus aureus)
• VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococci)
• Helicobacter pylori (which can cause stomach ulcers)
In addition to the hydrogen peroxide antibacterial activity contained in most honeys, some strains of Manuka honey have additional healing antibacterial properties known as UMF (Unique Manuka Factor), which is indicated by a rating on the jar; the higher the UMF rating, the more potent the honey’s antibacterial strength. The lowest recognized UMF is 10. Manuka honey is so effective in fighting infection that in 2007 the FDA approved its use for treating wounds and burns in the Unites States.
Some common-sense honey cautions
If your pet is diabetic, consult with your holistic veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist before feeding honey, since its high sugar content can increase insulin levels. Also take care when feeding honey to overweight pets; at 64 calories per tablespoon, it can contribute to packing on unwanted pounds! Since raw honey can potentially become contaminated with a botulism-related toxin, we advise against feeding it to very young pets (or children under one year) because their immune systems are not yet developed enough to defend themselves. Adult pets and people are not affected.
Raw honey in moderate amounts can serve as a nutritious, and delicious, addition to your pet’s diet. Try mixing in a tablespoon with some fresh blueberries, or just letting him lick it right off the spoon. He’ll love the taste!
Benefits of Honey, 2012, www.benefits-of-honey.com.
Mercola, J, 2006. The Healing Properties of Raw Honey, viewed 10 September 2012, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2006/12/19/the-healing-properties-of-honey.aspx.
Mercola, J, 2009, This Bee Product has Enormous Benefits for Your Health, viewed 10 September 2012, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/11/17/This-Bee-Product-Has-Enormous-Benefits-for-Your-Health.aspx.
Mercola, J, 2011. Fresh Evidence… Could 1 Teaspoon per Day Tame Your Allergy Problems, viewed 10 September 2012, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/05/27/can-eating-local-honey-cure-allergies.aspx.
Puotinen, CJ, 2007, “Bee products have a special meaning for dogs.” The Whole Dog Journal, viewed 12 September 2012, http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/10_9/features/Bee-Honey-Products-Help-Canines_15967-1.html.
Saarinen, K, Jantunen, J and Haahtela, T, 2011, “Birch pollen honey for birch pollen alergy — a randomized controlled pilot study.” Int Arch Allergy Immunol, 155:160-166 (DOI: 10.1159/000319821)
Wolf, D, 2009, Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.