In the ashes – again

This afternoon I took a break to spend time with my sorrow, the fresh and the old – long experience tells me this is necessary, and that ignoring it will only lead to fatigue, apathy and a need to keep distracted all the time…instead of a nap, which I allow myself on very tough days,  I read a little from Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow, which arrived yesterday. Almost right away I felt myself wandering in shadow, through not only this recent loss but so many others – humans and other animals I have loved and lost, the tragedy of my father dying without reconciliation, the tragedy of me ever thinking it was possible  we would – losing our home (we have to move next year) breaking of ties with two of my best friends last year, and the larger framework of what is happening all over the world (the first thing that greeted me when I sat down to write, was a horror story about elephant abuse, how does anyone stay sane with it all?) ….but, the time spent in contemplation of and connection with sorrow is time well spent. I am thinking of course about Amidala, who died  almost two weeks ago, suddenly, and who has left a scar on my heart that I cannot describe.  The empty space on the sofa where she always lay, invited me to remember her,  actually sense her impression, her spirit, as I read.  Her physical being is gone, and my final memory will be her beautiful tail and one little foot sticking out from under my shawl, the one I chose to wrap and bury her in..lifeless. Yet here she is, in absence, still here in spirit.Close by me as I read, once again,  about how to manage the loss of a friend I had cherished and adored…and lost.

And suddenly I remembered The Bat – a tiny, bright-eyed, super-inquisitive and cheerful little black cat that the House Viking rescued and brought home, years ago….an outstandingly clever and sweet- tempered little spirit. After only a few months here, she began to show breathing problems, worse and worse, and when it became clear we had to take her in, the diagnosis was advanced heart failure – she would drown in lung fluid, if untreated, and if treated would not have more than a few weeks or even days anyway. We opted to let her go, that day, rather than extend suffering and delay the inevitable. Alone with her in the examining room, I  felt myself flood with pain as she watched the birds outside, so excited and bright, even as she struggled to breathe and the fluid in her lungs rattled with every attempt. I sat quietly and watched the enormous light in this cat, not more than a year old, and I held her as the needle went in, and she looked up at the vet as if to say..”what’s this, then?”…just as she would when I brought in herbs, or opened the fridge door, or carried groceries into the house.
Always curious – sweet to the core, and gone so soon.

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The Bat – not feeling well at all

It was that visit, that awful day,  that brought zhouzhou to me  a few weeks later- had I not gone into theclinic with Batia, and spent so long there, waiting for Xrays and making the decision, I wouldn’t have chatted with the receptionist, told her how I do a little cat rescue, how we came to have our various animals, and she wouldn’t have had my number to call a few weeks later when zhouzhou and her brother were brought in to be PTS, as no one had any time or love for them at all. 6 years later, zhouzhou is content here and so well loved –  the cycle turns and one precious friend is lost, and in time, another one comes – not to replace, but to balance your pain with joy and happiness, again.

Opening Wheeler’s book, I read the quote from Terry Tempest Williams – “Grief dares us to love once more”.  When we love other species, and are fated to lose them over and over, this dare becomes a challenge it is tempting to ignore. But I won’t ignore it. I am just sick with the loss of Amidala, whom I’ve written about on Facebook and will ultimately write more about here, as I can.  Just “pain-saturated”, I am right now.  But the time will come to welcome  another, and there is always this ocean of love for those that are here, and on a larger scale, all animals everywhere (with all the pain that brings).

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Now; whatever you believe, I have deep feelings about life and death, and beyond the universality of suffering, we all have our gnosis.  After I spent the time I needed with book and pain and quiet opening, I got up to start tea and finish the work of the day, in my office. Strangely silent here with Korky resting and all the furbearers too lethargic to be making commotion, I sat down and started opening my Files. Within a minute, off to my left, a rustle, and a familiar (no pun intended) sensation of chill and awareness. I quickly realized the time  – Amidala’s time, the hour of day she always jumped on the desk to my left and demanded attention. I sat looking at the empty space, frozen, really – and out of nowhere, a whole stack of client files fell over, covering the emptiness. It is a completely still day, not the whisper of a breeze. I looked at all the work to be done and realized, work is both my salvation and my mission, and also the thing that takes me away from what I cherish. I remembered all the times I REALLY wanted to get something done, and there she was, wanting to play, hard to resist but still “inconvenient “.    Sitting here today, files all over the desk, I felt the Hand of the Unseen, all through and around me.         Loss and hope, pain and gratitude.

