As legend has it, the discovery of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) was, in fact, pet related. Centuries ago, an Arabian horse owner was struck by increased performance and energy levels in his horses when he fed them alfalfa. Today, alfalfa is a common food, ingredient and supplement for rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, horses, cows and goats, but is also found in some dog, cat and aquarium fish food.
As a menu item, alfalfa consumption is often limited for adult animals to prevent weight gain, and due to the high magnesium and calcium:phosphorus ratio. Excessive intake is also suspected to cause bloat in some animals.
As a supplement, alfalfa is an excellent source of plant protein, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc, vitamins A, B1, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K, chlorophyll, fiber, carbohydrates, antioxidants, digestive enzymes, amino acids, saponins, flavones, isoflavones, sterols, and coumarin derivatives.
Studies indicate the following health benefits:
- Cardiovascular system – lowers cholesterol and prevents artery plaque buildup.
- Alkalizing effect reduces overly acidic urine
- Supports optimum liver function
- Digestive aid & prevents constipation.
- Saponin constituents assist the small intestine in the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients.
- Improved immune function
- Supports brain and nerve function
- Anti-cancer – May inactivate chemical carcinogens.
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Anti-fungal properties
- Supports bones and joints
- Treats bleeding disorders – High in Vitamin K and its coumarin constituent is known for its anticoagulant qualities.
- Aids in intestinal ulcer healing
- Supports the pituitary gland and stimulates growth hormones.
- Increased insulin production
- Increased milk production
Reduces breath odor – Chlorophyll
- May improve eczema-type skin conditions
It’s important to note that benefits may be proven in one animal (or humans) but not be effective in another. For example, Goldfish can be fed up to 15% alfalfa for the carotenoid benefits of improving pigmentation, while maintaining acceptable growth and feed utilization. Results for other species of fish have been mixed, however, with some experiencing growth retardation and reduced feed utilization efficiency even at a fish meal replacement level of only 5% alfalfa meal. Cytoplasmic alfalfa protein concentrate has been used in fish feed as a fish meal replacement with greater success.
Alfalfa products may be leaves, sprouts, flowers, seeds, or a combination. Available forms include fresh sprouts, dehydrated, component extracts, and alfalfa meal. Pharmaceutical grade dehydration must meet nutritional standards and is a far more reliable source of nutrients than processed alfalfa meal. You’ll also find alfalfa in various mixed pet supplements, such as the popular Nu-Pet Feline Granular.
Notes of caution:
- Excessive doses of fresh alfalfa or concentrated extracts may irritate the stomach lining and intestinal mucosa due to saponin constituents.
- Excessive doses of fresh alfalfa or concentrated extracts may be contraindicated in animals with anemia.
- Excessive doses of fresh alfalfa or concentrated extracts may interfere with blood clotting due to anticoagulant coumarin.
- Alfalfa should not be used in animals with conditions requiring acidic urine.
- Seeds contain l-canavanine, a toxic amino acid. Harvest before flowering.
- May cause allergic reaction in pollen-sensitive pets.
- Herbicides are often used on alfalfa so organic alfalfa is preferred.
- Alfalfa sprouts have a higher than normal incidence of salmonella contamination.
- Heat processing will reduce many active components and vitamin content.
Do you supplement your pet’s food with alfalfa? Please share your story in the comments below.
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Nutritional Data from the Nutritional Research Center
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