Spring, though rather late, has finally arrived this year and many of my friends are considering a “detox” or spring tonic, which usually consists of some kind of restricted eating, perhaps even a semi-fast, and herbs to refresh and restore after a long winter. The spring tonic is a time – honoured tradition of helping the body tune up, historically after living without much sunlight or fresh vegetables and fruit; even in modern times we humans tend to stay indoors during the cold months and rely more on heavy, warming foods, when the temperatures are below freezing and the sun only around for 8 hours a day! It makes good sense to lighten the load on the digestive system with lower fat and less starch, more fresh food and daily cups of nourishing infusions. In this part of the world, winter means up to six months of snow and cold, limited sunlight exposure, and a real need for hearty, warming foods and herbs. When spring finally emerges, I love using nettles, asparagus, fiddleheads and artichokes in my own diet, easing off on the root veggie stews, dense whole grain breads, and sweet potato/nut butter treats, easing too, on the warming herbs like ginger, cinnamon, cayenne. The whole idea of a tonic is simple; as the seasons change, our diets change with them, and after months of coping with the cold, a tuneup helps us transition gracefully to more activity, to warmer temperatures. But what about our dogs, many ask me about spring tonics for them – and I have to say, I am a fan of the idea, with a few qualifiers.
What is meant by “tonic”?
A tonic can be defined here as a tune-up or gentle support for a specific system (or more than one as we shall see). With tonifying action we are not looking at herbs for acute situations or those that are especially fast-acting, so smaller doses over a period of 6-8 weeks, to tune up digestion, joint health, the nervous system and so on.
“Tonics nurture and enliven. Truly gifts of nature to a suffering humanity, these are whole plants that enliven whole human bodies. To ask how they work is to ask how life works!” David Hoffman, Medical Herbalist
Spring tonics revolve around the digestive system, right?
A lot of the herbs we tend to think of for spring are in fact, digestive tonics; Dandelion and Burdock come readily to mind. That said, my own tonic strategies always involve the lymphatic system, the cardiovascular and immune systems and joints/bone/muscles. Dogs, just like us! can get out of shape over a long winter of restricted exercise. Tuning up the systems that eliminate waste, as well as those that simply get less use in winter makes more sense than focusing solely on digestion. It’s important though, to assess your individual, as always and emphasize herbs for any system that seems a little more in need.
Should all dogs have the same herbs in spring?
See above – the short answer is no. While all the herbs I discuss on this blog are benign, safe and gentle, even these may be contraindicated for dogs with specific conditions or on any number of veterinary meds. Sometimes, too, using a herb for 6 to 8 weeks is problem-free and beneficial, but using it all year can be drying, for example. I’m including a link to check on this if you are putting together a blend, and a little more information with each herb. Choose optimally, and choose safely. My take on the Spring Tonic for your dog, as you might have guessed, first considers the individual, on every level. Always consider the individual- that’s how herbalism works.
Some ideas for your dog
A spring tonic for your dog might well start with changing the diet; not all dogs do well with changes and many need slow transitions, so if you decide to move to a kibble with a different protein, for example, look for formulas that are not drastically different from what you have been feeding, and move the dog to the new food about 30% at a time. Give each change 4 or 5 days, and then increase. For those home feeding, we might think about using or fish for a few weeks, lowering the total fat, increasing (cautiously) lightly steamed green vegetables. But even if you can’t or prefer not to change the diet, some herbal support during this transitional time is likely to be a good thing.
Selection of herbs for your dog’s personal formula doesn’t have to be difficult. Because we are just seeking to support the body during a time of transition, and not targeting an illness or actual problem in the body, the amounts we use don’t have to be so precise. Pay attention to the Primary and Secondary actions of the herbs you want to use! I generally mix them in equal parts, as these are not going to be low-dose herbs or used in the higher dose range we might think about for illness. The first step for a personalized herb-blend is familiarize yourself with all the actions and possible contraindications of your choices. After that, decide what you wish to emphasize and blend away! At the end of this entry I’m listing off some of my favorite herbs for spring, plus a few recipes for those who prefer not to experiment.
How to Administer
There are many ways to get a spring tonic into your dog, and you don’t have to stick to one method. That said, I do like to use infusions wherever possible! When we humans take a spring tonic, the usual method is to mix the herbs together, and then use a teaspoon or two in a cup of tea or for more oomph, a few Tbsps in a liter of boiling water, infused several hours and sipped all day long. With dogs, I like to make a cup to one pint, using plant material according to size and how strong I want the end product to be. So, a toy dog might get a Tbsp twice a day and a giant breed, the whole pint. I prefer to steep 2- 4 hours to maximize the extraction of all those healthy compounds, and then strain, refrigerate and pour the desired dose over food. (Infusions will keep about 2-3 days in the fridge, so if you have a very small dog, you might rather make only 1/2 cup at a time).
