Pet Corner: Warming Herbs For Seasonal Blahs

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Call it what you will: cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder, or just plain-old wintertime blahs. As winter nights linger, all of us–our pets included–can use herbs to remind our bodies and spirits that spring is truly just around the corner.

At this time of year, humans commonly complain about low back pain, frequent or nighttime urination, weak knees, and hearing problems. While pets may not be able to say exactly where or how they hurt, I often see pets in winter who could best be described as sluggish–critters who are reluctant to walk up the stairs, who dribble urine all over the house and want to go outside all hours of the night, or who ignore you whenever you call.

What we need, pets and humans both, is a little help warming our innards, boosting our mineral intake, and brightening our moods. The herbs below can help us get ready for the upcoming seasonal cycle of springtime regrowth and regeneration.

Winter Warm-Up For Seasonal Blahs

Herbs that can help a sluggish pet are those that are internally warming and strengthening, such as fenugreek, ginger, cinnamon, and dong quai. Not all spicy herbs necessarily fit this category, however; herbs found in hot foods such as curries and salsas may seem warming because they create heat when ingested. But these herbs actually are cooling–they promote internal heat that is then released externally through panting, sweating, and so on.

Determining how much fenugreek, ginger, cinnamon, or dong quai to give your pet requires you to recognize that, in the case of wintertime blahs, you’re offering your pet a tonic, not a therapeutic dose. As tonics, herbs are used in small amounts (a little pinch daily) all winter. In small doses, most pets tolerate even the bitter taste of dried ginger and ground fenugreek seeds, especially when you add cinnamon. Just sprinkle the herbs on your pet’s food. For the finicky pet, you may need to hide these herbs in food or temper their flavor by brewing them into a tea with an added pinch of anise or licorice root.

Unless a specific caution is noted, these herbs are safe. But the strength of an herb can vary from batch to batch and different pets will respond differently. Start with a small amount sprinkled on food.

• Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum): Not only are fenugreek seeds a general warming tonic for wintertime, they also act as an expectorant. This means that fenugreek is an excellent remedy to clear the bronchi and sinuses of the thick mucus that often accompanies infections. In addition, fenugreek aids disturbed digestion that may accompany your pet’s cabin fever. Don’t give fenugreek to pregnant or nursing animals.

• Ginger (Zingiber officinale): I think of ginger as an herb whose primary use is to calm tummy problems–it’s a carminative, meaning that it reduces gas and bloating. Ginger also stimulates peripheral circulation, warming the chilled body and soul.

• Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): In addition to its ability to stimulate whole body systems, cinnamon is also a carminative with mild astringent qualities. It’s a good choice for the “nervous-stomach” pet, and, because it’s an astringent, it may be helpful for a pet with loose stools. You can temper the bitter taste of ginger and fenugreek by mixing them with cinnamon.

• Dong quai (Angelica sinensis): Known as the female ginseng, dong quai is actually good for males and females alike. Herbalists report that it’s more gentle than its Western cousin, angelica (A. archangelica), which makes it an ideal choice for critters. Dong quai is a nourishing blood tonic and mildly cleansing to the liver. In addition, it ­balances the female hormonal system and has mild nervine qualities. Don’t use dong quai for pets who are pregnant or have bleeding problems.

Most pets like thin slices of dong quai root, diced into small cubes and either sprinkled over food or brewed into a tea and poured onto food twice a week.

Other Concerns, Other Remedies

Nettles (Urtica dioica) and kelp (Fucus vesiculosus, also known as bladderwrack), contain high levels of minerals and salts, so are good wintertime herbs. Like the tonic spices mentioned above, nettles and kelp can be sprinkled in small amounts onto your pet’s food all winter long, or you can brew a tea of the two and pour it over the food twice a week. Incidentally, any critter with a thyroid imbalance will likely benefit from the kelp. I’m seeing more and more thyroid cases every year, making kelp one of my most prescribed herbs.

In the dark of winter, both pets and their people can become irritable, angry, despondent, easily frustrated, or depressed. Often simple nervine herbs such as wild oats (Avena sativa) or nettles can be helpful. Or, if depression becomes severe, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) or St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) may be indicated.

Use wild oats or nettles as a tonic nervine—small amounts sprinkled directly onto food daily or made into a tea. If you use valerian or St.-John’s-wort as a therapeutic herbal, they’re available in tinctures, capsules, or tablets; adjust the dose to the animal’s weight, assuming that label dosage is based on a 150-pound person.

A friendly reminder here: The best antidote to the mental blahs is exercise. Get your pet out and about whenever possible–for the health of it, for the both of you.

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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