The Wisdom of Herbal Pet Care

"Dogs resemble the nation which creates them," stated Gertrude Stein, back in 1940. Not surprisingly, veterinarians today report a tremendous increase in the amount of cancer and heart disease in their patients.

Younger and younger animals are presenting with diseases that were rare back in the early 1950’s. Immune system problems, chronic skin and ear allergies, digestive upset, heart disease and cancer are all common these days among our animal friends. Vets are reporting more behavioral disorders as well, with more fears and aggression seen in our nation’s 68 million owned dogs and 71 million owned cats, according to Animal Pet Products Manufacturers Association (2001-2002). We must realize that our world today has become dangerous to the health of our animal friends and explore new ways to keep them healthy.

For a modern-day pet there is a high likelihood of coming in contact with toxic pesticides, herbicides and dangerous household chemicals. On a daily basis, pets may be exposed to toxins put on our green lawns, chemicals found in puddles on the street, additives and preservatives in their food, and chemicals found in household cleaning products. Foods sold for pets have much lower standards than those for humans and are often devoid of energy and nutrition, laden with chemicals and preservatives, over-processed and boring. Equally important, medicines used on animals are often powerful pharmaceuticals that may have side-effects that we are unable to monitor. Even substances used for flea and tick prevention can expose them to extremely poisonous chemicals that can wreak havoc on their immune systems. Vaccinations are also under scrutiny. We vaccinate to defend them from the onslaught of disease, yet as Martin Goldstein, DVM says in The Nature of Animal Healing, "…a growing number of holistic, and now even conventional veterinarians are convinced, from sad experience, that the vaccines they have over-administered are doing more harm than good."

With our extensive use of antibiotics and steroids, many believe that we are merely focusing on suppression of symptoms and not treating the underlying causes of disease. And, by doing so, we are helping to create new beefed-up viruses and bacteria. Strengthened by overuse of antibiotics, bacteria and viruses can now decimate entire populations of marine mammals, fish and dolphins, and are also rife among our household animal friends. Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immuno deficiency virus have appeared as recently as 1986.

Bacteria evolve at fantastic speed; one bacterium can produce almost 17 million in a 24-hour period! This allows them to pass along the drug-resistant gene not only to their own species but, more significantly, to other unrelated microbes. Overuse of antibiotics today greatly exacerbates the resistance problem. Shockingly, it is legal for 80 different antibiotics to be added directly to animal grains to fight infection and make livestock grow more quickly on factory farms in the U.S.!

In spite of this onslaught, we must remember that our immune systems and those of our animals are remarkably efficient. Even peers of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, researchers such as Max von Pettinkofer and Elie Metchnikoff, insisted that bacteria do not cause disease, but rather create an interruption in the normally health ecology of the body. Basically, human and animal beings live in, and have evolved from, a sea of bacteria. We have adapted and deal effectively with them when our systems are in balance and in full health. As Marc Lappe says, “It is the body which ultimately controls infection, not chemicals. Without underlying immunity, drugs are meaningless.”

At the core of holistic pet care is the notion that the best way to cure an animal who is ill is to help the animal cure itself. Taking the holistic approach, we can see that there are alternatives to powerful pharmaceuticals, and that we can support the immune systems of our animals so they can remain strong and stay healthy in today’s world. In addition to providing proper nutrition and exercise and a loving home, we can offer nutritional and healing support from nature in the form of herbal medicine. As an added bonus, when using Mother Nature’s medicine with all of her complex chemistries, there are never acquired resistances due to their use.

Nature’s Pharmacy

Plants generate chemicals as medicines to protect themselves. Plants have evolved from the same “sea of bacteria” as animals and humans and they, too, have been generating defensive compounds to protect themselves for some three and a-half billion years of life, beginning with marine micro algae. Anti-fungal, antibiotic and pre-infection anti-microbial compounds protect the plant from invading pathogenic organisms. Chicory roots, for example, produce anti-fungal compounds that are so strong, that if kept moist for long periods on a plate, they will not mold. It is a matter of survival for this plant in damp, wet soil to protect itself and its roots against mold. Plants need to generate these natural, yet complex chemistries to survive. They can generate antibiotic, anti-microbial, mucilaginous, gum, resin, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic compounds. Plants can also combine and move any of these compounds where they are needed, and yet, because many of them are extremely reactive to the air, they are often stored inside cells deep within the plant.

It is fascinating to note that bacteria do not develop resistance to whole plant medicines. Plant medicines, unlike pharmaceuticals, contain thousands of complex compounds that work synergistically; they are so complex that it is very difficult for pathogenic agents to develop resistance. Numerous plant medicines have shown activity against the very same bacteria that have developed resistance to human pharmaceuticals, with very few side effects. Artemmisen, in the Chinese herb, Qing Huo, has shown in clinical trials to be very effective against the most deadly strains of malaria and will soon become the treatment of choice.

“(The) interwoven connections of the plants and their chemistries to the life around them has begun to reveal to contemporary peoples that the plant chemistries are used not only for the plants themselves, but are created and released to heal disease throughout the ecosystems in which they grow.” — Stephen Harrod Buhner, The Lost Language of Plants

What Animals Know

Animals have been on the planet for hundreds of millions of years and are able to utilize this intelligence found in the natural world. Animal knowledge about the use of plants as medicines may be passed along genetically over the ages, or it may come from instinctual understanding. It may also come from the animal’s ability, like the those of the plant kingdom, to call to itself those substances needed to return to balance. An animal will seek out certain grasses when they feel unwell to help regulate the health of mucous membranes of the intestines with the naturally occurring antibacterial and anti-microbial actions found in the grasses. Great apes employ over thirty species of plants for medicinal purposes. There is now even a scientific term for the study of the use of medicinal plants by animals: zoopharmacognosy.