1) It’s always so nice to be able to use fresh herbs! I like to snip fresh violets, hawthorn leaf, elderflowers, dandelion leaves right int0 the food, but in small amounts to see how they are accepted. Dandelion benefits from a light steaming (to reduce oxalate content). I add fresh, well washed and chopped arugula or else swirl all of these in a blender with a little water. Our one issue here is palate – if the dog dislikes any of these tastes, find them too bitter ( fair enough with dandelion and arugula) it’s a no-go. I tend to think of adding tender fresh leaves and shoots as one method, and not the go-to. To ensure we get the good stuff into them, think about vinegars, glycerites and infusion – and just add a little extra fresh to the diet, well chopped up, for some of that live- energy oomph.
2) Vinegars – so many people like to add apple cider vinegar to their animals food or water – why not enhance it with herbs? Here you have just so many choices, too – use motherwort, dandelion leaf, chickweed, nettles! with good quality apple cider vinegar OR stick with dried (and macerate for a longer period). Once the herb is infused, you can use as you do regular acv – a little in food or water, but with a lot more benefit. (Some more on how to make vinegars to follow)
3) Capsules – my least favorite way to give spring herbs, but as part of an overall tonic protocol, it can work. One drawback is, filling capsules is time consuming! you will need powdered product, and the absorption is not as efficient as infusions. But I have used capsules with powdered dandelion root, hawthorn, calendula and chamomile (as one example) while adding smaller amounts of infusion to the food and chopping in a little
4) Cooked gently into the food – as with the astragalus/reishi broths and soups I like to use over the winter, in spring I make a lighter soup, simmering any certified organic chicken carcass, for example, with fresh herbs added at the end, and then ladled over food. Here you can really improvise; one recipe might look something like this:
Springfresh Tonic Soup for Dogs – Long-simmered – dried herb version
one carcass any size, roasted chicken stripped of meat and skin
one or two carrots and celery ribs
Place the carcass in a stainless steel pot, cover with spring water (at least 2 inches. Bring to a light boil and reduce the heat to simmer. At this point you can add a few slices of dried reishi and/or shiitake mushroom, astragalus, and a few Tbsps each dried burdock and dandelion root. Consider too, adding a quarter cup of calendula flowers (dried) a Tbsp of hawthorn berry, and/or a little turmeric.
Let it simmer a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 4 hours. I’m not extracting minerals from the bone with long cooking and vinegar here. Once you have the decoction done close to done, toss in the fresh greens! Again, dandelion leaves work well, as does chickweed if yours is already up – and don’t forget the nettles and violet! I don’t like to use young comfrey leaves as they have the highest levels of PAs (pyrolizidine alkaloids) but you can enliven the broth/add to it’s tonic aspect by adding fresh spring greens shortly before straining. One the greens are lightly cooked, you can strain, cool, and add a few tbsps to the food daily, again according to size ( one Tbsp for small dogs, up to a half cup for the big guys.. you can freeze and defrost as needed, once it is all done.
Springfresh Tonic Soup#2 – fresh herb and veggie version
For this soup, I simply simmer a boneless chicken breast in pure springwater, with chopped dandelion leaves, some fresh, thinly sliced burdock root(if you can get some!) until tender – and toss in whatever I have to hand – a few asparagus tips, chopped violets, hawthorn and/or elderflowers, nettles (yes the sting will be all gone!) parsley, motherwort, and chickweed. Be sure to chop the fresh herbs finely and add right at the end. Try a simple version first, it is usually very well received – tonic plants and all.
Some herbs to consider:
Starting with cardiovascular: the classic go-to here is Hawthorn, Crataegus spp. and I like to especially use the flower and leaf in Spring Tonics. If your dog is on medication for any kind of heart disease, leave this one out. Older dogs who need ongoing cardiovascular support can be on hawthorn at higher doses throughout the year, but consider using some of the dried leaf and flower in your infusion, and add the berries to longcooked soups and broths. With the advent of warmer weather, your dog may suddenly be exercising twice as much or more, as throughout the winter, so I feel some cardiovascular support is helpful.
Linden (Tilia platyphyllos) – hypotensive, nervine, anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory
Linden is an ideal nervine and cardiovascular tonic for dogs – useful for relaxing the overly excitable individual who may over-exert on spring walks after a long winter of semi-confinement. Linden has a gentle tonic effect on the cardiovascular system and is extremely safe and well tolerated. I always use some in Danny’s spring mixture, hyperactive little bug that he is!
