My first lesson in herbal medicine came from a small herd of deer feasting on mullein as winter fast approached the Kansas prairie. Standing in the sleet, their backs to the north wind, the deer acted as if their very lives depended on an adequate intake of mullein. Back then I didn’t know about mullein’s ability to protect the lungs from winter infections, but the deer seemed to understand this intuitively.
This intuition isn’t limited to wild animals. Domestic pets also have an innate sense of what they need to stay healthy, and one of the challenges that we pet owners face is helping our animal companions use this intuition.
Herbs offer a way to meet this challenge while helping you care for your pet’s health. It’s much easier to keep a pet well than to treat a disease, and herbs—along with plenty of exercise, a good diet, and lots of love—offer solid preventive medicine, supplying vital vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that fend off disease. But how does the newcomer to herbal medicine for pets begin? Based on my clinical experience, here are a few tips.
For a list of the holistic veterinarians in your state, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the American Holistic Veterinary Medicine Association, 2214 Old Emmorton Road, Bel Air, Maryland, 21015.
Herbs, like any drug, can be toxic, so it’s important to become familiar with those that can harm your pet, such as foxglove (Digitalis spp.). And each animal has its own physical limits; some animals may have allergies or health conditions that prohibit them from consuming certain herbs, while those same herbs won’t bother other animals at all. Cats, in particular, are highly sensitive to toxins.
For my part, I consider herbs that have been used medicinally for centuries—especially culinary herbs—to be safe when used in limited amounts as teas or sprinkled lightly on food. If you use herbs in a concentrated tincture or capsule form, check with a veterinarian familiar with herbs for the appropriate dosage and possible dangers.
Be especially cautious when using herb combinations or products that have high concentrations of single ingredients. Nonalcoholic (pediatric or glycerin-based) tinctures are often easier for animals to tolerate than alcoholic tinctures. Finally, using topical herbal applications can be very effective for cuts and rashes, but all animals will try to lick them off, so use only those preparations made from nontoxic herbs.
Delivering the medicine
Botanical medicines are easy to add to your four-legged companion’s holistic health plan. Sprinkle fresh or dried herbs onto your pet’s meal, or make an herbal tea to pour on dry food. You can also offer herbal tea in a bowl separate from your pet’s water. Start with a weak tea and gradually work up to a stronger brew when you’re sure that the herb causes no unexpected reactions. If necessary, you can hide bitter flavors by mixing the herbs into cheese, meat, or broth.
Let nature work
Some animals will have an innate attraction to those herbs that meet their particular health needs. I once had a feline patient who suffered from watery eyes caused by a viral infection. I suggested that the owner make a goldenseal tea to use as an eye wash. But when the owner sat the bowl of tea down and prepared to apply the wash, the cat drank it, despite the fact that cats usually dislike the taste of goldenseal. From then on, the owner offered the cat a bowl of goldenseal tea alongside a bowl of plain water. The cat selected the tea whenever its eyes were watering; when its eyes were fine, the cat snubbed the tea and drank the water instead.
I like to honor animals’ ability to make wise selections by offering them choices. For example, I might prepare four or five varieties of fresh herbs for my pets and patients, the specific herbs depending upon the condition I’m treating, and see which ones they choose. Often, they will select the herbs that science tells me are the appropriate treatment for their particular condition.
Another way to provide pets with botanicals is to plant a garden of nontoxic herbs. The pets can use the little plot as a grazing area. Watching my own pets graze tells me a lot about how they are feeling, and provides me with another lesson on animal intuition—and medicinal herbs.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for ten years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.
The information provided in “Pet corner” is not intended to substitute for the advice of a qualified veterinarian.