For millennia, pets and their people have co-existed in mutually beneficial ways. The bond that exists between humans and the other animals creates a loving connection that has proven to be healthy and healing.
What’s sometimes forgotten when we think of this human-animal bond is that long before we domesticated animals, we had domesticated many plants that were also healthy and healing … and even before that, both the wild animals and the (relatively wild) humans were closely connected to health-providing plants on a day-to-day basis.
Gardening is an easy and enjoyable way to renew this health-giving triad of people-pets-plants, and there are some simple ways to create an atmosphere in your garden (and around the effort you put into gardening) that further enhances the healthy triad.
Grow What You Love
For starters, you might as well grow the herbs you love — the ones you think smell good or look pretty, those that have a particular mythical history that interests you, or plants that seem to fit into your landscape. Horticultural experts assure me that the plants that grow best for any individual are the ones that that person seems to love the most. But there’s more to this concept of selecting plants for love, rather than trying to pick the ones you feel your pet might need for health reasons.
I tell my clients often that the most important thing you can do with herbal remedies is to use them. Because each herb has dozens of bioactive ingredients, almost any individual herb will have a wide range of activities in the body. Thus, almost every medicinal herb will be effective by itself, acting to balance or enhance many organ systems at once.
The key is to get your pet to take his daily or weekly dose of herbs without worrying about which specific herb is the very best one to use today. I think all pets should have at least a weekly dose of one of the tonic or culinary herbs as a general health-maintenance routine. I’m convinced this is the best use of herbal medicines.
If your pet has a condition that requires therapeutic levels of herbal or other kinds of medicine, I recommend consulting with an herbalist or other qualified holistic practitioner. Let their knowledge of the specific medicines your pet needs guide your herbal selection and the dosage of the medicine — recognizing that the therapeutic level of herbal medicines likely will be much higher than a daily dose of tonic herbs taken straight from the garden.
Do What You Love
I think all of us who are interested in herbs have a love for the open air and the moderate exercise it takes to tend the garden. We also revel in the fragrances of the garden, aromas that vary with the time of year and the stage of plant growth. (For me, even the donkey dung I spread in the spring and fall has an incomparable odor that I’ve come to appreciate, if not actually love.)
All of these — the outside contact that gives us a presence with nature’s cycles, the necessary physical activity, the healthy aromas wafting in the air — are healthy for people and their pets alike.
There’s another part of gardening that may be the most healing of all: getting our hands and paws in the dirt. From the scientist’s viewpoint, dirt (at least that dirt that has remained unharmed by pesticides and herbicides) contains a medicine chest of healthy chemicals produced by plants, beneficial bacteria, worms and bugs, and a thick weave of healing fungal mycelia. When we dig our hands or paws into the soil, we receive the full benefit of dirt’s healing abilities.
Beyond science, though, is the potential for health and healing offered whenever we (or our pets) “ground” ourselves with Mother Earth. Some would say that with our hands in the dirt, we are connected with the soul of the earth; that thus grounded, we are open to the calming resonance from the core of our true center. Perhaps. What I do know is that pets thoroughly enjoy, and I think absolutely need, this connection to the earth — easily provided when you let them garden with you.
Let Your Pet Love the Garden, Too
When you let your pets “work” the garden with you, they reap all the benefits mentioned above. My wife, Sue, and I thus far have been able to make our gardening experiences with our pets positive … most of the time. As with any pet-people activity, it takes some positive reinforcement for good manners, and some discipline whenever they want to dig up the herbs or bury bones in the middle of the flower bed.
After some initial time spent setting the boundaries of good and bad behavior, all our critters — so long as we’re actively working in the garden and we occasionally pay some attention to them — have been content to lie nearby and snooze or chew on a bone. It’s been my experience that pets get into trouble when they become bored or if they are left to their own devices for too long. So, occasional walks away from the garden or some ball-chasing exercises are good for pets and people alike.
Keep it Simple — and Organic
I am a stickler for using organically grown herbs.
As a holistic veterinarian who recommends herbs for pets, I am a stickler for using only organically grown herbs. There are several reasons for this.
First, there is absolutely no reason to expose our loved ones, our pets or ourselves to potential toxins and carcinogens contained in synthetic herbicides and pesticides while we are working in the garden, nor when we are ingesting foods or medicines. Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow using organic methods, and many organic vegetable farmers actually plant small patches of herbs throughout their fields to lessen the impact of pests.
Second, there is no question that artificially altering the chemistry of the soil (with the use of synthetic fertilizers) also alters both the kinds and amounts of biochemicals that are available for the plant, thus altering the overall medicinal capability of the plant. Change the biochemistry of the soil, and you alter the biochemistry of the plant, which ultimately affects both the safety and efficacy of the herbal medicine produced by the plant.
Finally, pesticides are indiscriminate killers, decimating the healthy microorganisms in the soil and the beneficial bugs on the plants. Pesticides change the ecosystem over the entire area where they are applied; organic methods, on the other hand, create a healthy garden ecology that extends to the surrounding neighborhood.
When it comes to loving your garden, small is beautiful. There’s nothing that will tame your ardor for gardening any faster than an overly large garden, full of weeds needing to be pulled and herbs that should have been harvested weeks ago. Besides, it only will take a few square feet of garden space to grow enough of almost any herb for you and your pets; even a window planter is big enough for many pet-people families.
Some Foolproof (Almost) Herbs to Grow
While the following list represents herbs that are typically easy to grow, how well they will grow in your yard depends on your climate, the condition of your soil and the love you have for the plant itself.
