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
Even with a healthy diet and regular exercise, your cat or dog could be plagued by parasites, be stung by a bee, or develop an acute or chronic disease. A holistic veterinarian might treat the problem in a variety of ways, but the treatment will likely include the use of herbs. Here are a few of the most common problems dogs and cats experience, and the herbs used to treat them. Work with your vet to determine the best preparation and dosage for your pet.
Allergies. Allergies result when the body’s immune system becomes overactive in response to an allergen. Besides identifying and avoiding the triggering substance, treatment could include the use of herbs that help the body filter toxins, such as burdock and dandelion root. Diuretic nettle (Urtica dioica) and dandelion leaf (Taraxacum officinale) help rid the body of waste. (Nettle also has antihistamine properties, making it useful against seasonal allergies.) Immune system modulators, such as astragalus, can also be helpful. Also, be sure your pet is receiving adequate amounts of essential fatty acids, found in flax seed and borage seed oil.
Anxiety and nervous disorders. For acute anxiety, such as may be caused by travel, for instance, your pet’s practitioner might recommend chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), or valerian (Valeriana officinalis) to help her relax. If anxiety and nervousness are chronic, work with your vet to determine the underlying causes. Adaptogenic herbs such as astragalus can help a chronically anxious pet manage stress. Use sedative herbs, such as valerian, only occasionally—not routinely.
Arthritis. The pain of joint degeneration and the inflammation that accompanies it can be eased with anti-inflammatory herbs such as boswellia (Boswellia serrata), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and alfalfa (Medicago sativa). Nettle, dandelion, and burdock help rid the body of toxic wastes. Dogs may also benefit from a warm compress of comfrey (Symphytum officinale) leaves or yarrow, applied externally to sore joints.
Digestive troubles. Recurrent diarrhea and vomiting can be symptoms of other, more serious conditions, such as pancreatitis, liver disease, or cancer. To relieve occasional colon pain and spasms (colic) and eliminate excess gas, try fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare), chamomile, dill (Anethum graveolens), peppermint, or marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). For a bout of diarrhea, gentle astringent herbs, such as chamomile, slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), or plantain (Plantago major), or mucilaginous marshmallow root, are helpful. For constipation, dandelion root or marshmallow root are effective.
Ear mites. Ear mites, as well as bacterial or fungal infections of the ear, can be treated with oil that’s infused with garlic (Allium sativum) or calendula (Calendula officinalis) or mullein (Verbascum thapsus) flowers. Apply three to seven drops of the oil into the ear canal daily for up to 4 weeks.
Fleas and ticks. If your pet suffers from flea bites despite having a healthy diet, supplementing his diet with a small amount of dry or blanched nettle leaves could help reduce the severity of his allergic response. Besides being nutritious, nettle has antihistamine properties. To remove fleas indoors, vacuum frequently and wash pet bedding. Use a flea comb on your pet, and rub diatomaceous earth onto his skin. Diatomaceous earth is the gritty remains of ancient marine organisms; be sure to use the kind sold in pet supply stores, not the type sold for swimming pools. As a preventative, treat your pet with an herbal spray that contains natural insect-repelling compounds. If your pet already has a flea problem, use the same formula to make a flea shampoo. Do not use products that contain pennyroyal or pyrethrins, which can be toxic to pets—especially cats.
Urinary problems. Antimicrobial and soothing to irritated mucous membranes, marshmallow root tea (given in very small quantities) is a good treatment for urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and inflammation. Immune-stimulating and antimicrobial echinacea (Echinacea spp.) can help reduce or prevent infections. Nettles, dandelion, and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) will stimulate urine flow, and gingko improves blood circulation in the kidneys. If your pet’s kidneys have been damaged by a poor diet, liver disease, or other problems, your vet will probably recommend a reduced-protein diet, as well.
Skin problems. Calendula flowers prepared as a spritz (an infusion applied as a spray), oil, or salve is one of the safest, most effective treatments for minor skin inflammations, scrapes, itches, and burns. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), yarrow, and chamomile also have skin-healing properties and can be used in sprays, oils, or salves. They also make good additions to calendula preparations. Try aloe juice for burns and fresh yarrow leaves for wounds with minor bleeding. For abscesses or infected wounds that require draining, first apply a poultice of macerated plantain mixed with a bit of olive oil or witch hazel; after the wound has drained, apply calendula oil or salve.
The following herbs are excellent daily additions to your pet’s diet. Finely mince fresh, organic herbs and sprinkle over food just before serving. Grind organic seeds to a powder and add a pinch to food before serving. Decoct (simmer in water for 10 to 15 minutes) the burdock root and pour some of the liquid over your pet’s food.
|Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) leaves supply protein; also rich in vitamins A and C, calcium, riboflavin, potassium, iron, magnesium, niacin, and phosphorus.|
|Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) leaves are rich in protein, potassium, vitamin A, iron, manganese, and other trace minerals; supports the liver.|
|Nettle (Urtica dioica) leaves are rich in protein, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and potassium, as well as vitamins A, C, D, and B complex. (Note: Nettle leaves must be dried or cooked to destroy the plant’s stinging qualities.)|
|Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) leaves are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, as well as vitamins A and C and the minerals iron, magnesium, and calcium.|
|Burdock (Arctium lappa) root is an abundant source of calcium, phosphorus, and thiamine; excellent liver tonic, cleanses the body of toxins.|
|Borage (Borago officinalis) seeds, evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) seeds, or flax (Linum usitatissimum) seeds provide essential fatty acids, necessary for the development and maintenance of the brain, liver, heart, and immune system. —M.J.B.|
Plant photography by Rob Cardillo, Woodystock, Emilio Ereza, Tim Mainiero, Maximilian Weinzierl, Rodale Images
Rosemary, oregano, lemon verbena, lavender, and spearmint all contain a variety of insect-repelling compounds and are generally considered safe. Use several or all of them to make a flea and tick repellent spray or shampoo. Include calendula to soothe irritated skin. —M.J.B.
Place the herbs in a medium pot or heatproof bowl. Cover the herbs with 2 cups boiling water and let them steep until the tea has cooled. Strain out the herbs.
For a repellent spray: Fill a spray bottle with the herbal liquid. Spray your pet, rubbing the liquid into her fur. Begin using this spray at the beginning of flea and tick season, and repeat several times each week.
For a shampoo: In a jar or empty shampoo bottle, combine the baby shampoo or liquid castile soap with the herbal liquid. In a bathtub or large basin filled with warm water, massage the shampoo into your pet’s damp fur and lather well. (Add more shampoo if necessary.) Wait 10 minutes, then rinse with water. The shampoo will cause fleas to jump off and drown in the water. Reapply once or twice each week until the fleas are gone.
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, February/March 2014
Excerpted from the forthcoming book Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants, by Michael J. Balick, Ph.D. (Rodale, April 2014). Hardcover and e-book versions will be available through bookstores and online retailers in April.