Pet Corner: Herbs to Warm Your Pet’s Soul

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All creatures have their own inner thermostat, and every animal has a temperature zone where he feels most comfortable. My wife and I, for example, have been married for nigh-on 50 years now, and from Day One of our marriage, we have been in a constant tussle for control of the household thermostat. She always wants it to be set at least 15 degrees warmer than I do. When she is comfortable, I’m sweaty; and when I’m comfortable, she’ll be layered under two or three sweaters, crouched under a blanket.

In scientific lingo, this is referred to as the animal’s thermal neutral zone (TNZ), and all animals have one. A critter’s TNZ ranges over about a 10-degree spread, and as temperatures move outside this zone, the animal rapidly becomes more and more uncomfortable. But just where this 10-degree spread falls for the individual depends on several factors:

• Hair coat. Perhaps the most obvious — a thick-coated collie will have a much lower TNZ than will a Mexican Hairless.

• Seasonal differences. Animals adapt naturally to the changes in local temperatures. There are two mechanisms that help fuel this adaptation. First, most mammals grow a denser, warmer coat for winter and shed in the spring for a thinner, cooler coat for summer. Also, as winter approaches, a healthy animal’s thyroid kicks in and fires up its metabolic rate, thus fueling the animal’s ability to generate internal heat. In the spring, the opposite occurs. So a healthy animal with a thick winter coat and a charged-up thyroid might have a TNZ of 45 to 55 degrees in December. This same animal with its summer coat and a metabolic rate adjusted to summer’s heat, might feel most comfortable at 65 to 75 degrees.

• Exercise generates heat (shivering can be thought of as another form of exercising), and a “working” animal will have a lower TNZ than a couch potato.

• Wind and rain. Breezes cut into the animal’s protective fur coat, making it feel colder than the ambient temperature would indicate. During chilly weather, wet is even worse. Wet fur loses much of its insulating capability; evaporation of the water on the animal adds further cooling effect; and wet surfaces conduct heat much more readily than dry surfaces, taking the animal’s natural inner heat out and away from the body. Whereas an animal might be fairly comfortable in 40-degree calm and dry weather, he would be miserable at the same temperature if he were left outside during a windy, rainy day. Thus the absolute necessity of providing adequate shelter for all pets that you keep outside.

• Individual preferences. Animals, much like my wife and I, have personal preferences. All else being equal, one animal might feel comfortable at 55 degrees, another at 70.

Cayenne is a warming, stimulant herb.

Warm from the Inside Out

When going into winter’s chilling weather, the following are some herbal helpers for keeping your pet warm and cozy. Many of the herbs mentioned below are diaphoretics, which have a direct effect on the animal’s inner heat mechanisms. And most of the warming herbs have more than one beneficial activity, so I like to combine their effective benefits whenever possible.

Note: The herbal term “diaphoretic” comes from the Greek word diaphoresis, which means “perspiration.” Dogs and cats do not sweat much — most of the very few sweat glands they do have are located on the pads of their feet. They “sweat” by panting and drooling, but I’ve not seen this reaction much in pets when they’ve been using the warming herbs for added heat in the fall and winter. Mostly the animals just seem more comfortable, and they can stretch out to sleep easier while they are on short doses of herbal warmers.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Yarrow is at the top of the list of the warming herbs, and it often is used for treating colds and viral infections that are common in the fall. In what might seem like a paradox, yarrow is an excellent remedy for treating fevers. Think of it this way: yarrow has the ability to generate an inner heat which then causes the animal’s heat-control mechanisms to react and cool down the fever.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is an excellent warming herb, and it is equally effective for treating intestinal upset. For warming, ginger acts as a general stimulant, and it helps improve blood circulation. Ginger is soothing to the stomach, and it is a good choice to help prevent car sickness. It is an herb with a long history of worldwide use, and you will find it in almost half of all Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal preparations. Perhaps ginger’s biggest drawback is that some pets do not like its taste. Try flavoring a mild ginger tea with a little unsalted meat broth and then moistening your pet’s food with the warm tea.

Burdock (Arctium lappa). Burdock is a mild diaphoretic, but its primary use is as a blood purifier and lymph cleanser. I’ve found its cleansing abilities helpful for treating arthritis, and it is especially good for treating dry or scaly skin conditions and all forms of eczema. Arthritic problems that are accompanied by skin ailments respond well to burdock, and its diaphoretic effects are an added benefit during the fall and winter months when the pains of arthritis can be especially bad.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria). Catnip is another mild diaphoretic that has many other benefits. Animal lovers are well aware of catnip’s sometimes amazing effects on susceptible cats — an initial euphoria followed by a period when the cat is refractory to further catnip stimulus and usually becomes mildly sedated. However, humans also have used catnip for centuries for a variety of ailments and as a mildly sedating tea. It is good for treating restlessness, nervousness and insomnia. It is a mild and gentle nervine, a tonic to nerves that are tense for any reason. Catnip also is an excellent herb for gastrointestinal upsets — colic, flatulence, diarrhea and dyspepsia.

Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) is a warming stimulant and tonic for all body systems. It helps transport other remedies to various areas of the body, and in small doses it can be calming to the stomach. Cayenne also is an excellent source of vitamin C, one of the animal’s primary defense mechanisms against cold-weather diseases.

Note that for all the other herbs mentioned in this article, I’d make up a mild tea, let it cool to baby-bottle temperature, and then pour it over a pet’s food. That way you get the added warming benefit from the tea. For cayenne, however, I just have folks sprinkle some on a portion of their pet’s food, and then watch to see if he/she likes it. I’m surprised how many animals seem to relish the spicy taste of red peppers.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a warming herb that is also a good cough remedy, combining its expectorant, antispasmodic and antimicrobial activities for effective treatment of asthma and chronic or acute bronchitis. It also soothes the stomach, making it a good choice for treating dyspepsia and sluggish digestion. Thyme is another herb that can enhance the flavor of foods without being too spicy for most animals’ taste buds.

Other Smart Herbal Choices

Besides diaphoretics, there are a couple of other herbal categories to consider at this time of year.

To enhance the animal’s immune system that is about to be challenged by winter’s chill, consider echinacea (Echinacea spp.), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) or boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). Boneset also is diaphoretic. Another mild-tasting herb that is excellent for preventing the onset of lung conditions (or for treating them if they do occur) is mullein. Don’t forget that good nutrition and proper exercise also are immune-system boosters.

And, thinking the way of Traditional Chinese Medicine, any herb that enhances the healthy movement of qi (vital energy) also will be warming to the animal. Herbs that help stimulate an animal’s qi include ginseng (Panax ginseng) and dong quai (Angelica sinensis).

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,, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.

Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.

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