• Calendula (Calendula officinalis). Most commonly used externally for wounds, the herb has broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects and speeds wound healing. Also used internally for gastrointestinal conditions.
• Cayenne (Capsicum annuum). Used both internally and externally for joint conditions and muscular tensions. When used internally, it’s said to enhance the effectiveness and distribution of other drugs.
• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Used for indigestion and gastric problems. Is also calming and acts as an analgesic. Used both internally and externally.
• Culinary herbs, such as basil and rosemary. Most culinary herbs have a wide range of medicinal properties — antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and multi-organ system enhancement. In addition, they have high antioxidant values, oftentimes higher than better-known antioxidant vitamins C or E. Finally, they add spice to a dog’s typically bland diet and can thus enhance a lagging appetite.
• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) A medicine chest in one plant. Balances the immune system, fights infection, helps heal wounds and decreases inflammation.
• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Used both internally for gastric problems and to alleviate depression, and as an aroma to calm restlessness and insomnia.
• Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). Used to treat irritation of the oral, pharyngeal and gastric mucosa.
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Used externally to stem bleeding and to help heal old wounds — also known as warrior’s wound wort. Used internally to treat colds and flu and as an aid to liver problems.
Learn to Love the Weeds
Learning to love weeds is a matter of a simple change in perspective. Many so-called weeds have extremely high-quality medicinal value, and they’ll grow without any input from us at all. So, the weed harvest simply adds to the overall yield of the herb garden.
Other (non-medicinal) weeds can be controlled by altering the chemical composition of the soil with organic soil amendments or by applying heavy layers of weed-inhibiting mulch. Furthermore, many weeds have a deep root structure that is a highly effective system for bringing up minerals from deep in the soil — these weeds make an excellent mineral-rich addition to the compost.
Examples of medicinal weeds worth harvesting for their medicinal value include the following.
• Chickweed (Stellaria media). For joint conditions and diseases of the blood or lymph systems.
• Cleavers (Galium aparine). Used for urinary infections, constipation and dermatitis.
• Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). A potent diuretic, used for some kidney conditions. Also good for liver and gallbladder complaints.
• Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album). Leaves are a nutritious lettuce substitute; the seeds, left on the plants, make a good autumn wild birdseed.
• Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca). Used for cardiac problems and conditions of the female reproductive system.
• Mullein (Verbascum spp.). For respiratory conditions.
• Plantain (Plantago spp.). Used externally as a poultice to draw out infections and/or foreign bodies from abscesses. The leaves are used internally to calm intestinal upset and decrease inflammation.
• Purslane (Portulaca oleracea). A mild medicinal for many conditions: asthma, skin conditions, infections and reputed to have anti-aging properties.
Using the Herbs You’ve Harvested
For internal use. My advice is to use herbal “sprinkles” from the garden whenever possible; use them routinely (at least several times a week) for their nutritional value as well as their medicinal components. Consider them preventive medicines rather than cures; and when a cure is needed, rely on a qualified herbalist to help with the herbal selection, dosage and method of application.
Sprinkles provide a small amount of the herb in its entirety — providing herbal medicine that is most likely to enhance the animal’s whole-body balance while being highly unlikely to contain enough bioactive substances to potentially be toxic. Sprinkles also activate the oral component of the immune system, which in turn enhances whole-body immune function. And perhaps most important of all, by giving sprinkles, you promote your pet’s innate ability to select what is best for him.
Animals have a wide range of taste preferences; some absolutely hate foods’ flavors and herbal tastes that others seem to relish. I’ve known many cats and dogs that have loved anything spiced with cayenne; others literally will run away from the very smell of it. There are two keys here: First, try various herbs until you find the one that suits your critter’s taste buds. Then begin adding small amounts of herbs to your pet’s dinner early on. I think that enjoying the tart herbal tastes can be acquired over time.
Use fresh herbs whenever possible. Simply let your critters be with you while you work in the garden. Let them absorb the healthy vitality of the entire garden through their pores and nasal passages. Then, take some of the fresh herb and sprinkle it over their food. Or, brew a mild tea from the fresh herb (about 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon per cup of water), cool to room temperature, and pour it over the feed — or, put the tea into a dish and simply let your pet decide if she wants to drink it straight.
You can, of course, produce your own tinctures or capsules from your garden-grown herbs. I recommend using only nonalcoholic tinctures (glycerin or glycerol) for pets. And, while tincturing is relatively easy to do, remember that no matter what method you use to extract the herbal essence, you have altered the basic biochemistry that the plant offered in its wholeness. This alteration likely has changed the medicinal potency and possible toxicity of the plant, so you should consult an herbal practitioner before you do this.
For external use. The easiest (and I think the best) way to use herbs topically for pets is to brew up a tea of the herbs you have selected, let the tea cool to room temperature and, using a plant mister, apply to the affected area as a mist. This way you get the full benefit of the herb without worrying about them licking off oily or greasy stuff from ointments or salves. The problem with this method (a problem I actually think may be an advantage) is that the effects of the herbal tea may not last long; you’ll need to repeat the spray several times daily.
I like calendula for almost any external application because it is anti- inflammatory, antimicrobial, astringent and speeds healing of the skin. Many other herbs have healing properties that make them excellent choices for external use: lavender, yarrow, chamomile, thyme and mullein are all good examples.
While fresh herbs are best for either internal or external use, you can dry your excess herbs for storage and wintertime use. Dried herbs are used the same way as fresh, but you only need about one-third to one-half as much of the volume of the dried herb to equal the same amount of fresh herb.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine 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.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.
Visit our website, www.herbsforhealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet- care books.