Herbalists have long known that many of the defensive compounds found inside plants make effective herbal cures. However, the idea that animals might also use herbs (or anything else) to self-medicate has, until recently, been dismissed as romantic. Plants generate compounds for protection and healing, and animals have, by trial and error, learned over millennia how to use these compounds. Humans have learned from animals how to use the plants in their environments. The studies are fascinating and provide us with a wealth of information about how animals instinctively understand how and when to use plants as medicine.

Vernonia Bush Cures Parasites

In her book, Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn From Them (2002, Weidenfeld & Nicholson), Cindy Engel reports an interesting story about a female chimpanzee. Dr. Michael Huffman, an American primatologist was working in Tanzania with an elder of the local Wa Tongwe tribe as a guide, who was both a skilled naturalist and an herbalist. While tracking an ailing chimp, they observed her stop in front of a Vernonia bush (part of daisy family,) tear off a branch and begin peeling the bark. Prior to consuming the plant sap, the chimp was suffering from constipation, malaise, and lack of appetite. A day later, she made a spectacular recovery. They continued to track the chimp, and collected dropping samples to send off for laboratory analysis. The results showed at the time of the first collection, the droppings contained 130 nematode eggs per gram. In under twenty-four hours, the egg level was reduced to 15 per gram. The chimp resumed hunting, an exercise she had been unable to perform the previous day. Vernonia is one of the most important and widely used medicinal plants of Africa.

Diarrhea Relief For Rhinos

Engel’s book also documents an Asian two-horned rhino was observed eating so much of the tannin-rich bark of the red mangrove that its urine was stained bright orange. Tannins are a major component of some over-the-counter anti-diarrheal preparations. The concentration of tannins in the bladder of the rhino, which resulted in the color change of its urine, was undoubtedly sufficient to have an impact on parasites in the creature’s bladder or urinary tract.

Birth Control And Fertility Diet For Monkeys

Reported by Jennifer A. Biser in “Really Wild Remedies — Medicinal Plant Use by Animals” (Zoogoer, Jan/Feb 1998), anthropologist Karen Strier from the University of Wisconsin found that at different times, Muriqui monkeys of Brazil seem to practice a natural form of family planning. These monkeys have been observed at times to make a special effort to eat leaves of Apulia leiocarpa and Platypodium elegans. These two plants contain isoflavanoids, compounds similar to estrogen, that are believed to increase estrogen levels, thereby decreasing fertility. Conversely, they will eat the fruit of Enterlobium contortisiliquim, perhaps to increase the their chances of becoming pregnant as this plant contains a precursor to progesterone called stigmasterol, the "pregnancy hormone."

Healthy Chicks

Reported in the same Zoogoer article, some birds use herbs to enhance the health of their chicks. Male European starlings have been observed selecting aromatic herbs to bring back to the nest. In North America, starlings preferentially select wild carrot, yarrow, agrimony, elm-leaved and rough golden rod and fleabane even when they have to fly farther from the nest to find them. It is believed the herbs kill fowl mites, although the precise mechanism by which this occurs in not known. These particular herbs are all highly aromatic, and contain high concentrations of volatile oils. The herbs are woven into the nest and refreshed even as the chicks are hatching. It has been observed that chicks in the nests with the aromatic herbs have a significantly greater chance of surviving into the next season than chicks in nests from which the herbs have been removed.

Bear Medicine

Shawn Sigstedt, an ethno botanist, has been studying the medicinal plant, Ligusticum porteri, or bear root, which the Navajo people and other Indian populations that live close to the plant’s natural habitat, use as a headache remedy, fungicide, insecticide and for numerous other purposes. Sigstedt lived for years with a Navajo family where he learned the legend of the bear, the generous divine being who gave Navajos the bear root. Sigstedt decided to check whether the legend had a biological basis and was astonished to find that when he gave the plant to bears in the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Spring, they immediately began chewing it and rubbing it over their bodies, precisely as the Navajo legends say the bear taught humans to do. More than a dozen compounds with known pharmacological activity have been identified in bear root. (Condensed from The Scientist, March 1992.)

Natural Bug Repellant

In “Animal Instinct” (The Guardian, Jan. 17, 2002), Jerome Burne writes, “Most animals are plagued by small biting insects such as fleas, lice, mites, ticks and various parasites which can drain blood and inhibit growth, so they have developed a variety of ways to deal with them. Monkeys, apart from constant grooming, also rub themselves with soothing plants and even insects. Capuchins in Costa Rica, for instance, use the piper plant, from the chili family, which contains compounds that deaden pain and kill off insects. Capuchins also rub their fur with millipedes, which make toxic chemicals knows as benzoquinones that keep other insects away, as well as killing bacteria.”

Elephant Walk

The same Guardian article also describes a perilous pilgrimage trail to a cave on the side of Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano in western Kenya, which has been mined by generations of elephants who dig out the soft rock with their tusks, grind it with their teeth and then swallow it. The rock contains 100 times more sodium than they can get from the plants they normally eat, as well as being rich in potassium and calcium. Sodium is vital for all metabolic processes, especially for handling the toxins which are an inevitable part of a plant diet. An estimated 40% of plants contain some sort of defensive chemicals.

Geoff D’Arcy, Lic. Ac., D.O.M., has authored several books and articles on using a holistic approach to healthcare. He is the director of the D’Arcy Wellness Clinic in Natick MA, where he has been in practice for over 24 years practicing acupuncture and herbal medicine. Geoff is also president of D’Arcy Naturals, Inc., a company that produces all natural herbal formulas for humans and pets. He can be reached at 508-650-1921 or visit