Rescued animals of all species, ages, and backgrounds can present with a range of physical and emotional issues –which are very often, if not always obviously, deeply connected. Some of these problems are apparent immediately, while others will emerge over time.
To what extent they will pose a challenge to the guardian, depends on the severity and duration of the abuse or neglect; the type of abuse, and the temperament of the animal. Some typical rescue issues can be resolved through dietary adjustments, veterinary care as indicated, exercise, affection and time. Others – older animals, those who are not resilient by nature, and all victims of prolonged/severe abuse and neglect, will invariably bring multiple issues to the table. In these cases, a multi-tiered effort is usually essential – one that includes behaviour modifications, therapies such as Bowen or TTouch, as well as veterinary, dietary and herbal support. Sometimes with these cases we have to think in terms of changing the ratio, rather than total recovery, or what we believe a” total recovery” ought to look like. Each case is unique, and with severely traumatized animals we may have a long haul ahead; we may never “achieve normalcy” at all, but just carry the animal forward to a place of less suffering. In my own work “normalcy” isn’t even a goal; I do what I can to alleviate suffering. Once the animal is happier, it’s important to both allow them to be who they are, accepting some idiosynracies, and still remain open to ongoing adjustments. My cat Mithrandir (case study below) is both very much more confident than he was when I rescued him, and still flighty and ungrounded some of the time. I accept and delight in him as he is now, so very different from the terrified, completely shutdown fellow he was when I first brought him home – but still liable to fly off my lap if anything startles him.
We do what we can.
Whether you are setting up a specific type of rescue, or fostering for a breed group, or simply taking one needy animal into your home, herbs can play a very important role in helping to adjust the newcomer to his or her surroundings, and alleviate the symptoms of tension, fear, pain and more. In this article, I’d like to look at some of the typical issues animal rescuers face, particularly behavioural/emotional, and offer some strategies for support.
TYPICAL HEALTH PROBLEMS
The list of health problems we typically see in rescue work is long; some are species-specific, some not. Some health conditions are acquired as a result of neglect, some may be the reason the animal was abandoned/surrendered in the first place (owner could not afford vet care or deal with the problem effectively). Some are very challenging. It’s important to be clear about what you can handle, in this regard. Your rescue animal may place demands on you that exceed what you can reasonably provide – most of us have taken on too many animals or really tough cases without hesitation because we saw a need. But many conditions, such as feline herpes virus or separation anxiety, can be tough to live with. The worst thing for an abused or emotionally scarred animal is to start settling into a new home only to be ousted again. Talk to your vet, to others in rescue and be sure you know exactly how much time and money a rescue with a specific health problem will cost.
Be sure you understand the nutritional, housing, and health requirements involved.
Some very common physical issues with rescue animals include:
Malnourishment, fleas, assorted skin issues, GI distress/parasites, chronic pain, arthritis, food intolerance, allergy, Lyme disease (or other tick-borne illness) hypothyroidism, heartworm
Cats may have been exposed to FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) or Feline Leukemia virus – they should be screened for these prior to introduction into your household. Shelter cats often carry some variety of Upper Respiratory Tract Infection, and while I have had much success with herbal and dietary management in my own cats, it can take time to find what works for an individual.
Older animals of any species can present with a range of health problems including cardiovascular disease and cognitive dysfunction. Many geriatrics have a harder time adjusting to the loss of a family and integration into a new one, too.
TYPICAL BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS
The following are pretty general and many overlap – “anxiety” is vague, but I mean it here to indicate either a generalized state of fearfulness or else fear with regard to situations, people or objects. Anxiety/fear can be a factor in aggression, clinginess, and a host of other issues, but I’m evaluating them individually here because I’ve found nuance between them in terms of herbal support. “Aggression” is a huge topic on its own – there are resources at the end of the article for exploration of the many factors that create aggression, the various types – for our purposes this refers to the rescue animal who is showing aggression towards human or other animals either in general or specific to situations(such as resource guarding). In all cases of aggression, the rescuer should be experienced in the safe handling of these animals and be willing to work with a professional as well. In my own experience, herbs alone are rarely all we need for an animal whose response to abuse is now to aggress outwardly.
- Anxiety – almost all animals in a new situation will experience some anxiety, at least initially, but the goal is to help it settle down as he or she adapts to the new surroundings. For many dogs and cats, some will linger, or revolve around triggers, which should be identified as soon as possible. In some cases, too, the anxiety may be severe or prolonged, and this is a case for a different herbal approach, both in terms of selection and dosing. As always dosing is individual, but I have found some cases where simply using a higher dose of what appeared to not be working, was in fact helpful, without searching for all kinds of new formulas. (I tend to start with low/moderate dosing and build as indicated) Simple anxiety manifests as whining, shaking, pacing, fearful expression and body posture, inappetance and general timidity in the dog, and in cats, usually hiding, reclusive behaviour. Some other manifestations discussed below.
