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Herbs for animals: how they work & how they can help

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Herbs possess a myriad of healing benefits for animals and humans alike. When used correctly, they work gently within the body, rebalancing it and supporting it to function better. In this blog post, I explain:

Herbal medicine started with animals

Animals have been using plants for healing purposes for centuries. It is from observing wild animals that humans learned the healing benefits of plants. For example, the Indian tribes of the western United States learned about the antimicrobial properties of Ligusticum porteri (Osha) by observing bears ingest and roll in the plants.[1] Osha is mainly known and used by humans for its antiviral benefits. It's referred to by many as "bear medicine".

After studying chimpanzees and gorillas in their native African habitats, scientists, Dr Eloy Rodriguez and Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham, learned that these animals have an inherent ability to self select specific plants for use against parasites. The animals chose the plants that expel their parasites and they knew exactly how much of the plant to eat to achieve the desired result without toxic side effects. This finding was the beginning of the field now known as Zoopharmacognosy - the study of animals using plants to heal themselves.

The article "Plants of the Apes" by Ann Gibbons refers to a number of other interesting discoveries including chimpanzees eating plants to settle their stomachs, chimps using medicinal plants more during the rainy season when they are more susceptible to pneumonia and other diseases, monkeys ingesting plants to manage fertility including plants that contain isoflavonoids (a compound structurally similar to estrogen) after giving birth to reduce their fertility and when they're ready to give birth, eating a plant called "monkeys ear" that produces a fertility enhancing steroid.

Research has also found that other animals, self-medicate, including cats and dogs.

How do herbs work

Herbs grow everywhere - in the wild, on the sides of roads, even in your back yard. Wherever there is nature, herbs can be found.

Herbs are plants that have medicinal benefits. Herbs can be beneficial in alleviating illness, especially where the illness is chronic. But herbs can also be used to support health and prevent disease.

One of the commonly grown herbs that can be found in many a lawn or garden is Taraxacum officinale commonly known as Dandelion. Easily disregarded because of her status as a "weed", Dandelion possesses many benefits, including for the digestive system, urinary system, the liver and the pancreas. It's one of my favourite herbs and I'll be talking about it more below.

Different parts of a plant can have different actions in the body. These actions are wide and varied. Here's a few by way of example:

  • Alterative - can restore the proper function of the body and increase health and vitality eg Burdock, Cleavers, Echinacea, Garlic, Yellow Dock

  • Anti-inflammatory - can help the body combat inflammation eg Chamomile, Calendula, Turmeric, Licorice, Yarrow, Ginger, Meadowsweet

  • Anti-lithic - can prevent the formation of stones or gravel in the urinary system and help remove them from the body eg Gravel Root, Corn Silk, Couchgrass

  • Carminative - can stimulate the peristalsis of the digestive system and relax the stomach eg Chamomile, Dill, Ginger, Peppermint, Sage, Thyme, Valerian

  • Hepatic - can aid the liver by toning and strengthening it and increasing the flow of bile - Artichoke, Barberry Dandelion, Elecampane, Milk Thistle, Turmeric, Yarrow, Yellow Dock

  • Sedative - can calm the nervous system and reduce stress and nervousness throughout the body eg Passionflower, Skullcap, Valerian, Californian Poppy

  • Vulnerary - can aid the body in healing wounds and cuts when applied externally eg Chickweed, Cleavers, Comfrey, Calendula, Marshmallow, Mullein

Herbs will also have secondary actions for example, bitter herbs can also have nervine, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, warming and cooling actions.

Let's take a look at Dandelion again to demonstrate how her different parts can have different actions:

  • The root of the dandelion plant is a digestive tonic and it stimulates phase one liver detoxification. The leaf of the dandelion plant has a diuretic action and is beneficial for the urinary system. The flowers of the dandelion (when prepared as a flower essence) can help to bring a sense of letting go, of going with the flow.

Generally, multiple herbs will be used in herbal preparations. The different actions of each herb can work synergistically with each other creating a greater therapeutic effect than if a herb was used individually.

The way herbs are prepared can also change the affect on the body.

Herbs can be prepared in multiple ways for different effects and applications. They can be prepared in different ways to take internally eg tablet, liquid (tincture, glycetract, infusion, decoction), powder. They can also be prepared in different ways to treat topically eg poultice, compress, oils, salves and creams.

