Herbs were the very first helpers, chosen by the animals themselves to aid healing. Much of what we know about these medicines, we originally learned by watching the animals treat themselves using a number of plants in a variety of ways.
And now, some of us have come full circle: Veterinary school taught me all about the extremely potent man-made medicines available. However, over the course of the many years I practiced holistic medicine, I learned that the very best first aid for pets is almost always an herbal (or herb-related) remedy.
Herbal first aid for pets is a home-based activity. Because the herbs you’ll be using are extremely safe and effective, you can be your pet’s “first-aid nurse” with confidence. And many of the most effective first-aid herbs can be found in your own backyard (or they can easily be grown in your garden).
When to Take Your Pet to the Vet
How can you tell a true emergency (requiring immediate veterinary attention) from a problem you can treat at home? There’s no hard-and-fast rule. A day of mild diarrhea, or a day or two of refusing food, or a bout or two of vomiting are normal for some animals. Prolonged or severe diarrhea or vomiting, or longer than a few days of refusing food, warrant a visit to the vet. An animal running a fever of more than 103 degrees should also be seen.
For cuts or wounds, I like to use the rule of thumb that if you would see your physician for a similar-appearing wound, then the animal should probably be seen by a vet. In my practice, I also liked to see any animal that had been subjected to blunt trauma—a critter hit by a car, for example. Blunt trauma can cause internal damage that is not evident until it is too late.
But finally, I told folks the same thing we told concerned pet owners when they called the emergency clinic where I was chief of staff. When they asked, “Is this something you should see tonight?” our answer was always, “If you think it should be seen, bring your pet in right away. That’s what we’re here for.”
First-Aid Kit for Pets
A crisis is no time to have to dig around in the refrigerator or the kitchen cupboard for those first-aid herbs you will need. Store the remedies—preferably in the refrigerator—in a convenient carrying case, and mark the carrying case with a prominent label. An insulated lunch bag makes an ideal first-aid kit for pets—simply add ice when you travel. Label each herb, date the label so you know when to renew the herbs (for most herbs, an annual renewal is best), and include a brief description of how the remedy is to be used.
The following are simple herbal remedies for pets and components of an effective first-aid kit. If your pet has any known health problems, add to or vary the contents accordingly.
• Herbal salve, spritz or oil-based product for topical use. The ideal first-aid salve, oil or spritz should be a multifunctional herbal concoction that will provide antimicrobial activity, be soothing when applied, enhance healing, and help prevent the pain and itchiness that often accompany cuts, scrapes and bruises.
A salve or oil-based herbal product will stay on the affected area longer, but these can be messy and animals tend to lick at them incessantly. I prefer nonalcoholic spray-on products, spritzed directly on the affected area. These products dry quickly, which prevents most of the mess and the continued licking. Their disadvantages include the need to be applied more frequently (several times a day), and their shelf life tends to be brief.
The list of herbs that can be included in a healing and soothing concoction are nearly endless. A product that contains several of the following would be effective for almost any superficial nick, bruise or scrape: calendula (Calendula officinalis), German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and mullein (Verbascum spp.).
• Intestinal soothers for diarrhea or constipation. Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) and slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra) are the best quick-fix herbs for minor cases of diarrhea and constipation. Both of these herbs coat the intestine and are soothing, cooling and relaxing. Marshmallow and slippery elm are both available in capsule form. One capsule per 20 pounds of animal, administered every few hours for three to five doses, seems to do the trick most of the time.
I’ve begun using marshmallow root because the elm tree is rapidly disappearing from our countryside.
• Aloe vera for wounds, burns and abrasions. The fresh juice of aloe leaves, applied liberally to the affected area, is a potent healer. Aloe relieves skin irritation and has antimicrobial activity, especially against common skin pathogens. It’s been my experience that packaged products have less potency than the fresh juice, but it is still worthwhile to pack aloe salve or gel in your kit.
• Tea bags for a multitude of uses. Tea bags are a simple remedy, easy to pack into a first-aid kit. Moistened green tea bags can be used as poultices to ease the sting of insect bites. Used as a wet compress, the tea bags will help stop bleeding from cuts and scratches. Chamomile tea will help ease belly aches—give your pet 1/4 to 1/2 cup every few hours.
• Arnica (Arnica montana) for acute pain. Homeopathic arnica is a powerful internal remedy for pain. Arnica is especially helpful for sprains, strains and bruises. Immediately after a trauma, give your pet an arnica tablet every 15 minutes (for a total of four or five doses), or until the pain seems to have eased. Arnica is also available as an ointment, which can be applied to the affected area several times a day.
• Rescue Remedy for easing stress. Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, or a similar flower essence, works well for all emergencies. The remedy seems to ease animals’ stressed emotional conditions. Give Rescue Remedy orally, several drops of the undiluted tincture or 1 to 3 droppersful of a diluted form (a few drops in 1 ounce of water). Repeat the dose every 10 minutes or so for a total of 10 to 15 doses, if necessary. This is not intended as an alternative to needed veterinary care, but is to ease the animal’s stress.
• Pet first-aid materials. Items to consider for your pet’s kit include gauze (pads and roll), a 20-cc syringe, tweezers or hemostat, a roll of athletic tape, suture material and needles. I recommend including only those materials and instruments you are comfortable using. For example, anyone can use a gauze pad or a towel as a pressure bandage to stop bleeding; not many folks can suture a wound—and even I wouldn’t try it without some form of local or general anesthesia. A large syringe (available from your veterinarian) can be used to dose oral medications such as herbal teas.
• Restraint items. Animals in pain will bite, no matter how well they know the person trying to tend to them. Either include a muzzle (commercial muzzles are available for all sizes of dogs and even for cats), or know how to fashion one from a roll of gauze (ask your veterinarian to show you how). Canvas cat restraint bags are available commercially, or in a pinch, you can wrap a cat in a large towel. Animals, especially cats, should always be transported in an animal carrying case.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. He has retired from his holistic veterinary practice and now lives in eastern Kansas. Information in Pet Corner is not intended to replace the advice of a veterinarian.