- Aggression – The first thing to know about the aggressive rescue animal is this; the situation may be too much for you to handle. Cats tend to come out of initial periods of lashing out and do not regress (see the story of Marta, below) whereas with dogs, there can be what’s known as escalation, a process by which aggression in one situation moves to a different trigger- and from aggression with warning signs aggression with none at all, the most dangerous type of all. In my own experience, cats respond more to herbs for aggression than dogs, and most rescue-related feline aggression is fear based and resolves over time, with or without herbs (as long as careful behavioural measures are taken). Aggression in dogs has many expressions and many causes, ranging from chronic pain to untreated thyroid disease to the fear and anxiety of a new home, new animals. I urge anyone with an aggressive rescue to bring in a behavourist who knows and has worked with modern dog training methods and specifically, with aggression in dogs. A thorough veterinary check is in order – I am always harping on full panel thyroid testing (1, 2) but this condition is exceedingly common, incredibly underdiagnosed and often, manifests only as behavioural changes. If you feel a rescue dog is only situationally aggressive, be aware that the problem can escalate even after it has appeared to settle down. Rescue work will soon disabuse people of many assumptions, chief amongst them is the fantasy we all carry, at least in the beginning, that we are “Animal Whisperers” and hence, nothing bad can ever happen to US…the takeaway message here is, we may indeed have skills and gifts with other species ,but we can still get hurt. Learning to read animal body language is so important, and understanding that sometimes, an animal is not right for your situation. I have rehomed very disruptive fosters on occasion, after every approach had been exhausted, because I knew these individuals would be better off in a family with no other animals or with more exercise than I could offer. It should be emphasized that the needs of your current family – human and animal- have to be given equal consideration. All rescue workers have to accept there are those you cannot work with – but with such a wide range of resources now available to help foster and rehome animals, there will usually be someone who can. Aggression, especially in dogs, is one of these scenarios.All that said – there are cases whereby pain relief, better diet, a reliable structured schedule, and carefully selected herbs can all make huge difference to a dog who might have exhibited aggression initially. And cats are very responsive. As always, the more we know about the history, the better we are equipped to make herbal choices that will ease the transition to a new home.
- Withdrawal, shutdown – although this is a very familiar scenario with cats, I’ve both worked with and had my own shutdown rescue dogs, too. Hiding is very much a feline thing, and here you want to work with a formulation that helps relieve tension, open the heart and build confidence. One of my own cats, Franklin, spent three weeks in the wall (literally, IN the WALL) and all we could do was offer food (he ate at night) change the water and litter box. I would sit beside the entry to the wall and talk to him, and I’d hear rustling, but he was not coming out. I began to add herbs (in glycerin) to his food, including Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) a very little Sage (Salvia officinalis) and some Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) …it can be difficult to say for sure whether the herbs brought about the change, or three weeks was just long enough, but not long afterwards, Frank came out. To this day, my partner and I joke “well, Frank’s a little different” – he looks perpetually annoyed, even hostile, concealing a very affectionate and playful nature – there may be personality quirks that stay with rescued animals, or relapses to states of panic and old behaviour; but the very shutdown cat can be brought out, however patient we need to be.Worth mentioning here is the story of Tina, one of my dogs, an 8 year old, lovely lovely Ridgeback, with a very sad backstory. Tina had been adopted at 8 weeks of age along with her brother, because the owner thought having two would be ideal. Apparently, the legendary female RR attitude was not the owner’s favorite thing; when Tina and her brother were 8, the owner went on vacation and boarded them with the usual local kennel, but when she came back, she told the owner she didn’t want the female, do whatever with her. (Yes, my heart breaks and my blood boils as I write this, all these years later). The kennel owner put Tina in a high-kill shelter, where she was scheduled for euthanasia when a worker recognized her ridge and tattoo and was able to get a rescue person to come and collect her. She was returned to the breeder, who had her outside, alone in a run when I arrived to pick her up. Tina could not look at me, or anyone directly, for months. She was expressionless, initially, made no facial or eye contact, none of the usual canine body language in evidence – it was like she was frozen, in a state of forced dignity and denial. She ate, slept and stared at the wall. Because there was profound grief here, I relied on Rose, Elderberry and Motherwort, with some California poppy to ease the physical rigidity. I have, unforgettably, seen dogs so heartbroken they could not come back, but Tina was not one of them. It took months, but she got used to the good food, happy music and general love of this household and everybody in it. I have no doubt at all that the herbs played a key role as well.