As grieving well will always bring.

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The beauteous Amidala

So now, I get to work. On this client case I am almost through – and on the much harder task of staying soft, and open, in the grey silence of sorrow. With the presence of absence close by, and the inevitable ache of having loved a vulnerable little being, with all of one’s heart.

Till we meet again, my faerie. Till we all, all of us, meet again.

marta orlowska

On the Death of the Porcupette

Not a herbal post today… not a happy post. This one can get filed in,a new category called “Tiredness”: I am tired of my empathy, tired of “humanity” and sick in my heart about a sweet faced, unassuming little spiny creature hacked to pieces by a farmer today.

Porcupette, little one. I hate that you had to live in this world. I hate that I knew you were going to die. Most of all, right now, I hate that black hearted farmer. I’m not in a good place. We humans, we have to do better. And, I despair, at the same time I summon all the hope I can.

The farmer started the hay harvest today and he plowed right over the little fellow I was talking with yesterday.

Yesterday: I was sitting out back, talking to Alex on the phone, getting my bit of VitaminD. Watching the birds and sky. Circle of cats,  Ridgeback at my side. The back field was half-cut; on the left, the cut side, a movement of something black and thoughtful. Not a runner, not a cat. Lumbering, a little. Too small for a fisher, and they never come out in mid day. A skunk? “Hold on” I say to my partner “I think there’s a skunk out there. I’ll call you back”.

Danny knows the second I see, or think I see, something moving out back. It’s uncanny how I can raise the binos fifty times to look at a bird, and he never bats an eyelash. The second I see a fox, a coyote, a deer, he’s on his feet with all the fur around his ridge standing up, every muscle and nerve just crackling. He did that yesterday. I had to disappoint him, and head out to the field on my own.
There he was. A young porcupine, a “porcupette”. Ambling, lazily, delighted in the day. He stood up and eyed me, not without consternation, but no evidence of panic. “Hey” I said, affably “Porcupine. I am so pleased to meet you. Can I ask, that you don’t go into that yard there? It never ends well, I have three big canids.” I was struck by how beautiful this fellow was, cute, yes but beautiful too, a wild creature at ease with the world, eating, sniffing, exploring it all. After a few more minutes of a somewhat one-sided conversation, he decided the only way I was going to stop talking, and let him enjoy the day, was if he  headed off in the other direction. Which he did.

I came in, and immediately posted to a forum I run. I wished I’d had my camera, but I didn’t think he would still be there if I ran back out and I didn’t want to chase  or worry him. I found a picture that looked like him. Here it is.

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And then, while I carried his image in my heart all day, I went about my business – working, herbing, the usual. This morning, taking coffee on the porch out back, I saw him again, further up the hill. “Well” I thought, “I best not take the dogs out there for a bit. ”
And then the darkness overtook me and I had such a terrible premonition. I had to shake myself out of it – no no no no no. I was shaken up, but told myself as I sometimes will, not to trust the “irrational” – it’s my fear talking. But, I know those flashes. I know them well.

An hour later the farmer came out to cut the rest of the field and my heart literally shook in my chest. I knew, right then, what was about to happen. And of course, no way to stop it. No way at all. He cut the field, and I tried to calm myself with passionflower and chamomile  and roses, wishing I had some Monotropa. One’s heart can only take so much. It seems we are surrounded with suffering in the animal kingdom, is this a trial by fire I must endure?  As soon as the cutting was over, I went out. I followed the turkey vultures who are quick to land and spread their wings in a show of ownership of the find. It’s ok, they are necessary and important.But I HAD to walk that hill and find it: the pathetic, mutilated body of my little friend, with his unassuming ways, sweet face and abundant delight in life.
What can we do, but weep…

One thing I take away from these observations (I have found groundhogs before, and last year, most horribly for me, a fawn) is that even the elimination of meat from our diets will not ensure that animals do not suffer at our hands. If one small field can beget such suffering, think of the whole agricultural world. Countless millions of small wild animals and ground nesting birds die horribly every year. Limiting or eliminating meat and dairy is great, if you can do it – but so important to grow food, buy locally, support small operations….we humans are doing things wrong, doing things all centered on and geared toward growth and profit and exploitation, and these innocent creatures will suffer. Not *just* in our laboratories and factory farms and in legholds everywhere, but in the fields that produce our grains and hay. A true spiritual species would never allow any of this to occur. And what can we do? well, for today, I will just light a candle and say a prayer – for all the animals slaughtered and suffering at our merciless, blind and selfish hands.

