While herbs are a major source of pharmaceuticals, herbal remedies differ from conventional medications in using parts of the whole plant rather than isolating single active ingredients. In traditional forms of herbalism, the choice of herbs depends upon the dog's personality as well as its medical condition. In modern herbalism, there is greater emphasis on the chemical constituents of the herb itself.
From the very earliest stages of evolution, animals learned that eating certain types of vegetation made them feel better. Dogs will eat grass in order to induce vomiting and remove any toxic food they have eaten.
Classical herbalism developed in all early human cultures but was best recorded in the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas, starting about 4,500 years ago. Ayurveda, the traditional holistic healing system of the Indian subcontinent, shares herbs with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where legend tells how animals guided humans to discover the medicinal values of plants. Herbalism also, flourished in Europe and was augmented by: Persian and Islamic physicians.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, Africa, and Australasia, their herbal armories were expanded by herbs used by native peoples. The first flu epidemics in the new American colonies were often treated with sage (Salvia officinalis) and boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). Even today, in most parts of the world, herbs remains a vital ingredient of traditional medicine both for people and for the animals in their care.
Herbs are very versatile and can be prepared in a number of different ways - in teas or tinctures, ointments or infusions, compresses or poultices, dried or fresh. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and you'll need to do some research to determine which preparation is the safest and most effective for the use you are considering.
When possible, use products that have been made especially for animals. Tinctures are more rapidly absorbed than pills in a dog's short digestive tract, and because most animals dislike the taste of alcohol-based tinctures, theirs use vegetable glycerin, which is sweet like corn syrup.
There are thousands of herbs, used in hundreds of different cultures, and it would be impossible to list them all. Instead, here is a list of some useful "beginner" herbs that are relatively easy to locate and use.
Pay close attention to the source of the herbs you are buying. In addition to making sure they are whole and not chemically synthesized, check to see that they are as pure as possible - that is, organically grown and naturally harvested. Take into account that dosage recommendations are for an average-sized human adult, and that your dog will likely need less.
Most important, do not use herbs in the place of consulting a veterinarian for a serious or life-threatening condition. Herbs are best used to support and complement traditional medicine, not supplant it. Generally speaking, herbs are not often used in emergency situations, but more for chronic conditions that don't have a pressing time element. In using herbs, the very best ingredient is common sense.
As always, be sure to check with your veterinarian or a holistic practitioner before using any herb, especially one that can have side effects.
Aloe (Aloe vera)
This delicate succulent cannot survive in most non-tropical climates. But many cooks keep a potted aloe on a sunny kitchen counter, at the ready in case they burn themselves. The jelly-like pulp inside the leaves of the aloe vera herb is soothing to skin irritations such as insect bites, minor burns, lick granulomas and hot spots.
Because aloe has antibacterial qualities, it can be used on surgical incisions, where it will stimulate healing. Most animals will avoid licking the area, because of the juice's bitter taste.
To administer the aloe, simply snip off a piece of a leaf, squeeze out the juice, and apply topically.
While aloe can be given internally, primarily as a laxative, it can cause severe digestive upset. It's best to stick to topical applications and consult an herbalist for internal treatment.
Burdock (Arctium lappa)
Burdock is the deep cleaner of the herb world, and when used over time, it can help clear the body of toxic elements - hence its reputation as a "blood cleaner." Its ability to flush out wastes and toxins makes it useful for treating arthritis, and liver and kidney diseases.
If you live in an area where pesticide and chemical use is high, consider adding burdock as a nutritional supplement to your dog's diet, as it can help filter those dangerous environmental toxins from your animal's system. Burdock is also useful in treating chronic skin conditions such as eczema.
Burdock is an extremely safe herb, and can be used without fear of toxicity or side effects. Many dogs also like the taste of it and will eat it readily. You can buy fresh burdock root at health and ethnic food stores and grate it atop your dog's food, or buy the dried root.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
The pot marigold is good for skin conditions, healing and reducing inflammation in the area as it inhibits infection. Use it in cream form on irritations such as insect bites, poison ivy, small cuts, lesions and minor burns. Because calendula heals and closes skin rapidly, make sure wounds are clean and free of infection before applying.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)
This herb's Latin name means "cough dispeller," and it has been used for centuries as an expectorant and antispasmodic. It is useful for respiratory infections and deep coughs, including kennel cough and pneumonia. Coltsfoot does not just suppress cough symptoms, but actually aids the body in flushing out what caused them in the first place.