- Hyper-excitability – very often dogs of this type (it’s really more a dog thing) were surrendered or else chained in the yard because of this tendency – which may be breed-related or something else. Exercise and behaviour modification, sometimes diet, can go a long way to minimizing this behaviour pattern, but herbs can play an important role in stabilizing the dog as well.
- Soiling in the house – a difficult pattern and common to dogs and cats, I think we humans focus more on cats because A) they can be so creative about where they make the deposits, I’ve had pee in my stovetop, in a strainer full of calendula flowers, in slippers, and the dogs water bowl, and B) it’s so notoriously hard to get feline odour out of clothes, rugs etc. . As with many of the issues here, a physiological basis needs to be ruled out – crystals or UTI in both dogs and cats, irritable bowel or inflammatory bowel disease, some spinal conditions with older dogs can lead to fecal incontinence, and other problems. All of these should be treated by the vet, asap. Conversely, some marking that appears with the introduction of a new rescue may well traced to the original family, one or more members, expressing their own stress and possible indignation. I have not seen herbs alone resolve this particular problem, but I feel they can bring back the sense of security and groundedness, the ability to accept change and new routine, that may be lacking in the dog or cat who routinely soils in the house.
- Excessive clinginess – again, this is fear based, and can indicate long periods left alone in the past, sometimes fear of the opposite sex ( we have many times had cats that and dogs that clung to me but ran in terror at the sight of my partner, who is the very soul of gentleness with animals). Sometimes the animal was surrendered in the first place because the owner found it so annoying. Clinginess is a tough one sometimes, but to allow it to continue is unfair to all concerned, including the animals already in the home who will feel pushed out – aggression can ensue if a longterm resident feels “replaced’ by a clingy, needy rescue. I see a strong role for adaptogens here, with American ginseng, Cordyceps, Eleuthero and Schisandra front and center.
- Grief – In my experience, some grief is immediately discernible, and some takes time to emerge; some is intense but transient while some is intractable and difficult to relieve. I work with classic “grief herbs” like Albizia, Rosa, and Sambucus here but also Flower Essences, massage, Tellington Touch and some more esoteric approaches. In my early work with Ridgebacks I saw a dog die of grief while we all tried everything imaginable to save her. She simply wanted to die, and I believe there is a case for letting such severe pain end. In most cases, we are able to facilitate healing. Animals are extraordinarily resilient, perhaps dogs more than any other species.
A WORD ON DIET
When it comes to animal nutrition, as with our own diets, people feel strongly about “what is best” and often cling vigorously to one theory or another. In my work I often interact with very conventional veterinarians who feel that only prescription diet foods are viable, or that only a veterinary nutritionist can formulate accurately for dogs. On the other end of the spectrum there are raw feeders, who are usually not trained in the nuts and bolts of nutrition – or may be, but they still adhere quite rigidly to their preference – raw diet, many of which can be very extreme. As a clinical nutritionist, I work with a range of feeding methods and gear the nutrient content as well as the foods used, to the dog. Many rescue animals come into foster or new adoptive homes with very poor nutritional status – and we cannot always know exactly what has been fed. I try not to make drastic changes all at once, in my experience too much change can be digestively challenging at a time the animal is facing much change and likely, anxiety…not to mention the possibility of undetected disease, which could be aggravated by high fat diets, for example, or too much raw bone in the intestinal tract. I often start with a top quality commercial food and move onto a cooked or raw home prepared diet as indicated. Very hyperactive dogs often cannot deal with the higher protein diets – whether kibble or home made – so I use a higher carb recipe with these individuals. Conversely, dogs and cats who have been fed cereal based, starchy kibbles will benefit from a diet higher in protein and fat. Of course, if there is a specific nutritionally-responsive condition present we gear the diet to management. My bottom line here is to make changes slowly, and don’t be too wedded to a style of feeding. The individual should take precedence, and cat who has been fed kibble all her life may have a hard enough time adjusting to canned food, let alone a prey model raw diet. Be gradual and let food be an enjoyable element of our rescue’s new home, not another level of stress to confront. Even if that means compromising your values, for a time.
The main groupings of herbs by action, that I make use of for the issues above are as follow:
Nervines – Relaxing nervines seem to be the obvious action, indicated with many common manifestations of anxiety, especially pacing, night time restlessness, nightmares, and specific phobias (being left alone, or objects that may have been used as tools of punishment). I generally use two formulas; one will be focused on alleviating acute response such as sleeplessness, or phobia about vet visits, car rides, visitors. As well, I usually employ a second formulation that likely incudes adaptogens and nervine trophorestoratives, for longterm restorative/balancing action.
