Herbs for Companion Animals – Ottawa Herb Society article

Healing Herbs for Animal Companions

The widespread petfood recalls of 2007 have been terrible to witness and  a revelation for millions, regarding the sorry state of commercial animal feed. Foods pet lovers had come to trust – even some of the better brands – were linked to poisonings, severe illness and death. Five years later, the original crisis has passed, but recalls (foods contaminated with aflatoxin, salmonella, excess Vitamin D and much more) continue to abound.   If anything positive can be said to have come from it all, it’s that more and more  dog and cat lovers have come to realize the  many problems associated with commercial foods, and begun to either purchase higher quality products, make their own food, or a combination of both. For me, as a clinical nutritionist working with mostly therapeutic diets for dogs, it’s been heartening to see the care people take to learn about nutrition and feed their best friends much better quality food. As an herbalist, I hope also to encourage more animal lovers to explore and become familiar with herbs for common canine, feline and equine conditions – both preventively and therapeutically.  While diet is known to contribute to all kinds of health issues from diabetes to cancer, so too can overuse of vaccinations, steroidal drugs, pesticides and antibiotics contribute to many degenerative diseases including epilepsy, arthritis,  a wide range of digestive issues, liver and renal disease, and cancer.

Many of these drugs can be minimized, or avoided entirely with careful use of plant medicine. Before just starting, however, there are a few key points to consider when working with animals. Chief among them are; metabolic uniqueness of other species, dosing, and method of administration.  These three concepts must always be considered and adjusted accordingly for the species and the individual.  Safe and effective use of herbs for animals begins  with these considerations.

Metabolic Uniqueness

Dogs, cats and horses, not to mention birds and reptiles –  break down, absorb and metabolize  plant constituents differently from each other, and from how we do. While it’s beyond the scope of this article to cover even a portion of these differences,  consider the feline sensitivity to salicylates (willow bark, meadowsweet) equine reaction to black walnut (toxic) and the canine predisposition to calcium oxalate crystals and stones ( many plants are high in oxalic acid).  Diets high in oxalate can negatively affect calcium absorption, and with many home made diets already borderline to low in this essential mineral, it’s important to watch the oxalate content of any herb given longterm. The idea here is to  know your species; for a herbalist familiar with plant use in humans, this can mean simply reading up on the specifics of the animal, their species, condition and breed. For someone starting out with herbs, it means learning the Constituents of the plant, as well as the animal’s unique tendencies and reactions. .Dosing too is critical here, as we consider how very much smaller (or larger!) our companion animals usually are. Once I have ascertained which plants I want to use for a specific animal, I will most often start almost homeopathically small, dosewise, unless we are facing an urgent scenario.  Beyond species and breed, individual dogs, cats, horses have widely differing metabolic rates. I work from the lowest –amount- needed principle. As with humans, many herbs are ineffective at too low a dose, very helpful at the right dose, and potentially toxic at too high. In general beginners should stay with that group of plants we consider safe. I’ll cover a few of these at the end of the article.

Delivery Method

This is a topic animal herbalists often disagree on;  I recently attended an AHG webinar with the acclaimed author Greg Tilford, who states categorically that glycerites are his favorite method of delivery, because they are well tolerated and can even be “squirted directly in the mouth”. With much respect for Tilford I use glycerites as a last resort. In my own practise, I’ve found low doses of alcohol-extracted tincture, well diluted, to be well accepted in food, and even higher ones if the food is particularly savoury. For herbs best delivered on an empty stomach, or for sensitive animals who won’t touch tincture, there are other options. I use freshly ground milk thistle directly in food as a hepatorestorative, for healthy dogs,  two or three times a year.  I make herbal honeys with many  plants, or pastilles which can be administered directly or in food, I infuse fresh and dried leaf and flower in water and ladle it into small meals throughout the day. Obviously, I don’t use honey or elixir with diabetics, alcohol tinctures with liver disease, or infused vinegar with some gastric disorders. The key here is to cultivate a wide range of tools in one’s kit and apply them with skill to the individual – again, species, but here, condition and compliance. The delivery method must suit the condition, the dose should start small and increase cautiously, and the animal has to accept the method. I have a cat with asthma who loves her complex respiratory (alcohol) blend right in her food. She’s always been a good eater, other cats will not even take a taste of  their favorite food if there’s a few drops of  tincture, but will accept a herbal honey or glycerite readily. There are multiple factors to consider when selecting one or more herbs for your companion animal. They can be challenging. But each one is a teacher.


