Plant a Garden for Healthy Pets

Herbs and health are a happy combination for animals as well as people.


Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis)

Content Tools

For millennia, pets and people have been good for each other. The bond between humans and animals is affectionate, healthy and healing.

But we sometimes forget that long before we domesticated animals, we humans grew plants that provided healing. And for thousands of years before domestication, the wild animals and still relatively wild humans were constantly connected to health-giving plants.

Gardening is an easy, available and affordable way to renew this sustaining pets-plants-people triad. Some simple methods can create an atmosphere in your garden — and in your gardening — that will further enhance the healthy collaboration.

Grow What You Love

You might as well grow herbs you love — the ones you think smell good or look pretty, those that have a particular mythology that interests you, or plants that fit your landscape. Many horticultural experts say that the plants that grow best for any individual are those the individual cares about the most.

There’s something to this concept of selecting plants for love, rather than trying to pick the ones you feel you ought to plant, or that your pet might need for health reasons. The most important thing you can do with any remedy is to use it. Because each herb has dozens of active ingredients, almost any individual herb will have a wide range of activities in the body. Thus, almost every medicinal herb will be effective by itself, acting to balance or enhance many organ systems at once.

The key is to get your pet to take his daily or weekly dose of herbs without worrying about which specific herb is the very best one to use today. I’m convinced the best use of herbal medicines is for all pets to have at least a weekly dose of one tonic or culinary herb as a general health-maintenance routine.

If your pet has a condition that requires therapeutic levels of herbal or other kinds of medicine, I recommend consulting an herbalist or other qualified holistic practitioner. Let their knowledge of the specific medicines your pet needs guide your herbal selection and the dosage of the medicine — recognizing that the therapeutic level of herbal medicines likely will be much higher than a daily dose of tonic herbs taken straight from the garden.

Do What You Love

Those of us who are interested in herbs have a love for the open air and the moderate exercise it takes to tend the garden. We also revel in the fragrances of the garden, aromas that vary with the time of year and the stage of plant growth. (For me, even the donkey droppings I spread in the spring and fall has an incomparable odor that I’ve come to appreciate, if not actually love.)

All of these — the outside contact that gives us a presence with nature’s cycles, the necessary physical activity, the healthy aromas wafting in the air — are healthy for people and their pets alike.

Another part of gardening that may be the most healing is simply getting our hands — and paws — in the dirt. From the scientist’s viewpoint, dirt (at least that dirt that has remained free of pesticides and herbicides) contains a medicine chest of healthy chemicals produced by plants, beneficial bacteria, worms and bugs, and a thick weave of healing fungal mycelia. When we dig in the soil, we receive the full benefit of dirt’s healing abilities.

Beyond science, though, is the potential for health and healing offered whenever we, along with our animal companions, ground ourselves with Mother Earth. Some would say that with our hands in the dirt, we are connected with the soul of the earth and are open to the calming resonance from the core of our true center. Perhaps. What I do know is that pets thoroughly enjoy, and I think absolutely need, this connection to the earth — easily provided when you let them garden with you.

Let Your Pet Love the Garden, Too

When you let your pets work the garden with you, they reap all the benefits mentioned above. My wife, Sue, and I thus far have been able to make our gardening experiences with our pets positive … most of the time. As with any pet-people activity, some positive reinforcement is required for good manners, and some discipline whenever they want to dig up the herbs or bury bones in the middle of the flowerbed.

After some initial time spent setting the boundaries of good and bad behavior, all our critters have been content to lie nearby and snooze or chew on a bone — as long as we’re actively working in the garden and occasionally pay some attention to them. My experience tells me that pets get in trouble when they become bored or are left to their own devices for too long. Occasional walks or some ball-chasing exercises are good for pets and people alike.

The best use of herbal medicines is for all pets to have at least a weekly dose of one tonic or culinary herb as a general health-maintenance routine.

Keep It Simple- And Organic

As a holistic veterinarian who recommends herbs for pets, I am a stickler for using only organically grown herbs. There are several reasons for this.

First, there is absolutely no reason to expose our loved ones, our pets or ourselves to potential toxins and carcinogens contained in synthetic herbicides and pesticides while we are working in the garden, nor when we are ingesting foods or medicines. Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow using organic methods, and many organic vegetable farmers actually plant small patches of herbs throughout their fields to lessen the impact of pests.

Second, there is no question that artificially altering the chemistry of the soil (with the use of synthetic fertilizers) also alters both the kinds and amounts of organic chemicals available for the plant, thus altering the overall medicinal capability of the plant. Change the chemistry of the soil, and you alter the chemistry of the plant, which ultimately affects both the safety and effectiveness of the herbal medicine produced by the plant.

Pesticides are indiscriminate killers, decimating healthy microorganisms in the soil and beneficial bugs on the plants. Pesticides change the ecosystem over the entire area where they are applied. Organic methods, on the other hand, create a healthy garden ecology that extends to the surrounding neighborhood.

When it comes to loving your garden, small is beautiful. Nothing will tame your ardor for gardening faster than an overly large garden, full of weeds needing to be pulled and herbs that should have been harvested weeks ago. Besides, it only will take a few square feet of garden space to grow enough of almost any herb for you and your pets; even a window planter is big enough for modest projects.

Some Foolproof (Almost) Herbs To Grow

While the following list represents herbs that are typically easy to grow, how well they will grow in your yard depends on your climate, the condition of your soil and, I believe, the love you have for the plant itself.