Adaptogens – with much controversy surrounding the use of these herbs, and the term itself, I will say that the ways in which I have used them with rescue animals have not been aggressive, as in enhancing a racehorse’s performance. Ashwaghanda (Withania somnifera), Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) and Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) are mainstays of my herbal support for traumatized animals. In formulation geared to the whole animal and symptom profile, they are indispensable.
Digestive support, notably carminatives – there is often a link between digestive issues and stress, so working on both the emotional basis and the digestive symptoms is especially helpful. Herbs like Chamomile(Matricaria recutita) and Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) do double duty here, supporting both the Central Nervous System and offering carminative action and ease for many types of upper GI distress.
Cognitive Support – – many rescue animals, sadly, are abandoned seniors who – along with their sadness and confusion – are also exhibiting signs of cognitive decline. Fortunately, there is much we can do here as well – herbs like Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) Bacopa (Bacopa monniera)and Gotu kola (Centella asatica) are obvious choices, but supplementation with choline, SAMe, Omega3 fatty acids and various other nutrients can be important here as well.
Here are some of my favorites herbs, to be used singly or in formulation.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa) Mild and well tolerated, my preference with Milky Oats is in glycerin, alone or in formula, but given over time as a trophorestorative. Combines well with many herbs here according to need; I like it with St. John’s wort if there is nerve pain and agitation, with chamomile if there are digestive issues and with rose for the grieving animal. I generally use about 1 ml per 20 lbs, more if using singly.
St. John’s wort ( Hypericum perforatum) The classic application of Hypericum for nerve pain makes it an ideal medicine for any dog with spinal cord issues such as cauda equine, spondylosis or degenerative myelopathy. I’ve found it helpful in formula with Crampbark and Boswellia for ligament ruptures and especially chronic pain after repair surgery. It’s very useful with vestibular attacks in older dogs and I find it helpful too, with the kind of depression that manifests as an animal who seems responsive to stimuli – playtime, stroking/massage but reverts back to listlessness right away when it stops. I consider it a specific for declawed felines, too. Or any species that has lost a limb from surgery(cancer, injury). There are several drug interactions with St. John’s wort to be mindful of; chief amongst these for dogs and cats are the immunosuppresant cyclosporine, used with IBD, atopic dermatitis, feline eosinophilic granuloma complex, and IMHA ( immune mediated hemolytic anemia) but also a variety of anti-depressants, coumarin-type anti-coagulants and “ possibly “Specific anti-neoplastic agents” 4
Narda Robinson, DVM points out, “Its pharmacokinetic interactions involve the cytochrome P450 (CYP450) pathway—the most common method by which herbs interfere with drug effects.
Some herbs and dietary supplements inhibit the metabolic actions of CYP450 isoenzymes, while others, such as SJW, induce them. By enhancing the elimination of active drugs, SJW can lower plasma drug levels and shorten their duration of action.”5
The bottom line here is, if your animal is on any medication, please check with your vet and confirm that St.John’s wort is fine to use. If medication is not a concern, start with 1 ml per 20 pounds, divided TID and increase if needed, up to 2 mls. If you’re not seeing improvement at that does my feeling is, this isn’t the right herb.
Linden (Tilia cordata, other spp) Another favorite herb I often turn to with cardiovascular issues, the geriatric animal who may have trouble sleeping or any case of nervousness where milder measures are indicated.. Use in glycerite at a dose of up to 2 ml per 20 lbs, or half that combined with hawthorn. Fine for cats and dogs both, outside of heart disease I tend towards Linden for milder anxiety.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutata) I tend to use the ever-popular and reliable Chamomile in two ways; One, in formula, usually glycerite, for acute situations as described above (vet visits, crates etc) and Two, alone in infusion, for ongoing use with the restless dog who also exhibits upper gastric distress – regurgitating food, borborygmus, drooling not related to periodontal disease. Other herbalists disagree on Camomile’s use with cats, so I have tended to focus on other choices. Because allergic reaction to chamomile is not uncommon, I never use it with any dog who has seasonal allergy, even in non-allergic dogs I test a few drops and wait 24 hours. A skin test is a good choice, too. All that said, I use a fair amount of it, as it is gentle and effective and so much better accepted than Mugwort. Try 1.5 mls of glycerite per 20 lbs.