As a  Pagan, I turn to Brigid, often, for solace and support, spiritual guidance and healing. Just yesterday, a writer I admire posted a prayer to Brigid on her blog. And these lines seem especially applicable.

Holy Brigid:
In these times of grief and anger
And these days of stolen lives…
Pour out the quenching waters from your well.
Come, bathe our tear stained faces.

We call to you with voices raised.

http://www.thorncoyle.com/blog/2015/07/03/a-prayer-for-troubling-times/

I think I will adapt this as a prayer to Flidais, in memory of, my porcupette…and all the days he will not know.

Little porcupette, I will never forget you.

porcupine

Hope

Hope

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson

Today, Christmas Day 2013, in the face of both personal and global difficulty, I am wanting to think about, talk about, and replenish my own store of hope.

And yes, I know that can sound corny and cliche. I don’t care, to be perfectly blunt about it all. I believe this is a powerful and necessary thing, this hope the poet writes of. I believe it is no longer a thing of luxury or related in any way to ambition; it’s a signpost of spiritual courage and it is the only thing left to do in so much overwhelming craziness all around us.

I don’t believe in a lot of the things Christians do, but I like their Jesus and I love the power of hope they write of so eloquently. Hope is the thing with feathers. Hope is an act of courage. We hope despite how empty we feel, like we feed the animals and go to work on our darkest days. Hope will, along with beauty, save the world.

Or not, but it was still the right thing to do.

I am not in any way speaking down to depressed people, because too well I know what depression does. But for the rest of us – we just simply cannot give up hope. I know a few still believe technology will save us, or that things “have” to get better, or that if we’re all about to expire, well that’s the way it’s “supposed” to be.But I beg to differ. Courage – real, raw, souldeep courage – is not popular or sexy, and it may well not save anything. It  takes enormous courage to maintain hope, work at it and use it as a spiritual discipline in the face of knowing the truth and the facts about our dire global predicament(not to mention the massive Sodom and Gomorrah the world has turned into).

So, here is what I propose for the year ahead, 2014.

As always, start with kindness. (Yes, I am always harping on this too). ..and move into using hope as a deep offering and discipline. DO NOT SUCCUMB TO FALSE,NARCISSISTIC POSITIVISM ON THE ONE HAND , OR DESPAIR ON THE OTHER. Hope is a subtler thing than these extremes, it is nuanced and powerful and may even carry us beyond the gates of death. Start without expectation, without self-focus, but stay in hope…..and then – all important – act like you believe it is possible. What would you do, how would you behave and live if the constant threat of our extermination was not hanging above you? I remember when it was imminent/probable but not inescapable; I lived in passionate promise, I worked on the inner plane and the outer for a better world. I had not yet reached the inertia point, that horrible moment when you are dead before you are physically dead. I don’t believe in the Christian Satan,not literally anyway –  but if there was one, surely this deadening of human passion and potential would be his signature on this earth.

So, while a large part of my egoic self is in despair, both personally and globally, I will not give in to it. The shape and quality of my hoping is radically, necessarily different from that of my youth, or even ten years ago when I still felt that things were generally going to be ok. It’s a fierce hope, a non-personal hope, maybe even a transpersonal one. It’s the same grit that drives us to work out when we are 60, to start a new business that is more geared to helping others than making a zilllion dollars, or that moves us to go back to school even if we know what we are studying will never make us rich.

It’s defiance, it’s unshakable – and it’s beautiful.

Walk this path with me. Fight for what you believe in even when it’s the hardest – stand your ground, stand in your truth,as the saying goes. Keep believing that we humans CAN behave as stewards of the earth and not destroyers – believe that we can learn from and cherish our differences, believe that your life can matter and make a difference.