Liquid preparations are considered superior for optimum absorption and effect. Infusions and decoctions are very simple ways that you can give your animals herbs. They simply require you to prepare the herbs like a tea - whether steeped in a covered cup or jar (infusion) or simmered in a pot on the stove (decoction).

For external use, herbs can be prepared as a poultice, a compress, an oil, a salve and a cream. For dogs with itchy skin, a herbal ointment with herbs chosen specifically for the dogs condition can help to relieve the irritation and itching.

The below graphics provide two examples of herbs that can have different effects depending on the preparation.

How herbs help animals

Herbs can be a great support for animals, in the same way that herbs can be a great support for humans. Whether that's to help animals who are sick or as a means of supporting good health and preventing disease.

Herbs can be used to help an animal who is sick by providing support to the organ or bodily system that is impacted by or is contributing to the illness.

For instance, herbs that have actions that support the kidneys can support an animal with kidney disease (eg Milk Thistle, which is considered to have a renoprotetive action in that it reduces oxidative damage to kidney cells).

Herbs that have actions that support the nervous system (eg Skullcap, which is considered to have a sedative action) can support an animal who suffers from anxiety.

The focus of herbal medicine for animals who are sick is not to stop the disease; rather, the focus is to return balance to the body by providing it with support to function better.

For example, Milk Thistle is not a cure for kidney disease. But as a renoprotective herb, it can support improved functioning of the kidneys thereby alleviating some of the pressure on the kidneys to function. When the kidneys are failing, they can benefit from a herb like Milk Thistle providing them with a little bit of support to make their job just that little bit easier.

An animal might suffer from constipation and so by giving herbs that support the functioning of the digestive system, the constipation may be relieved. At the same time, herbs can be given to rebalance the body as a whole, removing the need to rely on the herbs in the long term.

But herbs don't just work by supporting the body part related to the disease state. Holistic herbalism incorporates healing the whole body and taking into account other aspects of the animal's life that may be contributing to the disease state.

What is causing the animal to be constipated? Is it stress? Is it a response to a feeling of rigidity, of not being able to exercise his or her natural behaviours? Is it an allergy response? Or is it perhaps a transference of energy from the animal's human ie is the animal taking on the human's energy of feeling stuck, which is then showing up in the animal as constipation? Or is the human constipated too?

There are so many factors involved in disease and herbs used holistically can be beneficial in fixing the problem by supporting the body to rebalance. It's a very different system to modern veterinary medicine, which focuses on suppressing symptoms.

"Herbs are used to stimulate, regulate, or adjust natural body functions back into healthy harmony with the rest of the body. The therapeutic effort is directed not at treating disease but at supporting the body in its efforts to correct the problem itself. In other words, herbs are used to assist the body naturally at what it is designed to do: stay healthy".

Mary Wulff & Greg Tilford

Herbs can also complement veterinary medicine. One really beneficial way that herbs can do this is by reducing the negative impacts of veterinary medicine. For example, some veterinary medicines can negatively impact the liver. This can be seen on blood test results when liver enzymes eg ALT are elevated. By giving your animal a herbal formula that supports the liver, you can help to minimise the negative impacts of the drug.

Some of my favourite herbs for animals and their benefits

As an animal naturopath and herbslist, I have quite a large stock of herbs that I use for making herbal preparations for animals. Of these, I do have some definite favourites. The ones below have got to be my top five herbs.

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)

Milk Thistle is a very well known herb due to its reputation for being one of the best herbs for supporting the liver. It can help to protect the liver from various chemicals and toxins and it can provide support in healing liver diseases. Research into the herb shows that it may support animals with liver disorders, kidney diseases, pancreatic disorders, cancer and giardiasis.[2]

For animals, Milk Thistle is potentially indicated for hepatitis, cholangio-hepatitis, toxic injury to liver (especially aflatoxicosis), hepatic lipidosis; adjunct for Guardia treatment or during metronidazole administration to decrease adverse effects; for protection of the pancreas during pancreatitis or protection from drug damage; hyperlipidemia; to increase lactation and protect dairy cows from ketonemia.[3]

It is a very safe herb with no known contraindications reported. Animals sensitive to the daisy family may be sensitive to Milk Thistle.

In my practice, Milk Thistle is one of my go to herbs for animals who would benefit from liver and/or kidney support and it's included in my Herbal Cleanse.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Ahhhh Dandelion, how I love thee. Dandelion is a herb of many benefits. It helps to support the liver, the kidneys, the gallbladder and the digestive system as a whole. Dandelion may help with urinary issues and digestive issues including constipation.