Passionflower (Passiflora Incarnata) One of my favorites for both cats and dogs, Passionflower takes the edge off chronically restless, “Type-A” dogs who feel an often biologically driven need for hunting, herding or other activity that lifetsyke , age or illness prevents them from doing. I like it with twitchy, reactive felines who tend to leap several feet in the air when startled, and in most cases of anxious animals who also have skin reactivity. I use the standard dose of 1 ml per 20 pounds, or a little more with the fats metabolizers.
Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa) Not a herb I use on its own, I include Lactuca in formulas for more severe anxiety where there is a tendency to freeze, hold the body stiffly and react with aggression . I use with Wood Betony as a general relaxing formulation, with Blue Vervain for sheer terror, any time the animal’s stress response tends to the “Freeze” type (Fight, flight and fool-around types can benefit too, depending on the core herbs). I use Lactuca as an adjuvant, mostly…usually about ¼ of the total formulation.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) A very underused herb in veterinary circles, I use mugwort with cats and dogs, as both relaxing nervine and upper GI tonic/carminative. Probably one reason for the underusage is the taste seems repellant ( to any animal I have used it with) and must be disguised in strong smelling “high value” foods like green tripe or game meats. I usually use a glycerite or honey, but I also will just mash up and add the fresh herb to food – seems much better accepted this way. Think about just a tsp of minced fresh Mugwort for cats or small dogs, two teaspoons for larger (medium sized dogs) and a Tbsp for larger breeds. I like mugwort-infused vinegar in drinking water at around the same level – for dogs, you can probably forget it with cats. As with humans, Mugwort can induce vivid dreams, so if you are using it for your dog and see signs of disrupted sleep, this isn’t the herb for him or her. It’s been key for a few very angry cats I’ve worked with, and helpful with many cases of GI-connected anxiety in dogs. I like to try Mugwort alone in these cases as it is sometimes all you really need. Dose for glycerite is about 1 ml per 20 pounds of body weight, to start.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Of the relaxing nervines I would say that California poppy is the herb I rely on most. I use the higher end of the recommended range, because I use glycerite and not ethanol tincture; the accepted range is .5 – 2.0 ml per 20 lbs body weight. Use singly ( 30 minutes before bedtime if addressing insomnia) or in formulation for restlessness, pacing, anxiety in dogs and fear of specific scenarios for cats (vet visits, transportation, crating). Indispensable.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) Along with Melissa officinalis, my greatest use of Motherwort is in feline hyperthyroidism. With dogs, the risk of hypothyroidism is too significant, my herbal choice for cardiovascular or nervine support usually doesn’t include Motherwort. On a purely instinctive basis I have used it short term with dogs whose puppies have been taken away prematurely or who were used as breeding animals. It is, however, a “go-to” with cats…especially older cats, an obvious choice with hyperthyroidism but I will use it even without diagnosis, it is safe and effective. May be especially indicated with thin, agitated cats who show a fast heartbeat and feel warm to the touch. Steve Marsden gives the dose for Motherwort at “one drop per pound” TID, and that’s pretty much in line with what I have been using with cats.
Dan shen (Codonopsis pilusola)- a warm, moist herb useful with many cool and dry formulations but stands on its own as help for the high-adrenaline, stressed-out animal who has basically burned out, is exhausted and needs support in terms of nourishment. Leslie Tierra writes that“Codonopsis increases vital energy, it is given in all diseases associated with weakness, debility after illness, tiredness,lack of strength, poor appetite and anemia”6
I generally decoct about 10 or 15 grams of the dried root in 8 ounces water for 20 minutes, and use the liquid liberally.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) Very underused in veterinary herbalism, Betony is one of my most beloved and oft-used herbs for rescues. The specific indications include restlessness/inability to settle, herding breeds unable to do their work or any retired animal who yearns for his or her “job” – amputees of any species, epilepsy and grief that manifests as yearning and seeking the previous owner or animal from whom they have been separated. If I had to pick only a few essentials for my rescue work, Betony would be one of them. I have never seen a dosage for Betony in a veterinary herbal, but I’ve found that anywhere from 1- 2 mls of glycerite works beautifully, the higher end when using singly.
Hawthorn, Ginkgo biloba and Astragalus are first amongst my own choices for supporting the older animal with one or more systemic complications – cardiovascular, hepatic, neurological. Others to consider include Schisandra, Cordyceps, Eleuthero, and American ginseng. Skullcap (Scutalleria spp) Kava Kava (Piper mythistecum) and Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) are all popular choices well worth investigating here. My one qualifier is the potential for Valerian to effect the oppose action as we seek and actually exacerbate hyperactivity or anxiety. For that reason, it’s lower on my list of preferred herbs.