Because coltsfoot contains potentially dangerous alkaloids, some countries have restricted its use. If you plan to use this herb for any length of time, consult with an herbal practitioner.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Another detoxifier, this common lawn weed cleans the blood-stream and liver, and improves the workings of the kidneys and stomach. It helps regulate bowel movements and aids in moving toxins and poisons out of the body. A valuable diuretic, dandelion improves elimination efforts by the kidneys and liver, all the while helping the body maintain its potassium levels.
Provided you do not garden with pesticides or chemicals, the nutrient-rich leaves can be plucked right from your lawn, pulped and added to your dog's food bowl.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Garlic stimulates liver function, flushes out toxins, reduces free radicals that can cause cancer, boosts the immune system and acts as a germicide. In addition to helping stave off and treat viruses, tumors, parasites and fungus, garlic lowers high blood pressure and improves digestion. It is also often used as a natural flea preventive.
Like burdock, this is another good herb to add to your dog's meals several times a week. It can be fed fresh or as a powder. As with most herbs, more is not better - it has been suggested that prolonged use might cause anemia - so feed garlic in moderation.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger's nausea-relieving properties are well known, and it is often used as a remedy for vomiting and motion sickness. A dog who tends to be carsick might benefit from powdered gingerroot capsules given a half hour before the excursion. Because of its properties as a stomach soother, this herb also helps treat indigestion.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Traditionally, hawthorn was used as an astringent to treat diarrhea, among other conditions. Today, we regard it primarily as a heart tonic, helping stimulate the circulatory system, normalize blood pressure and reduce arrhythmia. Its restorative effects on heart muscle make it a candidate for dogs with cardiovascular problems and congestive heart failure.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.)
This anti-inflammatory, antiarthritic, antiviral herb is called the "great detoxifier." It can help boost the adrenal and endocrine systems.
Because licorice soothes inflammation and mucous membranes, consider it for colitis, diverticular disease and gastritis. These same properties make it a good choice for coughs and respiratory ailments. This herb should be avoided in animals with heart problems, especially rapid heartbeats or high blood pressure.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
This herb, a member of the sunflower family, is synonymous with the liver. Charged with the demanding job of eliminating toxins from the body, the liver sometimes needs a helping hand during times of stress - for example, when a dog is given a potentially toxic drug or treatment such as chemotherapy, or after vaccination or anesthesia. Milk thistle helps safeguard the liver when toxicity is high. Most herbalists recommend giving this herb only when it is needed, not as a general liver tonic, because it can negatively affect liver function if given indiscriminately. Also, avoid this herb if your dog is pregnant.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Here's another great addition to your dog's food bowl. Parsley is a cancer inhibitor and tonic-meaning it helps boost the body's overall functioning, clearing the bloodstream and liver of toxins. As it does in humans, parsley can help improve bad breath in dogs.
Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
This herb has always been regarded as a female tonic, strengthening the uterine walls and relaxing spasms. This is a popular supplemerit for bitches who are going to be bred, and is often used throughout their pregnancy to tone the uterus and encourage adequate milk production.
Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva)
Herbalists know this tree bark to be a first-line treatment for diarrhea, colitis and most any inflammation of the intestinal tract. It soothes the mucous membranes of the intestines, as well as the respiratory and urinary tracts. This is the herb to try for dogs with sensitive stomachs, who have extreme reactions to even the slightest variation in diet.
Valerian (Valeriana offtCinalis)
Valerian is a natural sedative, reducing pain, muscle spasms and palpitations. It has been used for centuries for its tranquilizing properties, and small, frequent doses can help calm a panic-stricken or anxious dog. Try giving this herb before any stress-inducing situation - a visit to the vet, a long road trip.
