The dictionary gives two definitions for ‘herb’. The first one, the more technical, is “a seed producing plant that does not develop persistent woody tissues but dies down at the end of the growing season.” The second definition is more general, but most commonly used as ”a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savoury or aromatic qualities”, “Medicinal” meaning for health purposes, including the treatment and prevention of disease. Animals in the wild have an innate ability to seek out and eat the herbs that will help them when they are ill or injured.
Sometimes people speak of herablism as alternative medicine. The implication is that the conventional medicine (taken from the viewpoint of this question as that which is practiced by most medical practitioners in the ‘civilized’ world!) is the standard, and that anything else is alternative. But most herbalists actually see it the other way around. Herbs have been around for millennia. Modern herbalism, under its scientific name of phytotherapy, is the basis of conventional drug therapy. The World Health Organisation estimates that healing herbs are currently the primary medicines for two-thirds of the world’s population – or some four billion people.
In traditional forms of herbalism the choice of herbs depends upon the pet’s personality as well as its medical condition. However, in modern herbalism there is greater emphasis on the chemical constituents of the herb itself. A complex mixture of chemicals, all of which contribute to the beneficial effects of their use.
Herbalists prefer using the whole herb and believe that the reason herbs have fewer side effects is because of a balance of naturally occurring ingredients. Every herb consists of hundreds or even thousands of naturally occurring chemicals. The actions of most of these chemicals are not understood, but it is known that an herb’s total effect is a result of the combination of all the ingredients. Some chemicals have synergistic effects on others increasing their activity, whilst some modify the effects of others reducing undesirable side effects.
Pharmaceutical companies often make the mistake of isolating just one active ingredient from an herb, without the herb’s other naturally occurring ingredients – or even worse – of making and producing a synthetic copy of the active. What they end up with is a drug that is far from what nature produced, without the benefit of the synergistic interactions of the herb’s original ingredients, often resulting in negative actions or undesirable side effects.
It is therefore considered that herbal medicines are gentler, safer and often more effective than their conventional chemical equivalents or derivatives, because the whole plant, or a large part of it is used.
Conventional veterinarians tend to be concerned about herbs because toxic doses for pets have not been calculated for most herbs, and that directions for dosages are fairly vague (not an exact science like conventional medicine), so they are apprehensive about possible side effects of certain remedies. In most countries there is little control over how herbs are sold. In Germany, however, the German Federal Health Authority’s Commision E publishes information on the composition, use, and interaction with other drugs, side effects and dosages of marketed herbs. This allows herbs to marketed as ‘over the counter’ drugs in Germany and enables doctors and veterinarians to use common sense and to prescribe what they feel are best for their patient. In Germany over 50 percent of the total sales of herbal products are prescribed by doctors, and more St John’s Wort is purchased as an anti-depressant than the widely promoted drug Prozac.
In many other parts of the world traditional herbalism remains the treatment of choice for livestock animals!