As a holistic veterinarian, I’ve long been an advocate of making your own herbal remedies, either from purchased herbs or from the weeds and cultivated plants you grow in your own back yard. There are several advantages to making remedies at home.
It’s cheap. For just a few dollars, you can buy several ounces of fresh or dried organically grown bulk herbs. With a little work (and perhaps a few dollars invested in carriers, such as olive oil, or tincturing agents, such as glycerin) you easily can have homemade remedies worth several times what you would pay for them ready-made from the grocery shelves. Or better yet: For a couple of pennies invested in seeds, you can grow herbs and make herbal products that would cost hundreds of dollars in the commercial marketplace. Admittedly, there will be some investment of time, but if you look at it as I do — as time well spent, doing something I enjoy — the time spent is better than an even trade-off for the amount of money I’d spend for a night on the town.
It’s easy. Making herbal remedies at home is about as easy as it gets. True, it’s not effort-free, but when I’m gardening, I get the added benefit of an exercise program in the great outdoors.
It’s toxin-free. When you make your own herbal remedies, you know exactly what goes into the finished product, and when you grow your own, you are absolutely certain there were no herbicides or pesticides used in the process. (There is almost never a reason to use herbicides or pesticides when growing herbs; they are some of the easiest plants to grow organically.)
It’s fun. I enjoy my time spent playing alchemist — boiling water in my cauldron, stirring in the herbal brews, watching the transformation from plant to liquid (cackling evilly all the while, of course). But the real time of recreation, for returning to our nature and mankind’s primal work, for once again reuniting with Mother Earth, is that time I spend in the garden, hoe in hand or simply standing there, meditating with the plants.
Note: Herbal dosages for really sick animals often rely on a concentration of chemicals that requires more stringent “manufacturing” methods than the home-brewer can muster. See a qualified holistic veterinarian whenever your animal needs very potent medication.
Basics of Herbal Mixology
As a general rule, “herbs in the raw” (fresh or freshly dried herbs) have small amounts of active ingredients. In addition, the amounts of ingredients and ratio of amounts may vary considerably depending on several factors: time and method of harvest; conditions during the plant’s growth; and method of preserving, for example. Even though the amount of active ingredients may be small in a pinch-sized herbal sprinkle, I actually see this as an advantage because it offers an added safety factor.
Bottom line: When you use “raw” herbs, the safety factor is high, the mixture of ingredients may vary considerably, and you basically will be relying on the plant’s extended list of ingredients to fit the needs of your patient.
Fresh or Dried?
Fresh or dried herbs can be purchased in bulk from many health-food stores. You can store most dried herbs in a sealed jar for several months at room temperature, or, if you have the room, store them in the freezer or refrigerator.
Herbs in their natural state retain all of the active ingredients originally present within the plant. Your pet will thus receive the benefits of dozens of healing chemicals, synergistically directed toward a multitude of organ systems.
For dosage, you can simply sprinkle the herbs over your pet’s food. A little pinch of a variety of herbs often is enough to help maintain a healthy critter. However, not all animals enjoy the taste of all herbs. To start off, you might need to be creative when offering spicy herbals — hiding them in a chunk of meat, for example. It’s been my experience, however, that over time, most animals learn to enjoy the variety of tastes that herbal flavors offer.
Note: It is critical that you properly identify any plant you plan to use for a medicinal remedy. There are many plants that are potentially toxic, and you need to be sure you are not using any of these. Also, individual sensitivities can occur from any plant. For first-time use, try small amounts of the herb and watch for any adverse reactions.
Try These Teas
An herbal brew also can be used to moisten your pet’s food — typically about 1 teaspoon of dried herb per cup of water, or 3 teaspoons of fresh herb per cup. Add the boiling water and let this mixture simmer for 15 minutes or so; then let it cool to body temperature. Add about 1/2 cup or so to your pet’s food — just enough to moisten it.
You may need to boil hard or woody plant parts for several minutes to extract their active ingredients. And, while making a tea will pull most active components out of the herb, some active components are not water-soluble. The active properties of goldenseal root, for example, are not soluble enough in water to make goldenseal tea worthwhile.
Warmth and moisture both add to the palatability of foods, so a tea-soaked dinner may prove to be tastier than sprinkling herbs over the foods. Herbal teas can be refrigerated and can be used for a few days after brewing.
Make Your Own Tinctures
I recommend using glycerin (also known as glycerol) for homemade tinctures for pets, and many health-food stores carry it in small quantities. Look for glycerin made from an organic vegetable source — some of the cheaper brands are petroleum-based and not recommended for animal use.
Glycerin is the tincturing agent com-monly found in pediatric herbal prep- arations. It is a clear, syrupy liquid with a warm, sweet taste, and most animals seem to find it very palatable. Glycerin has the unique ability to absorb both water and alcohol. When diluted, it is demulcent (slippery and soothing), emollient (softening) and healing; undiluted, it is an irritant and stimulant. It may be irritating when applied topically, but very few people have reported adverse effects when using glycerin products internally.
One method: Chop up the herb(s) you plan to use and place them in a jar. For each 200 grams (about 1/2 pound) of herb, add 480 ml (about 2 cups) glycerin and 320 ml (about 1 1/3 cups) distilled water. Let this mixture sit for at least 14 days, shaking the contents several times each day. When the remedy has matured, pour it through a muslin-lined strainer and squeeze any excess solution through the muslin, discarding the plant material.
Some good glycerin tinctures for pets include the following: burdock (Arctium lappa), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), fresh cleavers (Galium aparine), elder flowers or berries (Sambucus canadensis, S. nigra) hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), mullein (Verbascum spp.) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis).
Effective Herbal Oils
My two favorite oil mixtures are calendula (Calendula officinalis) and mullein flowers. I use the aerial parts of calendula infused in oil to treat superficial wounds. When I make a mullein remedy, I cut up the entire “cob” (I’m too lazy to pick off individual flowers), and I really like mullein as a treatment for ear conditions.
One method (the cold oil method): Place the chopped-up herb(s) in a jar and add enough oil to completely cover and wet the herb. Cap tightly and set the jar aside for about a month, shaking it several times a day to keep the contents mixed well. If the herb contained a lot of moisture, this fluid will sink to the bottom of the jar. Gently pour off the oily upper part, and strain it through muslin cloth.
Some good oil infusions for pets include burdock root, calendula, elder flower, marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), mullein leaf or flower, plantain and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum).
Fill Your Own Capsules
You easily can make herbal capsules at home. Capsules of various sizes can be purchased at health-food stores and herb shops, and all you need do is fill the capsules with the chopped-up herb you want to give to your pet. To my way of thinking, however, at least for the “homemade herbalist,” you are better off using almost any of the other methods listed above.
First of all, making capsules is too tedious for all but the most dedicated, but more importantly, with capsules you bypass the oral immune-function activating systems, and these are important components for maintaining health.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary med- icine 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. Visit our website, www.HerbsForHealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.