Mother Earth Living

Pet Corner: History of Herbs

Folklore teaches lessons for your pet's care
By Randy Kidd, D.V.M.
November/December 1999
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Herbs can help animals cope with infections and anxiety.
Photo courtesy of W. Morris
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Mullein was considered the “herb of protection” and the “herb of love” 

Herbal mythology is fascinating, and it’s a good way to gain an understanding about herbs when you first decide to start using them with your pet. Virtually every medicinal herb has mythical stories, but the few that follow especially caught my eye.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) grows wild in Kansas, where I live, and it was once the “medicine cabinet” of several prairie Indian tribes. Native Americans and frontiersmen used echinacea to cure snakebites and rabies, although I’m suspicious about its ability to heal those afflictions.

It was also used for coughs, colds, sore throats, infections, chronic conditions, and arthritis—all maladies for which I might recommend echinacea with the pets I treat today. Echinacea is my favorite immune ­system balancer, and I recommend it often because many of my “pet patients” have immune system imbalances.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is another of my favorite herbs. It’s truly a magical healer, and I enjoy poking fun at my urban friends who use chemicals to rid their yard of one of nature’s most potent medicinal herbs.

Dandelion’s name may have come from the proclamations of Wilhelm, a surgeon in the 1400s who thought its powers were as potent as “lion’s teeth,” which translates to dens leonis in Latin. Or the name may have come from the fact that the leaves resemble the canine teeth of a lion—dent de leon in French. I also like the French common name for dandelion, pissenlit—or “pee in the bed,” so named for its diuretic effects.

I use dandelion for pets with liver ailments, but it’s also a good choice for a general systemic tonic. Pets that retain water benefit from dandelion because it’s a mild diuretic. And most animals seem to like the taste, so it’s easy to administer. I sprinkle a pinch or two of the chopped root over their food, or pour a mild dandelion tea, made with 1 teaspoon of the root, over dry food several times a week.

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) has long been considered a sacred herb, beginning with the story that it furnished Jesus’s crown of thorns. In ancient times, hawthorn wood was used to build funeral pyres, ­allowing the souls of the dead to escape through the thorns and ascend into heaven.

I use hawthorn berries for all types of cardiac problems I encounter in my veterinary practice. It helps improve coronary blood supply, complements metabolic processes, and can help normalize arrhythmias. I recommend hawthorn on a daily basis for pets with heart problems because it has few side effects. A pinch or two of the ground berries or a tea made from about 1 teaspoon of them can be sprinkled or poured over a pet’s food.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) purportedly filled the Pied Piper’s pocket, and the herb probably did more to attract rats than his flute.

Valerian is a wonderful anti-anxiety herb and is especially good for treating separation anxiety in pets. Cats love its taste, and many respond as if it were catnip—gleefully rolling and purring over it, then retiring to a quiet spot to sleep off the “buzz.” And yes, rats also love valerian.

Yarrow’s Latin name, Achillea millefolium, refers to its mythical ability to help one avoid all injury—much as the warrior Achilles did in Homer’s Iliad. Also known as “warrior’s wound wort,” yarrow can help the body to heal internally when ingested, and externally when applied as a poultice to wounds.

St.-John’s-wort’s (Hypericum perforatum) name is derived from two Greek words (hyper and eikon), together meaning “over an apparition,” a reference to the belief that the herb was so noxious to evil spirits that a whiff of it would cause them to depart. During Medieval times, St.-John’s-wort was among herbs burned in fires set on St. John’s Eve. The fires were set on hills to purify the air of evil spirits and to ensure the fruitfulness of the people, their animals, and their crops.

I recommend the herb for pets because of its sedative and antidepressive effects. I suggest making a tea with about 1 teaspoon of the dried herb or sprinkling a few ­pinches of the dried plant over a pet’s food.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) ­sup­posedly makes race horses run faster after they munch on its fragrant leaves.

Parsley is a good diuretic, and if you can get your pets to chew on a few sprigs, especially after meals, it will improve their breath.

Mullein’s (Verbascum spp.) mythic past intrigues me. For religious ceremonies, both Christian and pre-Christian, mullein’s dried stalk was dipped in suet and burned as a torch. In the Middle Ages, mullein was called “hag’s taper” because witches used it in their incantations, brews, and love potions. In ancient “handbooks of spells,” powdered mullein leaf was a substitute for graveyard dust.

In other myths, mullein was considered the “herb of protection” and the “herb of love.” Its leaves were also carried as a ­talisman of safety. People often hung mullein leaves indoors to keep negativity away and stuffed it in pillows to guard against nightmares.

Another myth says mullein safeguards against thunder and lightning. If you want to test this myth, try throwing a pinch of the dried herb into the hearth fire the next time your pooch is scared of thunder.

More realistically, I use mullein to ease a dry, hacking cough; add a tea brewed from about 1 teaspoon of finely chopped mullein leaves to a pet’s food. For chronic ear problems, I have found nothing compares to the healing powers of mullein flowers extracted in an oil base. Make the treatment by covering a well-packed jar of mullein flowers with olive oil. Let it sit for three to four weeks, then massage ten to twenty drops well into the ear canal, two or three times daily. Symptoms should clear within a week. Refrigerate after use, and warm to body temperature before each treatment.


Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional ­veterinary medicine for ten 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.


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