Keep the faith – walk in hope, no matter how hard it may be(and I know, believe me, it can be damn hard).

And maybe – just maybe – we will change the world.

Goodbye, Shadow-tail

Day before yesterday I was out back, walking with Dan as I often do, through the small woodland to the east, that opens up to a wide, gorgeous vista of pasture, hawthorn-lined winding stream and a horizon of farflung, misty Hills…  walking, a little uncomfortably, as my boots sank to the ankle in newly softened snow, as my feet slipped from time to time on slushy stone beneath the melting mantle of white.  Winter has finally begun to fade, and the inevitable transition time is both joyous and messy, energizing and stinky – spring, like any birth is filled with contrasting energies and sensations. For Daniel, it seems, the joy greatly outweighs any perception of difficulty – he sinks, once in awhile, to his shoulders in a soft bank of snow, looks furtively toward me as if to see if I’ve noticed – and on he goes. The more it all melts, the more stinky wet earth he can revel in, the happier he is. I walk alongside him in admiration and amusement.

I love these woods, I think I’ve said that. The Hills really – although, at times (like right now) they are so haunted as to be almost too painful to bear. As we walk, Danny oblivious to ought but the smells, I feel the ghosts all around and within me – the hopes I carried up here 21 years ago, the house I first lived in, in a place called The Swamp – the dream of a family I once felt, when first with my partner, and his little house with his sister – the loss of John, the loss of Lila, the traumatic death of Luke. Time starts to tunnel for me – it’s as thought I can feel, palpably, the pain, hope, sorrow, joy and happiness of all these years, loves, dreams and defeats, all at once, as I walk through slushy trails and try not to slip. But you know, I try to stay balanced and grateful. Somedays it’s too easy..other days, especially around April, not so much.
Still, somehow, the forest always heals.

Often, the walk into the forest is  mixed up with fragments of workstuff, anger, petty concerns about my daily life, the pressure of a never ending to-do list, but the walk back is clear, pure and unfettered by monkey-mind. It takes a half hour amongst the pines to get myself sorted; then I can feel, again, not just whirl about in my head, like a maniac. It’s always a disappointment to know I have to return to the maelstrom – but I’ve chosen much of this, and the rest, the parts I didn’t – whoever said life was going to be simple, fair, or easy?
So – day before yesterday, I am walking back from the sit-spot at the end of the trail, calmed and contented, when I see her. I’m not sure how Dan missed her lifeless body, lying facedown in the snow beside a recently cut hemlock – overwhelmed, perhaps, by other intrigues – or maybe, as it’s always possible, I was meant to stand still a moment in prayer.  I wish I’d had a camera, but then I think – why? Her little body, tail  across her back in what struck me as a gesture of farewell, will stay with me, I won’t need a record.  A small dead squirrel, just a step off the trail; unusual. What was she doing there, amongst the piles of severed branches, the lush green against the pure white snow, a bloody streak of black that seemed so out of place?
And then it hit; the waves of empathy, universal love and some kind of …knowledge about this individual, what hr life was like and how she died… I have never really known  where it comes  from, but it’s there; I’m riveted, standing over the small black body – not just feeling sadness , but knowing her life. Before I roll her over to see the bullet hole straight through her body, I know; this tree was her home – and I know, too, by her enlarged teats there were babies in the nest with her. I dare not go to look for them. I am overwhelmed with pain.
This is a small wooded area, that stops abruptly and opens to pasture and meadow, as I described above. I feel, no I know, how happy this wild being was in her tree. Other areas nearby are rife with animal activity – bear scat and claw marks on trees; wolf, coyote and deer fur against favored rubs, occasional carcasses and quills from porcupines; beaver-chewed tree stumps, much, much birdsong. But this little part of the local forest is quieter. It’s owned by a local who has no qualms killing a  den of foxes, two parents and a litter of kits; chopping down a venerable old oak, spraying herbicides (legal and outlawed varieties) everywhere, targeting goldenrod and wild carrot and Solomon’s Seal. Here in this place, animals, though present, have learned to be scarce.Few visit regularly and fewer still, make their home. I bless the land every single time I pass through.

I can feel my little squirrel rejoicing in what she experienced as her quiet,safe home in this tree.

