Have you heard that honey is good for you?
Perhaps you are more familiar with warnings about sugar and diabetes — or how too much sugar causes obesity. But let’s look at the good news of sugar or, more precisely, how honey can heal.
I say “news,” but medicinal honey is rather old news. It has been used as a treatment since the 4th century B.C. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle once remarked: “[Honey] is good as a salve for wounds,” which is key to its healing properties because you apply the honey rather than eat it.
I use medicinal honey regularly, especially for pocket pets who have an abscess. To understand why I choose honey in particular, it helps to know a bit about rabbit abscesses.
Unlike cats and dogs, rabbits “wall off” an abscess, which means they form a thick capsule around the infection. That capsule is good and bad — it stops bacteria from getting out into the bloodstream, but it also prevents antibiotics from getting in.
And while we’re on the subject, most rabbits and guinea pigs don’t cope well with antibiotics because they wipe out their gut flora and fauna. The best option then is to surgically remove the abscess, just like removing a tumor, rather than medical treatment.
However, in patients where anesthesia is not an option, honey can help. Lance the abscess, scoop out the pus, then pack the cavity with honey — its antibacterial properties help fight the infection.
Healing for Sores and Wounds
Despite the availability of high-tech wound dressings, honey still has its place.
Spread over wounds or de-gloving injuries (the top layer of skin is badly abraded, often as the result of a traffic accident), honey helps protect against infection and speeds healing.
How Does Honey Heal?
So how does honey have these beneficial actions?
1. It’s Antimicrobial
Honey has antimicrobial (bacteria-killing) properties of 3 sorts:
- The high sugar content has a high “osmolality,” which means it attracts water toward it. For bacteria, this is bad news because the honey draws out their fluid and causes them to dehydrate.
- Honey is acidic, and most bacteria don’t like an acid environment.
- Honey produces hydrogen peroxide, which disrupts bacterial chemistry.
All in all, honey creates a hostile environment for bacteria in which they struggle to survive.
2. It’s a Barrier
Smear honey over a wound, and it’s like covering a car with a tarpaulin — it provides a protective layer. The stickiness of honey (or, more technically, its viscosity) physically stops bacteria from reaching and contaminating the tissue beneath.
Honey can also help reptiles retain skin after a partial shed. It moisturizes the old slough, enabling it to lift away.
3. It Speeds Up Healing
Honey acts in several ways to hasten healing. For a start, that ability to attract water has an added benefit in that it decreases tissue swelling (and less swelling means quicker healing).
It also contains substances that attract macrophages like a magnet draws iron filings. Macrophages are white cells that gobble up debris, microbes and dead tissues, which — you guessed it — helps speed up healing.
Are All Honeys the Same?
If you are now reaching into the kitchen cabinet for a jar of breakfast honey, stop. Not all honeys are the same.
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For a start, all the sugar honey contains can attract certain types of bacteria and mold and act as a food source for them. You really don’t want to go adding contamination to a wound. To prevent this, medicinal honeys are cultured in a special way to discourage the growth of bacterial contaminants and make sure they do more good than harm.
But the good news just got better, because there’s a “super” honey — manuka.
This honey is made by bees that pollinate the manuka shrub, a medicinal plant found in New Zealand.
The nectar of a manuka blossom contains a substance that bees convert into methylglyoxal (MG). This super substance has wonderful antimicrobial properties and is proven to kill around 250 strains of bacteria. This also includes antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA.
Each batch of manuka honey is unique, and the best quality is graded according to its healing powers. Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) is ranked on a scale, with thick, dark honeys ranked 10 or over being classified as medical grade.
And finally, in my experience, the only downside of honey is it’s very sticky. A rabbit with a honey-filled abscess or a bearded dragon with a honey-coated tail could be its own headache to worry about — so be prepared.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.