Pet Health Manuka Honey

Published on December 5th, 2017 | by Debbie Martin


Manuka Honey – Still Nature’s Miracle Worker?

The science behind wound care and infection control has advanced massively over recent decades with the advent of ever stronger and more efficient antibiotics and the use of high-tech materials in dressings and bandages. However it has been shown that there is still a place in medicine for what used to be called ‘old wives remedies’. Manuka honey is one such remedy that has been hailed as something of a miracle worker when it comes to wound healing.

The Wisdom of Centuries

The use of Manuka honey in medicine and particularly in the healing of wounds in both humans and animals is nothing new. The use of natural remedies and treatments prevailed out of necessity among rural societies and among those who couldn’t afford professional medical assistance.  It has been around for many centuries but probably fell out of fashion as a wound treatment when antimicrobials came along in the 1940s. However the rapid rise of antimicrobial bacterial resistance has necessitated the need to think again about how we treat wounds and the introduction of medical grade Manuka honey over the last 10 years or so has proved successful.

Why Manuka Honey?

A layperson could be forgiven for asking the question – why does it have to be Manuka honey and why not ‘ordinary’ honey which is after all a lot cheaper to obtain. The answer is simple; Manuka honey contains properties that other honeys do not. It contains a compound called methylglyoxal, or MGO, which is precisely what gives Manuka honey its antimicrobial healing properties. Added to this, medical grade Manuka honey is sterilised and contains natural oils which help to reduce any stinging effect that the honey’s natural acidity could cause.

How Does it Work?

Manuka Honey BeeSo here’s the science bit, as they say, which helps to explain exactly how the components within Manuka honey work in the debridement and healing of wounds.

The primary component of all honeys is of course sugar and the high sugar content of Manuka honey comes courtesy of our friends the honey bees which gather nectar from the plants they visit. The bees pass the nectar on to each other and in the process the nectar becomes more concentrated. Moisture evaporates from the nectar continually on its way to becoming sugar within the honey.

Honey also contains an enzyme called glucose oxidase which is made when nectar passes from bee to bee on the way back to the hive. This is manufactured within the bees and it increases in concentration to eventually become an antimicrobial component intended to protect the honey whilst it is stored within the hive.

The ph factor in honey derives from amino and organic acids and varies from 3.4 to 6.1 depending on the source of the nectar. The glucose oxidase breaks down to release a gluconic acid.

Finally plant phytochemicals from the Manuka flower is what gives Manuka honey the ‘X’ factor, as it were, as these contribute to the formulation of methylglyoxal which is the main component that gives the honey its exceptional antimicrobial properties.

So how it all works is this:

  • The high sugar content forces water out of the bacterial cells and the honey’s natural acidity hinders bacterial growth. This osmotic action softens necrotic tissue which helps the removal of debris from the wound.
  • Once the honey has become diluted in the wound glucose oxidase releases tiny amounts of hydrogen peroxide from the sugars. Hydrogen peroxide is a form of disinfectant and its antimicrobial effect is similar to that of neutrophils, or white blood cells, during early inflammation.
  • A low ph count is essential to inhibit the growth of microbes.
  • Manuka honey that contains methylglyoxal can maintain an essential antimicrobial effect independent of the action of any glucose oxidase and despite dilution. This is called a non-peroxide activity and is strongest and more active in honey when it first leaves the hive.

When Can Manuka be Used and What are the Benefits?

Manuka honey really comes into its own when used to aid debridement and decontamination of wounds and particularly in cases where the risk from surgery and anaesthetic are too great. Arguably its greatest benefit derives from not being part of the pharmaceutical family of antibiotics which over the last decade have begun to be less effective than they once were. Antimicrobial treatment with Manuka honey is also useful in cases where an animal is unable or unwilling to take oral antibiotics or where it is inadvisable for medical reasons to give oral antibiotics. It is especially useful in the removal of dirt and foreign bodies from wounds.

Manuka honey is nothing if not versatile in its applications. It can be used on wounds that are to be left open or underneath a bandage or dressing and when used in the early stages it works to kill off any bacteria whilst at the same time retaining a healthy level of moisture. This can help to promote faster wound healing and less scarring. It can be applied straight from the jar, as it were, or for convenience it is also available in a tube as a gel or cream. Since the Activon range of medical grade Manuka was introduced to the veterinary market in the UK around 10 years ago the applications have expanded and you can now also get honey-impregnated seaweed, ribbons, foam and gauze as alternative dressings.

Warnings and Contraindications

Despite its obvious considerable antimicrobial advantages Manuka honey if pasteurised can be ineffective against spores of potentially pathogenic bacteria such as Clostridium Botulinum which could be a risk to an animal (or a human) with a compromised immune system.

Manuka honey may be less effective on certain types of wounds such as:

  • Bleeding wounds
  • Wounds with healthy granulation
  • Wounds covered with epithelialising tissue
  • Extensive wounds that are heavily exuding particularly where shock is present for instance in the case of severe burns. In wounds that are exuding, the application of an extra dressing and a barrier cream like Cavilon (3M) around the wound can help prevent further skin damage.
  • Where there are dissolvable sutures these can break down more quickly due to the osmotic action of the honey which may act on them as it would a foreign body.

In conclusion, Manuka honey could well be a miracle cure indeed. Why not consider having some in your cupboard. You never know when you may need some.

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About the Author

Debbie has worked for Beeston Animal Health for a number of years and although generally involved with the marketing these days she has a great deal of knowledge on many things to do with small animals.

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