As with humans, animals can metabolize quite differently from one to another, with variations reliant on a number of factors.  My personal protocol is to familiarize myself with the veterinary dosing suggestions and work from the lowest to the point of efficacy – just as I would with a human. With many herbs, the range is huge with the safe and gentle healers most people use outside of clinical settings; consider the range for administration of dried Dandelion leaf; “ 50 –400 mgs per kg bodyweight,  divided daily” – that’s a wide range indeed. We must also consider the potential for an allergic response – it’s just as important with animals as with humans to take a good history if working clinically, or to bear in mind your own friend’s sensitivities before choosing herbs. Lastly, duration of the therapy will depend on whether the condition is acute or chronic, and I always dose for a week and then rest, unless working with very gentle trophorestoratives /tonics such as milky oats or hawthorn.

One guideline, which I may or may not use, is to dose by  using an amount proportionate to the human recommendation, if the dose for a 150 human is 15 drops BID and your dog weighs 30 pounds, use3-4 drops BID (of tincture). Because this method is safe, it is fine to use in most cases, but the risk is lack of efficacy. When I cover herbs for specific conditions, as well as on my blog, I will always provide a more precise dose and duration range. When in doubt, less is more, and check a good reference. I recommend Veterinary Herbal Medicine by Susan Wynn and Barbara Fougere for a clinical ,but reliable source of information.


This last section is personally important to me, as I have grown to prefer the use of local, abundant plants (for both human and animal medicine)  over the popular commercial herbs; some endangered, (slippery elm, goldenseal) others simply  come  from very far away (Devil’s Claw, most TCM formulas). While there are times when only a herb such as Goldenseal will do, in an overwhelming majority of cases, we have plenty of marvelous plants right here that can be used alone or in formula, with great result. I will discuss herbs for specific conditions in upcoming issues, but a brief overview here might be helpful. Some local and abundant plants I use all the time would have to include:

1)      Plantain, evening primrose,calendula and mallow (IBD, colitis, skin conditions)

2)      Hawthorn and Motherwort  ( cardiotonics)

3) Stinging nettle, goldenrod, ground ivy (allergy, kidney disease)

4) Dandelion, Burdock, Balmony (liver tonics)

5) Gravel root, mallows, agrimony, stinging nettle seed, corn silk, juniper berry, uva ursi, aspen ( kidney and bladder conditions)

6) Elderflower and berry, yarrow,elecampane, usnea, mullein (feline rhinitis, kennel cough in dogs, any viral or bacterial infection)

7) Goldenrod, mullein, elecampane, coltsfoot ( asthma, rhinitis, kennel cough)

8) Vervain, skullcap, milky oats,  wild chamomile,  wild lettuce, mullein, peach leaf,St. John’s Wort, rose ( anxiety)

9) Teasel root (Lyme disease)

10) White oak bark, self heal,  plantain,sage (periodontal disease)

11) Raspberry leaf, false unicorn, beth root, shepherd’s purse (uterine tonic)

12)  Bacterial diarrhea( blackberry root powder, raspberry leaf, wild garlic)

13) Comfrey, usnea, calendula, plantain, aspen, rose, St. Jon’s Wort  (wounds, bites, rashes and stings)

14) Male fern, mugwort, pineapple weed, elecampane,wild garlic  (internal parasites)

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it imply that the commercial herbs have no place in our natural care for animals; certainly Devil’s claw, goldenseal, yucca, turmeric and assorted other plant healers from other parts of the world are indicated in many cases. Many holistic vets have taken an interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine, using herbs from very far away indeed. For the home herbalist wishing to replace or minimize veterinary drugs and chemicals with gentler methods, I like to emphasize the abundance and availability (and efficacy!) of local plants. In future articles I will look at common canine and feline issues, and how one can use herbs both preventively and therapeutically for each. Natural – gentle – and effective.


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