So few predators. So wild and sweet. I can feel her exuberant, clever squirrel-like happiness.
And then the gunshot.
So, I ask myself, weeping, why did he need to kill her? Was it not enough to take her home and, most likely in March, her young ones in their nest? Why kill her as well? And leave her bloody body tail up, face down in the snow.

Honestly?  this was a tragedy. It was for her, anyway – and I can feel it. Don’t go telling me to consider what squirrel-medicine means; I’ve learned some from them over the years, but this isn’t about me.It’s not about how I should start hoarding a little and  on and on. It’s about how my species thinks of and treats the Others.
Danny catches up, I leash him and have to coax vigorously to get him away. We have to go home now, anyway; the sun is dropping, I have to get dinner started, and everyone fed.

I’ll come back, I say to myself, come back without Dan, I’ll lay a wreath here, say a prayer. But part of me knows I won’t, that I can’t stand the empathy and I go nowhere without Dan. So I carry the pain home with me, a sharp hurt in my solar plexus. I know a million squirrels die every day. I know I can’t save everyone. But it’s the story here that hurts – her innocent love of her life,  and trust in this bit of the wild. And the callous taking of it all from her, like it was nothing.

I send you my love, little tree-dweller…shadow-tail, iora glas, atchidamoy…clever one, tail -in- the- air.  You deserved much better.
I carry you with me, now too. I keep your memory within.

Working with Animals – getting started

In my work with animals I am often asked what herbs people should get for a “start-up” kit – not exactly First Aid, which entails specific items for emergencies, but a general kind of “what herbs (and in which form) should I buy or make to get going with helping animals”? So, in this article I’ll make a few suggestions, useful for anyone just starting out, and hopefully some ideas for the more advanced herbalist, too.

Working with cats and dogs is, on one level, much like working with people; before we administer anything herbal, we have to evaluate the individual . We need to consider not just the herbs themselves, but which form to use, and of course, what dose to use. Beyond that, we want to consider if the herb will be used longterm or short, and in the case of the former, carefully evaluate any health conditions the animal may have. This is important with short term herbal choices as well, but when a specific formula or even one plant is used longterm, it may not only exacerbate existing conditions but promote the development of new ones, in the carnivore.  High oxalate herbs should never be used longterm with dogs or cats, for one example. But the core of our work is to establish the form – given the fact many animals simply will not be persuaded to ingest infusion – and also which dose we will use. The latter here is quite simple for me – I start at the low end of the therapeutic range and build levels only as indicated.  I tend to use tincture or glycerite most of the time, but some herbs (Marshmallow comes to mind) are probably most effective given in infusion, so  get creative about how to slip it into the food.  I use  green tripe, special home made recipes, or honey – not peanut butter, cheese and other foods not optimal for dogs. In cases of urgent need, and with herbs such as milk thistle that aren’t so great in tincture – I use capsules. Depending on the animal, herb and condition, we can look to tinctures, glycerites, infusion, capsules and pastilles – but let’s start with a few basics the Animal Herbalist can rely on in a very general sense.

Note: this list does not cover medicine-making, but assumes you are just working with purchased products – at least for now. Because this article will go on forever if I start to recommend doses , I will cover  the range in my next installment; for those who want to start right now, an excellent resource is listed at the end of this article.  For now, here’s the basic starter kit. I’ve emphasized local herbs and those that do double duty, for example chamomile as a relaxing nervine (to help an anxious animal relax) and as a soothing carminative for upset stomach and gas.

Tinctures and Glycerites:  Echinacea, Mullein leaf, Hawthorn berry, Calendula, dandelion (root and leaf) plus, a nervine , respiratory and a urinary formula, and perhaps one for pain. I say “perhaps” because there are many kinds of pain and it is always best addressed according to type; that said, a general formula can be a blessing, in acute or chronic scenarios. If you prefer glycerites to tinctures – there are pros and cons to both – some lovely products available here:

http://www.herbalist-alchemist.com/shop/index.php?shop=1&cat=13
A few examples of formulas I like:

1) This is an excellent nervine formula, but you can of course work with individual herbs and experiment. I encourage you to do so! http://www.animalessentials.com/#products:66

