Just as we use herbs to enhance our own lives, we can do the same for our four-legged family members—our pets. A growing number of veterinarians take a holistic approach to health care for animals, and that includes the use of herbs to promote wellness and increase the quality and length of their lives. At home, you can use herbs to supplement your pets’ diet and make healing preparations for them. But remember: Always work with a veterinarian who is trained in the use of herbs for pets.
The holistic approach to pet health begins with a healthy and balanced diet that provides essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. In the wild, our pets’ ancestors got protein and fat from meat, calcium from crunching on bones, and vegetables from the digestive tracts of their prey.
The commercial pet foods we feed our pets today often lack nutrients that cats or dogs need to be healthy at different times in their lives. Or they contain meat by-products or vegetable sources of protein, which aren’t always easy for pets to digest. Commercial foods may also contain things your pet doesn’t need, like preservatives and coloring agents. After consuming a steady diet of packaged food for several years, dogs and cats frequently begin to show signs of poor health, such as bad breath, itchy skin, intestinal gas, and dull or dry coats.
Often, simply giving your pet a more balanced natural diet is enough to reverse skin problems, digestive disorders, kidney problems, depression, and other conditions. While commercial natural foods are preferable to their mainstream counterparts, many holistic veterinarians recommend bypassing commercial foods altogether and making your pet’s food at home, using the freshest, most wholesome natural ingredients. Whole foods, such as uncooked meats and plants, come much closer to the diet our pets’ ancestors consumed, and herbs can play an important part in your pet’s natural diet.
The most important step in planning a natural diet is to make sure you’ll provide the right mix of nutrients. For adult dogs, that usually means one-third protein, one-third vegetables, and one-third grains. Cats need more meat protein: Their diets should include 50 to 80 percent meat, with the balance made up of vegetables and grains. Of course, every pet has different needs (puppies and kittens need more protein, for example), so it’s a good idea to discuss these proportions with your vet. [See “Plants for Pets,” Organic Gardening, August/September 2013, for more information on plant-based pet diets.]
Many herbs are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. Adding these nutritive herbs to your pet’s daily diet will help ensure that he receives all of the nutrients necessary for a long, healthy, active life. Herbs supply nutrients in an easy-to-assimilate, natural form without stressing your pet’s liver or kidneys and without creating imbalances the way megadoses of vitamins and minerals can.
As a dietary supplement, herbs especially benefit older dogs and cats. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), which supports the immune system and increases vitality, is a good general tonic for older animals. Nettle (Urtica dioica), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and parsley (Petroselinum crispum) benefit senior pets’ kidneys, livers, and digestive systems. For older animals who show symptoms of nervous system impairment, your holistic vet might suggest ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), peppermint (Mentha × piperita), or oat straw (Avena sativa). To support your older pet’s heart, hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and ginkgo can be used. Dandelion leaves (either minced or made into a tea and added to food) are very effective for removing excess fluid from the body, associated with congestive heart failure.
Drawing by Daniel Baxter