• Calendula (Calendula officinalis). Most commonly used externally for wounds, the herb has broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects and speeds wound healing. Also used internally for gastrointestinal conditions.

• Cayenne (Capsicum annuum). Used both internally and externally for joint conditions and muscular tensions. When used internally, it’s said to enhance the effectiveness and distribution of other drugs.

• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Used for indigestion and gastric problems. Is also calming and acts as an analgesic. Used internally and externally.

• Culinary herbs, such as basil and rosemary. Most culinary herbs have a wide range of medicinal properties — antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and multi-organ system enhancement. In addition, they have high antioxidant values. Finally, they add spice to a dog’s typically bland diet and can thus enhance a lagging appetite.

• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) A medicine chest in one plant. Balances the immune system, fights infection, helps heal wounds and decreases inflammation.

• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Used both internally for gastric problems and to alleviate depression, and as an aroma to calm restlessness and insomnia.

• Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). Used to treat irritation of the oral, pharyngeal and gastric mucosa.

• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Used externally to stem bleeding and to help heal old wounds — also known as warrior’s wound wort. Used internally to treat colds and flu and as an aid to liver problems.

Love Those Weeds

Once you really know about weeds, you might alter your adversarial relationship with them. In fact, learning to love weeds requires a simple change in perspective. Many so-called weeds have a surpassing medicinal value — and the best part is that they’ll grow without any input from us at all. From that perspective, the weed harvest simply adds to your herb garden’s overall yield.

Other (nonmedicinal) weeds can be controlled by altering the chemical composition of the soil with organic soil amendments or by applying heavy layers of weed-inhibiting mulch. Furthermore, many weeds have a deep root structure that is a highly effective system for bringing up minerals from deep in the soil — these weeds make an excellent mineral-rich addition to the compost.

Examples of medicinal weeds worth harvesting for their medicinal value include the following.

• Chickweed (Stellaria media). For joint conditions and diseases of the blood or lymph systems.

• Cleavers (Galium aparine). Used for urinary infections, constipation and dermatitis.

• Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). A potent diuretic, used for some kidney conditions. Also good for liver and gallbladder complaints.

• Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album). Leaves are a nutritious lettuce substitute; the seeds, left on the plants, make a good autumn wild birdseed.

• Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca). Used for cardiac problems and conditions of the female reproductive system.

• Mullein (Verbascum spp.). For respiratory conditions.

• Plantain (Plantago spp.). Used externally as a poultice to draw out infections and/or foreign bodies from abscesses. The leaves are used internally to calm intestinal upset and decrease inflammation.

• Purslane (Portulaca oleracea). A mild medicinal for many conditions: asthma, skin conditions, infections and reputed to have anti-aging properties.

Now, To Use Them

For internal use. Use herbal “sprinkles” (chopped-up herbs) from the garden whenever possible. I use them routinely (at least several times a week) for their nutritional value, as well as for their medicinal components. Consider them preventive medicines rather than cures; when a cure is needed, rely on a qualified herbalist to help with the selection, dosage and method of application.

Sprinkles provide a small amount of the herb in its entirety — providing medicine likely to enhance the body’s balance, yet not likely to contain enough active chemical substances to be toxic. Perhaps most important, by sprinkling herbs on your pet’s food, you encourage the animal’s innate ability to select what is best for him.

Just like humans, animals have a wide range of taste preferences; some absolutely hate flavors and tastes others relish. I’ve known many cats and dogs that have loved anything spiced with cayenne; others literally will run away from the very smell of it. There are two keys here: First, try various herbs until you find the ones that suit your critter’s taste buds. And begin adding small amounts of herbs to the dinner dish early in the pet’s life. Enjoyment of the sometimes tart tastes of herbs can develop over time.

Use fresh herbs whenever possible. Let your critters be with you while you work in the garden, absorbing the healthy vitality of the entire garden through their pores and nasal passages. Then, take some of the fresh herb and sprinkle it over their food. Or, brew a mild tea from the fresh herb (about 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon per cup of water), cool to room temperature, and pour it over the food. Or put the tea in a dish and let your pet decide if she or he wants to drink it straight.

You also can produce your own tinctures or capsules from your garden-grown herbs. I recommend using only nonalcoholic tinctures (glycerin or glycerol) for pets. And, while tincturing is relatively easy to do, remember that no matter what method you use to extract the herbal essence, you have altered the basic biochemistry that the whole plant offered. This alteration might change the medicinal strength and potential toxicity of the plant, so consult an herbal practitioner before you start offering tinctures.

For external use. The easiest (and I think the best) way to use herbs topically for pets is to brew a tea of the herbs you’ve selected, let the tea cool to room temperature and, using a plant mister, lightly spray onto the affected area. This way you get the full benefit of the herb without worrying about the animal licking off oily or greasy stuff from ointments or salves. The problem with this method is that the effects of the herbal tea may not last long; you’ll need to repeat the spray several times daily.

I like calendula for almost any external application because it is anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, astringent and speeds healing of the skin. Many other herbs have healing properties that make them excellent choices for external use: lavender, yarrow, chamomile, thyme and mullein are all good examples.

While fresh herbs are best for either internal or external use, you can dry your excess herbs for storage and wintertime use. Use dried herbs the same way as fresh, but only use about one-third to one-half of the volume of the dried herb as you would of the fresh.

Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.

The information provided in this story is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian. Visit our website, www.Herb, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.