There is some evidence that valerian can help minimize seizures in epileptic animals. Giving too high a dosage may cause intestinal upset, and use of this herb is contraindicated in pregnant animals.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
This common roadside flower has many qualities to recommend it. It is a good diuretic, helping the body flush out wastes and toxins. It reduces inflammation and has a healing effect on mucous membranes. Useful for treating fevers and infections, yarrow can also help in blood clotting.
How they work
In traditional forms of medicine, herbal treatments are tailored to an individual's personality. Ayurvedic medicine stipulates the need for balance between the "energies" within and without the body. Ayurveda's five great elements -ether, air, fire, water, and earth -are contained in three doshas, or energies, that every person, animal, food, and environment is made up of in varying degrees. Because each animal is a unique composite of doshas, its illness is treated with herbal prescriptions not only according to the disease, but also according to its combination of doshas, its age, and even the time of day.
Herbalism in Traditional Chinese Medicine follows similar patterns. Illness is regarded as a "pattern of disharmony". There are herbs for sweating, vomiting, draining downward, warming, clearing, reducing, harmonizing, and that have a tonic effect, and these are used according to the blend of yin and yang both of the patient and of the herbs, in order to restore harmony. For example, ginseng is believed to act as a tonic to the yang tendencies of the body, which are male and assertive. Herbal treatments are tailored to the individual animal.
Herbal therapies are often used to correct body functions and are given in short courses. Some dogs are not disposed to eat fresh or dried herbs, so herbal tablets tend to be used. Herbs may be good as skin treatments for people but can be dangerous for dogs, as they may lick them off and poison themselves. Put an Elizabethan collar on your dog if applying any medication to its skin.
The medicinal parts of plants can be prepared in a variety of ways. Infused oils, ointments, and creams are made for topical use (applied to the surface of the body).
Decoctions, tinctures, and infusions are more appropriate than topical preparations for dogs because they are made from herbs that are known to be safe if taken internally. Decoctions are prepared by boiling in water the tough parts of plants such as bark, roots, and berries. The liquid is strained and consumed either hot or cold. Tinctures are made by soaking a herb in alcohol and water, usually for a few weeks, and then straining it. Tinctures are usually stored in dark bottles and can be kept for up to two years. Infusions are made like tea, from the leaves and flowers of the herb.
The uses of herbs
In order to survive, plants produce chemicals for their own protection. Some of these chemicals are beneficial for other forms of life, including dogs. For example, garlic, the world's most popular herb, contains at least 200 different compounds, many of which are said to be useful for dogs. Garlic lowers blood pressure, accelerates the breakdown of waste matter from cells, and may even act as a mild flea repellent. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) leaves contain substances called flavonoids that are said to be effective at scavenging free radicals. Siberian ginseng (Eleutberococcus senticosus) may help regulate blood sugar and affect the adrenal glands. Ashwaghanda (Withania somnifera), popular in Ayurvedic herbalism, is reported to increase hemoglobin and red blood cell counts, countering anemia. Oil of cedar (Cedrus) is reported to have antibacterial, antifungal, and acaridical (mite-killing) properties. Seed oil extracted from neem (Azadirachta indica) is antibacterial and, according to published reports, inhibits ringworm. Scientific studies suggest that aloe vera has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-microbial effects, while studies in horses suggest it stimulates the immune system.
Cancer treatments have been developed from herbal products. For example, the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) contains vincristine, which shrinks certain types of cancers. When it was available only as a plant extract it was very expensive, but laboratory synthesis of vincristine has reduced the cost, and made it available for controlling white blood-cell cancers in dogs.
For immediate soothing and antiseptic use for wounds or skin injections, or for the relief of mild gastroenteric problems, an infusion of peppermint leaf or Roman chamomile flower can be made at home:
Heat a clean (well washed and rinsed) cup with boiling water.
Pour away the water and add 1 tsp of dried or 2 tsp of fresh herb to the heated cup.
Fill to three-quarters level with boiling water.
Cover and leave to steep for 10 minutes.
Remove the cover, pouring condensation inside the cover back into the cup.
Strain and use or store covered in a cool place.
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