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The Wonder of Herbs for Dogs

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.

Sometimes people speak of herbalism as alternative medicine. The implication is that the conventional medicine 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. The World Health Organisation estimates that healing herbs are currently the primary medicines for 70% of the world’s population – or some four billion people.

Herbal remedies have even been found in graves as old as 60,000 years!!!!

What is also glossed over, is that herbs formed the basis of all veterinary medicine and were widely considered orthodox until the 1960s[1]. But within a decade the study of herbs all but disappeared from the curriculum of veterinary schools!

Modern herbalism, under its scientific name of phytotherapy, is the basis of conventional drug therapy. Over 85% of today’s modern medicines are derived from herbs.

Pharmaceutical companies typically work by isolating just one active ingredient from a herb, without the herb’s other naturally occurring ingredients – or even worse – making and producing a synthetic copy. 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 which can result in long term, unintended damage as a consequence

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 a 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.

As a result herbal medicines are considered to be gentler, safer and often more effective than their conventional chemical equivalents or derivatives. They are also more forgiving if the herb is not required; and much more suitable for long term illness and treatments

Phytotherapy should be viewed as part of an arsenal of weapons for tackling illness – it is complementary to modern veterinary medicine, and should never be viewed as a substitute. Many illnesses in our dogs require immediate actions, herbal preparations tend to take longer to work.

Pharmaceuticals focus on the use of potent effector herbs, which create an observable impact; and treat specific illness.

Herbalists tend to work predominantly with gentle effectors or normalisers.

Polypharmacy is the proactive use of herbs as preventative treatment; and focuses predominantly on the use of nourishing herbs that support growth, health and renewal (normalisers).

Herbal Safety & Efficacy

It is not wise to think that because something is natural it is safe….. cliffs are not natural but people still walk off them.

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.

However, in many other parts of the world traditional herbalism remains the treatment of choice for livestock animals! (Prince Charles uses homeopathy on his Duchy estate; chicken farmers in Ireland are now predominantly using herbs for health because of antibiotic resistance).

In Germany, however, the German Federal Health Authority’s Commission 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 people use St John’s Wort than the anti-depressant drug Prozac.

Generally, dosages for animals when not known are calculated relative to the human dosage in materia medica. These are based on a typical average human weight of 60kg, and the animal dosage can then be extrapolated from this.

However, with animals there are multiple factors that influence dosage such as the route of administration, frequency, degree of absorption, age and condition of the patient, and unique physiological characteristics of various species. Not to mention individual idiosyncrasies!

The rule usually adhered to by herbalists is to begin with the smallest dose first and work upward if needed. It is important to not only consider the actions of the herb, but also its energetics (heating/cooling/drying etc.) as well as any interactions with other drugs, toxicity levels and speed of action. These all in turn give you a margin of safety for using each herb. With animals you really want to be working with the herbs that have a high margin of safety.

For acute conditions, stronger herbs can be used and larger doses given as these should only be administered for a short period of time.

For chronic conditions, formulas are usually given for an extended period of time, using slower acting more gentle herbs.

PAIN – pharmaceuticals should always be used primarily to treat an animal in pain, as there are no herbal options anyway near as effective or quick to act as the isolated compounds.

Energetics - Rules of thumb:

As mentioned earlier, it would be wrong as a practitioner to neglect the traditional use of herbalism in which the choice of herbs depends upon the pet’s personality as well as its medical condition. You certainly don’t want to be administering heating herbs to a dog that naturally overheats and seeks out the cold places to sit!

Most herbs have 2- 3 tastes: Pungent - sour - bitter - salty – sweet – aromatic - bland


  • Hot/spicy/pungent herbs are generally heating and good as carminatives – e.g. ginger, caraway

  • Bitters herbs are generally cooling and good for digestion – e.g. licorice root

  • Demulcents: general moistening & cooling, soothing e.g. marshmallow root

The energetics of herbs should also be matched to offset any negative interactions, for example using dandelion root as a laxative, but combining it with caraway seeds to stop any cramping. Or combining ginger which is hot, with licorice which is cooling, whilst both are anti-inflammatory.

Therapies using herbs/plants:

There are a number of therapies that have herbs as the basis of their treatments. We will be going into more depth on each of these as individual Blog subjects. So watch this space, but just to give you a quick synopsis:

  • Herbal remedies* – using raw/dried plant material. Purest form, but not necessarily most potent/effective

  • Essential oils** – the volatile organic compounds are extracted and used (these work more potently than herbal remedies as they enter into the blood stream straight away through the nose/mucous membranes)

  • Hydrosols – these are the waters left after the essential oils have been extracted. They are a particularly safe option as they are highly diluted, but still very effective

  • Flower Essences – these are the “energy imprint” transferred to a carrier solution (water) when placed in the sun. They tend to focus on the behavioural aspects of herbal actions

  • Homeopathy – controversial… however veterinary science is the key area that absolutely supports the homeopathy theory (placebo effect is not a factor when treating animals). Homeopathy is also effectively just the imprint of a herb and its actions

* It is worth noting that herbalism itself can be broken down into Western, Ayurvedic or Traditional Chinese. I will cover this in more detail in a future Blog

** Because of their volatility, any products containing essential oils should never be used with cats or pregnant & lactating bitches, unless offered as part of an Applied Zoopharmacognosy session. (For more details on AZ please check out our AZ blog)

[1] Daykin’s Veterinary Applied Pharmacology and Therapeutics: a textbook used in veterinary schools across the world in the 1960s.

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