Formulation, Constitution and the Role of the Short Term Solution
I have given some general ideas above, but the way in which we might use these herbs will vary according to the animal- species, age, symptoms, constitution, health conditions, and how willing your dog or cat is to accept herbs – here we often have to make a compromise. Herbalist Greg Tilford makes the point succinctly “In weighing the choices of which form of product (i.e., tablet, liquid, powder, etc.) to buy, your primary considerations will be two fold. Ease-of-administration, followed closely by optimum availability of active components..Obviously, if you must chase your dog down and force-feed a vile-tasting product into him, you will be working against the goal of calming him.”7
While it might be ideal to work with an animal’s constitution, or preferable to use a decoction over a glycerite, we make compromises. However, I am a firm believer in pragmatism when it comes to many situations with animals – rescue provides us with a great example of just doing what works as expediently as possible to support your animal coming back into balance as soon as you can.
William – Bill was a beautiful liver-nosed Rhodesian Ridgeback, rescued at 7 years old, from a family where one human wanted him and the other really didn’t. He had spent most of his life tied out – while the other family dog, a more sedate breed – was doted on and allowed in the house. He had been taken to rescue twice and then the family changed their minds – well, the one did. Ultimately, they surrendered him, and when we drove to Maine to collect him one very chilly March day, what we found was predictably sad and heartrending.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks are my own breed of choice, and like many very specialized breeds, they are not really a dog for everybody. The same can be said of so many popular dogs – Jack Russells, Border Collies and Saint Bernards all come to mind, from recent “crazes” – Ridgebacks are unique dogs, of the Hound group, who are also very much family dogs and the most protective of the Hounds. Described as “aloof and dignified, reserved with strangers” many RRs have goofy, expressive sides, and all of them (well, all dogs!) need to be with their people. They are distinctly not a cold weather dog, either. William was completely freaked out when we picked him up – with terrible skin and coat from years on cereal-based grocery store food, his nails were so overgrown as to almost cut into his pads. He was lost and confused – by no means the worst I’ve seen, but in pretty rough shape, especially emotionally. He arrived home, and we set to work.
I had set up my animals at that time to be prepared for a newcomer, with Flower Essences in their water, the rabbit confined to quarters! To esnure a gentle, neutral meeting. The household at that time was pretty much all easy going dogs and cats, and I didn’t anticipate an issue. Well, over the next week or so, William set up a pacing and whining routine that had the most patient of us needing some time out. While his coat improved rapidly with better food, and a veterinary evaluation showed he was doing pretty well, all things considered – the weeks wore on and he could not seem to settle. Offleash walks on the beach,home made food, a place by the hearth with everyone else – didn’t seem to alleviate his stress and anxiety. While some rescue dogs will latch onto one or more of the humans in the house, my strongest sense about him was that he was actually pining for his human, the one who had shown him love in spite of the isolation and disdain he experienced from everyone else- and also the other dog, who was probably one of his main joys in life (my lot were polite enough, but not exactly welcoming, given the pacing). I looked to herbs to help him.
Initially, I started Bill on Skullcap, Chamomile and Passionflower, mostly because it was what I had on hand. The initial dose appeared to do nothing, so I increased it until we were at what I felt was a safe upper limit- and he was at that time, appearing drowsy but not less anxious. He also began having more nightmares – I decided to address this differently, with a more system-wide approach, and here is where we saw results, in terms of easing his anxiety and its expression as endless pacing and whining.
Wood betony was my starting place along with Milky Oats – I used alcohol tincture to start – after a few days I saw a marked improvement in the amount of time spent pacing. I felt we could use some deeper support with sleep, particularly, so added both Passionflower and Wild lettuce here, in the hope of encouraging further relaxation and relief from the nervous exhaustion of the pacing. I switched the formula to glycerite and took out the Lactuca after a couple of weeks. I was aiming for just that right level of relaxation that would not be sedating, but allow him to process the new surroundings without an almost mindless searching for the familiar. TTouch and massage were important here too, particularly the TTouch groundwork exercises that focus the dog on facing new situations calmly. Although William too longer to adjust than many dogs, he lived five happy years with us and became my partner’s constant companion. He died at 12, knowing love and at last, a place within the household, no longer ostracized and made to endlessly seek a belonging that never came, as with his previous home. Herbs helped him find that place – and accept it, fully.
