When I think of spices, I recall the wonderful tastes and aromas they add to my daily meals. However, compared to my dog’s nose, mine is a mere vestige. We humans have about 5 to 10 million scent-detecting olfactory cells lying atop our nasal cavity; a dachshund has about 125 million olfactory cells; and a sheepdog has nearly twice that number. The sheepdog has a sense of smell 1 million times more acute than a human’s; the bloodhound, perhaps the king of the smellers, has a sense of smell 3 million times more acute than ours.
One can only imagine the pleasures our pets glean from the scents and tastes that come from their food dish. But adding spices to your pet’s diet provides much more than simple enhancement to flavor and fragrance. Sprinkle a little bit of spice atop your pet’s food often—even daily—and mix in some healing and prevention with the great flavors.
Nosh on Nutrients
You’ll find dozens of nutrient-rich substances neatly packaged in the leaves, flowers and roots of every plant. Plants, including herbs used as spices, are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber and carbohydrates. Most plants typically are high in vitamin A, calcium and potassium; some plants are a good source of minerals, such as iron, zinc and magnesium; and others provide small amounts of necessary elements, such as selenium and vitamin C.
The small amount of spice you’ll add to your pet’s diet probably won’t be a huge-volume source for any of these nutrients, but some of them are needed in only minute amounts. And, there’s often more to the nutrients than appears on a dietary chart. For example, vitamins A and C, zinc and selenium are known to have excellent antioxidant activity.
Fend Off Free Radicals
Free radicals are highly unstable oxygen molecules that steal electrons from other molecules they encounter. Free radical reactions are involved in inflammation, degenerative diseases and the aging process in general. Antioxidants work by scavenging free radicals, and are thus important in the prevention and healing of many diseases such as arthritis and cancers.
Many culinary herbs are noted for their antioxidant ability. While some of that ability may be due to their vitamin and mineral content, there is evidently an additive effect due to their potpourri of bioactive chemicals (such as bioflavonoids, carotenoids and berberines), which are found in many plants.
As one example, more than 100 plants in the mint family are known to have antioxidant activity, but the real star is oregano (Origanum vulgare). Research has shown that the antioxidant activity of oregano and other medicinal mints is due in large part to rosmarinic acid, a compound with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiviral properties.
Taste (along with fragrance, which is also an important component of spices) is vital for creating a satisfying dining experience. The one factor that most influences commercial manufacturers of pet foods is the palatability of their products, and they work hard to create foods that are appetizing for the majority of pets — the idea being that if the pet eats the company’s food, the owner is happy and will buy more of the same brand. However, there’s good reason to believe that our pets may benefit from occasional food changes (see “Diversity Matters’’ on Page 20), and getting your pet accustomed to spicy foods early on is one way to make food changeovers easier.
In addition, the sometimes-tart flavor of spicy foods can be an acquired taste for some animals, and it can be important for the future health of your pet to think ahead. Let’s say, for example, that as your pet gets older and his joints begin to show the wear and tear of old age, you want to start helping him out with some herbal remedies. If your pet has never eaten anything but one brand and one flavor of foods, any change in routine later in life will be difficult.
On the other hand, my experience has been that most pets quickly adapt to the spicy foods, and many actually learn to prefer them. (See “Spicy Foods for Pets’’ on Page 22.) Besides, an occasional change in diet is one way to add a little “spice to one’s life,’’ and that additional pick-me-up may be just the thing to keep your pet healthy.
The Medicinal Value of Spices
It’s important to remember that spice herbs can have potent medicinal activity and still be tempting to the taste buds. I’ve mentioned already that many of the culinary spices have potent antioxidant activity, but some also are known to be medicinal. In addition, spice herbs can enhance the effects of other medicines by supporting diseased organ systems.
As a rule, I don’t think of my offerings of a little pinch of spice on my pets’ food as medicinal. If I think herbal medicines are appropriate for the treatment of a specific condition, I likely will use them at therapeutic levels.
Caution: In any case, remember that some herbs can interfere with the effects of certain medicines, so you’ll need to check with your holistic veterinarian or qualified herbalist before you use herbs, whenever your pet is on medication of any kind.
How to Give Your Pet Spices
Adding spices to your pet’s food is perhaps the easiest and safest way to use herbs. Simply sprinkle a small amount of the fresh or dried herb atop the food (about a pinch for every 20 or so pounds of animal). You can use individual herbs or mix a few of your pet’s favorites together and then add the mixture to the food. Alternately, you can brew a tea using one or more of the herbs (about a teaspoon total for each cup of water) and then pouring the tea over the food.
Some pets initially may object to the taste, but almost all I’ve worked with eventually accept the herbal taste, and many seem to prefer it after awhile.
To see which herbs your pet prefers, try a taste test. Mix a small pinch of herb into a couple of tablespoons of food (or put a small amount in a corner of the food dish, alongside food that contains no herbs) and observe. If the herb is disagreeable, your pet may back away from the food dish, put his tail between his legs, whine and possibly even hiss or growl and bark at the herb. A favorite herb may elicit the same, happy reaction you see when you are feeding a favorite treat, or your pet simply may eat it as if nothing unusual is there.
Examples of Spices to Try
Following are some of the herbs I recommend for addition to pets’ diets. Note that most of these are culinary herbs that typically have been used cross-culturally for millennia, by millions of people. Because not every animal species (nor every individual animal) has the same biochemical makeup as the human species, this does not insure that each of these herbs will be absolutely safe to use for all pets. But it does give us reasonable assurance for their safety — especially when used in small quantities typical for spicing foods.
Note: Garlic and onions are two well-known exceptions to the rule about often-used herbs for humans being safe for other species. Both of these have been found to be toxic to pets in certain situations, especially cats but to some dogs, also. Once again, when in doubt, check with your vet.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) contains high levels of carotenoids, flavonoids and vitamin C. It has been used for gastrointestinal disorders and to enhance the appetite. It helps regulate blood flow and has been used to help distribute medicines to peripheral areas of the body.
Celery seed (Apium graveolens) contains flavonoids and the volatile oil limonene. Celery seeds have a diuretic effect, act as a mild calming agent and have been used to treat rheumatic conditions.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) contains flavonoids and rosmarinic acid. Used for respiratory disorders, such as coughs and bronchial catarrh, and as an expectorant. Also has been used for disorders of the stomach and urinary tract.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) contains flavonoids and ascorbic acid (up to 165 mg per 100 grams). Used for urinary tract infections and to treat kidney and bladder stones.
Peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita) contains flavonoids and rosmarinic acid. For digestive problems, peppermint acts by decreasing intestinal cramps and enhancing liver activity.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) contains several volatile oils, flavonoids and rosmarinic acid. Used for upset stomach, loss of appetite and liver complaints.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) contains flavonoids and rosmarinic acid. Sage is astringent and antimicrobial, with the ability to inhibit bacterial, fungal and viral growth. In animal studies, it was shown to support the liver and to help modulate blood pressure.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) contains rosmarinic acid and several flavonoids. Thyme is a bronchial antispasmodic, an expectorant and an antibacterial agent.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is used for liver and gallbladder complaints and to enhance appetite. Also has reported liver and kidney-supporting activities.
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.
Information provided in “Pet Corner’’ is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian. Visit our website, www.herbs forhealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.