2) Mountainrose Herbs has a line of herbal formulas I have used with animals over the years, and especially like the Bladder Care and Respiratory Blends here: http://www.mountainroseherbs.com/extract/combin.html

3)  For pain, I often combine Corydalis and Meadowsweet with a relaxing nervine like Skullcap. A good formula can help a lot, but look for something with a nervine and possibly an anti-spasmodic like lobelia.  Be aware that cats in particular should not have a lot of salicylic acid, so go easy on both White Willow bark and meadowsweet.  Devil’s Claw is a superb anti-inflammatory and included in many formulas for pain,  but it is contraindicated for dogs n heart medication. One popular formula is a capsule called “DGP” – DoggonePain – and  can be used for most dogs with arthritic soreness. It contains, among other things, Boswellia, Corydalis, Cayenne, Feverfew and Turmeric.
http://dgpforpets.com/DGP-Ingredients-and-Usage.shtml

Powdered herb: Goldenseal, Marshmallow root, slippery elm, blackberry root

With just these four, you have a powerful  herb to use topically for infection;  Mallow is the  “bandaid for the stomach” you can use for dogs undergoing chemo or with any kind of gastric upset; Elm is endgangered but has its place especially with IBD and dogs who need extra nutritional support, and blackberry is a superb plant for diarrhea. Give in food, or honey, or  home made capsules if need be.

Dried herb: Yarrow, elderflower, nettle, calendula, marshmallow leaf and root, milk thistle seed, burdock root, chamomile

This list – all of which can be made into infusion, placed directly in food,  or used externally as washes/compresses – covers a wide range of uses. Yarrow, elderflower, calendula and chamomile are all superb herbs for the skin, as such can be used in rinses, compresses, poultices and home made salves. Internally they can be used for infectious conditions(yarrow and elder) for gastritis(calendula and chamomile) and anxiety (chamomile alone or with other nerviness, such as lemon balm, skullcap, passionflower, and others). Milk thistle is THE go-to herb for liver problems or just for general support; think of adding freshly ground seed in small amounts regularly to the diet, or a standardized extract of silymarin for acute conditions.
Stinging Nettle is a classic herb for animals who suffer with seasonal allergies. Make an infusion of the dried leaf and add daily, starting about four weeks prior to the allergy season. (Dietary changes, fish oils, other cooling herbs can ease symptoms a great deal as well).

Essential Oils: I never, ever use these with cats, as they are unable to metabolize them at all,and can die as a result of ingestion. Dogs can handle a little bit in dilution, but for the beginner I really only suggest lavender and tea tree, both of which are very useful but should be used with caution – and never internally.

Additionally you will want to have on hand:  Honey  – sometimes the only way to get that tincture into a reticent dog or cat is to sweeten it. A small amount of good quality honey can mask a few drops of tincture, or you can stir in a powdered herb such as mallow root, or elm and feed it directly.

Rescue Remedy (Bach Flower Essences)

Traumeel – by Zeel, a homeopathic blend used for animals in distress or pain

A good basic salve,  perhaps made with calendula, plantain, chickweed or other mild safe herbs – for skin rashes and insect stings

Green tea bags – for hot spots

Apple Cider vinegar

Therapeutic clay – to mix with goldenseal and perhaps some tincture, apply to abscess or other sores

Gauze

Cotton

A thermometer

Tape

Scissors, tweezers, magnifying glass

Cheesecloth

Mason jars for storage (and for any infusions or other medicines you may make)

Cheesecloth, a small and a medium sized sieve

Measuring spoons and cups

Gelatin capsules (for filling with powdered herb)

Plenty of blankets and towels

A hot water bottle (NOT an electric heating pad)

Olive oil and beeswax, in case you are up to making your own gentle salves

And – very important! A good veterinary herbal that can help you make choices about herbs and dosing them safely and effectively. I highly recommend Veterinary Herbal Medicine by Drs. Susan Wynn and Barbara Fougeres. It’s THE reference book for both  the home herbalist, and the clinician working with animals.

http://www.amazon.ca/Veterinary-Herbal-Medicine-Susan-Wynn/dp/0323029981

Next article I will take a look at conditions, and how  all the herbs in your starter kit can be used most effectively. Until then – hug your furfriends, and eat the weeds.

Cat

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.

Dosing

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.

Sources

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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