Mithrandir – Norwegian Forest cat, neutered male, age probably 5 years…declawed, abuse situation rescue. About four years ago I was shopping at a local store we call “The Outpost” when I saw an ad, scrawled in a childlike hand, for “Cats for Sale – Must Get Rid NOW”…and an address not far from my home. Against loud protestations from my partner I drove over immediately, to a very rundown trailer where a young woman with developmental handicaps had been living, with an incredibly traumatized elderly dog and four cats I can only describe as close to mental collapse with terror. One of these cats was a purebred Norwegian Forest cat, the others were younger, of mixed parentage and ran like demons when we entered the house. The woman had wanted 25$ for each cat and more for “the expensive one” – meaning Mithrandir, who was declawed front and back and clearly almost paralyzed with fear.
After several days of negotiation, and finally finding a loving home for the dog, we took all four cats from her and proceeded to try integrating them into our own, rather overloaded home. While each one has an interesting story to share – and one was pregnant – Mithrandir has proved the most challenging over the long haul, partly I believe because he is declawed, partly because he is older than the others and lastly, I believe he likely exchanged hands several times before landing with the woman we contacted. What has helped the most – and I highly recommend for any declawed felines – is St.John’s wort. I started Mithrandir on a low dose, just 5 drops of the glycerite three times a day. After a few days I increased it to 10 drops and then finally, to 15. (Mithrandir is a big cat, on average about 22 pounds). After a couple of weeks, the change was noticeable;my sense of this is that his paws had been chronically painful as is so often the case with declawed cats, and the relief he obtained allowed him to feel less defensive. One of this patterns was to suddenly strike out at a passing cat (there are 6 here right now) as if he had been attacked. Thankfully, the other cats seem to know he’s not able to do much damage and walk away…but it was still disruptive, so I hoped to address it with herbs. I blended Wood Betony with a little Lactuca and then decided to add Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) for its renowned quality of helping to strengthen a sense of boundary (and there is no contraindication here, so why not?) I found a startlingly quick reduction in the lashing out behaviour, to the point I would say it has been extinguished; additionally, he decided not long after starting the formula, that he’d feel ok entering he living room and sleeping beside me! Both of these changes were marked and followed within days of the herbs added to his meals. Mithrandir has come a long way and is an outstanding example of the power of plant medicine for trauma in animals.
Marta – 7 year old Abyssinian mix feline, spayed female – outright terror, aggression. Several years ago I was contacted by a woman who had broken up with her partner and now wanted to “get rid” of the cats he had left her with – a charismatic little fellow named Jubai, and a terrified, angry, withdrawn Abyssinian mix we named Marta. The reason we changed her name was, the name they had used for her was derogatory; while the woman surrendering the cats to me raved about how great Jubai was, she had nothing kind to say about the female, other than to disparagingly call her “fat” (she was not at all overweight). So here we have a backstory of general unpleasantness to this regal cat, and now a breakup, and surrender to a large old country house full of other animals – and Abyssinian genes, to boot ( this is not the softest temperament in the cat world). Marta was in a state of complete fury, initially,when I attempted to open her crate and decant her into the “transition room”, she swiped me so hard I felt dizzy with the pain. On further reflection decided not to subject her to the many scents and stories of the room I usually use – I secreted her away in the bathroom, which has an open window – very high – she could use to watch the outside, and also be very private while she got used to the situation. For a week I could not get near this cat, she stayed in the window – watching the array of wild birds, squirrels, raccoons, deer and occasional foxes who regularly wander around the back forty..and hissing. My therapeutic goal was just to help ease her terror enough that she could venture around the house and allow herself to be touched, so a few options came to mind. I started with a blend of Corydalis, Passionflower, Wild Lettuce in just about equal parts, and just a few drops of rose (alcohol tincture) and eventually eased the Corydalis off and added a small amount of Mugwort, with Passionflower making up the bulk of the formula by volume. Marta responded immediately and dramatically, within a day I could approach her and stroke her back with a pheasant feather, then her head, and within two days she was actively seeking physical contact when I came up to visit. After a week she ventured down the hall to sleep beside my bed. She was never aggressive again towards me or any cat, dog, or other human in this household. There may well be other combinations that would have been just as effective, but I couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic turnaround. This formulation softened her emotional pain and defensiveness enough to allow me to work on her with touch, and further the relaxation response…freeing this beautiful cat to come into her own, in a home where she was loved and appreciated.
Amara – 9 year old Rhodesian Ridgeback female, former backyard breeder’s dog,bred back-to-back all through adulthood. Main issues are inappropriate urination, hyperexcitablity around food, clinginess.