For animals, Dandelion is indicated for use as a digestive tonic (root), a liver tonic (root), pancreatitis, triaditis, edema (leaf) and as a diuretic for management of urinary calculi (leaf).[4]

Dandelion shouldn't be used in animals with bile duct obstruction, acute gallbladder inflammation and intestinal obstruction. It may interfere with the absorption of quinolone antibiotics.[5]

With liver, colon and gallbladder benefits, Dandelion is one of the herbs I use in my Herbal Cleanse. It is one of my favourite herbs for liver detoxification.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Marshmallow has got to be one of the prettiest herbs but that's not at all why it's on my list of favourite herbs.

Marshmallow is considered to be one of the best herbs for supporting the mucous tissues within the body. As such, it can be beneficial for any problems where there is irritation of the mucosal lining eg digestive, respiratory and urinary.

For animals, Marshmallow is potentially indicated for digestive complaints especially gastroenteritis, gastric ulcer, colitis, diarrhoea, urinary tract inflammation (cystitis, nephritis, urethritis), stomatitis, laryngitis, bronchitis and other chronic coughs. Topically it's indicated for ruptured abscesses, ulcers and open wounds.[6]

Marshmallow is a very safe herb with no contraindications reported. However, because of its mucilaginous properties, it may interfere with the absorption of drugs, glucose and other molecules from the gut,[7] and thus may be best to give it away from food and medications.

Astragalus (Astragalus Membraneceus)

This is one of my go-to herbs wherever it is indicated that an animal could benefit from immune support. It's another herb that I love the smell of.

Astragalus is an immune enhancing herb that has been used since ancient times in traditional Chinese medicine. It can also help the body adapt to stressful circumstances.

For animals, it's potentially indicated for geriatric support, congestive heart failure, early heart failure, chronic infection, immune deficiency, renal disease and cancer.[8]

There are no contraindications for Astragalus but the aerial portions can be toxic to livestock. Given the root is the part used, it can be used safely with all animals, including livestock.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Calendula has a beautifully bright and vibrant flower. It has a smell that kind of resembles caramel. She is such a divine herb and I love working with her.

Calendula dates back to Ancient Egyptian times with records from 5000 years ago referencing it and hieroglyphics from the same period showing the flowers.

Here's a fun fact - ancient Romans named it on the belief that new blooms appear on the first day, the "calend", of each month.[9]

It's a beautiful herb for the skin but possesses many other benefits as well.

For animals, Calendula is potentially indicated for gingivitis, ulcers, erosions, eyewash, dermatitis, and as a wound-cleansing agent.[10] It may also be beneficial for treating inflammation or ulceration of the digestive or urinary tracts and for fungal infections of the mucous membranes in the digestive tract and skin.[11]

Animals with allergies to the daisy family may be sensitive to Calendula. Otherwise it is a very safe herb with no drug interactions.[12]

Herbs and your animals

Could herbs help your animal? If they're suffering from a health condition, if they're taking veterinary medicines or if they've never been on a detox then yes, herbs could definitely help your animal.

There is a vast array of herbs that can benefit animals and it's always important to seek out help from an animal herbalist or animal naturopath. You want to make sure that the herbs you're giving your animal are safe and that the dosage is suitable.

All of the herbal preparations that I make for animals are made in a way to ensure their safety, palatability and efficacy. I use organic / wildcrafted dried herbs, I make up the preparations by hand and I don't use any alcohol in making the preparations.

For detox (read my post here to see if your animal could benefit from a detox), I recommend my Herbal Cleanse formula, which you can purchase in my online shop.

Would you like to learn more about how herbs can support your animal? Check out The Herbal Sessions. An online group coaching program for nature-loving animal lovers. Learn more and enrol here.

[1] Wulff-Tilford 2009, 'Herbs for Pets, The Natural Way to Enhance Your Pet's Life', Lumina Media.

[2 - 10] Wynn & Fougere 2006, 'Veterinary Herbal Medicine', Mosby.

[11] Wulff-Tilford 2009, 'Herbs for Pets, The Natural Way to Enhance Your Pet's Life', Lumina Media.

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About Ruth

Ruth Hatten is a Holistic Animal Care Mentor with qualifications in animal naturopathy, pet nutrition and energy healing. She helps animals using holistic principles and natural remedies, including naturopathy, nutrition, plant medicine, energy and spirituality. Ruth believes that animals can thrive when they are supported in this way.​

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