Yet another Ridgeback story …Amara was one of those break-your-heart dogs, a purebred with double elbow dysplasia (she often just falls over, her front end is so weak) and poor conformation who was nonetheless bred repeatedly for the profit of the owner. When she hit 8 years old, and was not able to produce litters, she was surrendered to rescue. For the next few weeks, her “separation anxiety” tendency to urinate in the house when left even for an hour, and general desperate neediness meant that fosters didn’t want to keep her long, so she kept changing houses..over and over. When she finally got to me, I was moved by her sweetness and easy adapatation to the household, which included two intact males, prima donnas both, and a very geriatric Lab who requires much attention, bathing, diapering etc – plus, the cats. Amara is good natured to her core, but she was also freaked out by the massive changes in her recent life, and latched instantly onto me, as in, the “Velcro dog” scenario – not viable here for many reason (and nor is it emotionally healthy for the dog). In addition, she became frenzied at mealtime to the point where some of the behaviour resembles certain types of epileptic seizures – snapping in the air, drooling, falling over. While Amara has been relatively easy to integrate, she has some specific issues I worked with herbally (and continue to) that make her case study noteworthy. The food frenzy, clinginess and unpredictable house soiling, all in one dog – and two now resolved, with the third (food frenzy) at least mitigated. Routine and exercise played important roles in her issues, but I feel herbs have been very powerful here. This is what I did.
In addition to dietary changes and joint support, I started Amara on Codonopsis and Passionflower –using the rationale that her long history as a breeding bitch had left her with some exhaustion and that a mild nervine with trophorestorative properties would also help. I used hawthorn right away along with CoQ10 (100 mgs daily) for her ums and heart, and she is also on glucosamine, Solomon’s Seal and assorted enzymes for her arthritis. I wanted to keep the nervous system herbs pretty simple, if possible. I decided to tweak the formula and add a dropperful of Betony tincture daily ( about ½ a dropper BID) and it was at this point we saw a shift. Amara calmed down considerably around food (although it is still pronounced, she can hear me when I speak to her, and she hasn’t fallen over in months). Additionally, she seemed to be able to process the schedule better, to understand that if we go out at 6 am, we won’t go out again till ten, and so on. “Accidents’ in the house dropped way off, as she was able to relax enough to learn how we do things (a calmer dog is a more receptive dog). The need to be physically attached to my leg all day eased off as well, as she relaxed enough not to be afraid of rejection all the time. In every way I consider this formula a great success for her.
I have recently added some California Poppy just nightly, to aid sleep – a winner all around as she simply stopped getting up repeatedly to hunt for food and urinate. Not meticulously measured, Amara weighs 105 pounds and I just add about 10 mls at bedtime. Overly deep relaxation can lead to voiding urine in the sleep, but at the dosage I’m using now we haven’t seen that – knock wood! I will be rolling it back over the weeks ahead to see if sleeping through the night/sticking to daily routines has become a habit now.
Rescue animals almost always come with baggage, some of which can be readily dealt and others, may take months or even years to deal with – some, may be best thought of as managed as opposed to completely resolved. In times of future stress, such as illness or other disruption in the human family, or loss of an animal, rescues will often revert back to the behaviours they showed up with. This isn’t always the case, but something to be aware of. In addition to dietary adjustments, veterinary care, and behavioural work, herbs can play a major role in helping ease the transition, relax tense and nervous animals, support the nervous system as well as the rest of the body, and recover from trauma and grief. The rest of the household may benefit too, don’t forget the (often tired!) human caregivers. With careful selection and dosing, herbal therapy can mean the difference between an animal successfully fitting into a new household or perhaps, not working out and going back to foster/shelter. It’s usually just a matter of perserverance, experimentation, and lots and lots of patience and love.
- “Check that Thyroid“ – article by me: https://www.thepossiblecanine.com/check-that-thyroid
- Jean Dodds, DVM – “THYROID CAN ALTER BEHAVIOR” http://www.canine-epilepsy-guardian-angels.com/bizarre_behavior.htm
- Marvistavet, Cyclosporine article: http://www.marvistavet.com/html/body_cyclosporine.html
- Veterinary Herbal Medicine, pg 644, Susan Wynn DVM and Barbara Fougeres, DVM
- Narda Robinson, DVM; http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/The-promises-and-perils-of-St-Johns-wort/
- Leslie Tierra, Healing with the Herbs of Life, pg 69
- Gregg Tilford. The Animal Herbalist Blog http://theanimalherbalist.com/?p=23
- Veterinary Herbal Medicine: Susan Wynn DVM and Barbara Fougeres DVM
- Everything You Wanted To know About Herbs for Pets, 2nd Edition; Greg Tilford and Mary Wulff-Tilford
- Marvistavet site, marvistavet.com
- Healing with the Herbs of Life, Leslie Tierra