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) – Nervine, Cardiotonic
Another potent cardiovascular and nervine tonic, Motherwort is springing up everywhere right now in my part of the world. Early plant ID takes some practise; here are a few of my baby plants:
and here is the adult plant:
Motherwort can be used in dry form, if you are uncertain of the young plants. It’s important to note that dogs who have hypothyroidism should not have Motherwort. Although the small amount in a blend probably won’t bother a dog who has been diagnosed and treated, many cases of low thyroid go undiagnosed and could be exacerbated by regular use of this herb. If in doubt, stick with linden and or hawthorn.
Many spring tonics throughout history focus on digestive aids and with good reason.Choose one or more from this group, for your personalized blend.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) -leaf is bitter, diuretic,cholagogue, hepatic; Root is cholagogue and laxative
Dandelion is probably THE most popular and well-loved of all spring tonics. The sunny flowers appear early in the season and are wonderful infused into olive oil for either salve or massage oil(for us), I make cookies with them and harvest young leaves for my own and the dogs’ benefit. Early leaves are most palatable (although my dogs accept them all summer long)and this is a plant very readily identified. You can snip baby leaves into your dogs food, whirl in a blender with a little water, make vinegar..or try the tea/infusion( and for yourself!) Just get it in there. Dandelion supports the liver, aids digestion – and while nutrients in plants are never as bioavailable to dogs as they are for omnivores like us, there is a LOT of nutrient in there. Have a look and see: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2441/2
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) Leaf is Anti-inflammatory, nutritive tonic, diuretic
Runner up to dandelion in the Classic Spring Tonic category, the only thing that puts Stinging nettle in second place is her sting. Loaded with benefits for dogs and humans alike, the formic acid in nettle that causes her sting is evaporated within a half hour of cutting – immediate blanching in boiling water will do the trick, too. Nettle is especially indicated for older dogs but all ages can benefit from a round of this Spring Medicine. For humans, I simply add nettles to soups , pesto and salads; for dogs, you can infuse in water or vinegar and add a little daily, alone or in formulas.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) – Root is alterative, antiseptic, aperient
Burdock root is well known as an alterative herb that supports the liver and aids in all manner of liver-related conditions – one of my own go-tos for eczema in humans, for example. With dogs, we might consider using burdock to help cool and tonify a liver that’s been taxed with heavy meats and fats over a long winter. I simmer a Tbsp of dried organic burdock root in a cup of water for about a half hour – on the lowest heat – then strain and add in small doses throughout the day. 3 tsps for a toy dog, 2 tbsps for a small breed, 3-5 for a medium, 1/4 cup twice daily for a large dog and up to a 1/3 cup 3 times a day for a giant. Use less if in formula.
Others to consider
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) Flowers are antiseptic, vulnerary, lymphatic, anti-inflammatory
While there are many other lymphatic herbs when we need them, calendula is a multi-tasker that eases GI inflammation and is so gentle we can think of it as a tonic. No blooms up in the Quebec woods in springtime, but the dried flowers are better anyway, in water based infusions. I can’t think of too many things that aren’t made better with a little calendula.
Violet (assorted Viola spp) – Aerial parts are anti-inflammatory, mildly diuretic and expectorant (helps to clear guck out of the sinuses and lungs). Another classic spring herb( go outside and pick some!) violet has been used for countless inflammations of lungs, bladder and skin over the centuries. You want to be careful with violet and cats; the salicylate content is problematic for felines. (Dogs are ok!) I use violet with most cancer cases as well as dicing the fresh plant into my dog’s food. Danny, who had a mast cell tumour removed from his thigh in January, selected violets all summer long last year. safe, multi-tasking tonic herb you can use as a concentrated medicine or here, as part of a general tune-up. Violets cool the system and are soothing to the nervous system as well. Use liberally.
Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra, canadensis) are my favorite spring tonic for a sluggish immune system. The flowers are diuretic, anti-cattarhal, and immunosupportive. Although we often think about immune support in winter, or at the start of a flu or cold, spring takes a toll too, especially on animals who have had hard winters and/or suffer from seasonal allergies(more on herbal support for those in the next week).Elder may not be in blossom in your area – if it is, feel free to harvest and use the fresh flower! I never see blossoms till mid-June, and use dried elderflower (from Mountainrose Herbs) in every spring tonic I make.
A favorite blend of mine uses dried herbs that are easily obtained and easy to work with if you are new to herbs. Combine equal parts of the following:
Hawthorn leaf and flower
and then add 1/2 part chamomile and a healthy pinch of fennel.
Use one tsp of this mix per cup of boiling water and let it steep 20 minutes. Strain and use within 24 hours. For a stronger, more medicinal brew, add two Tbsps to a pint of boiling water and steep 8 hours. Give 2 – 3 tsps twice a day to a small dog, and up to the full pint to a giant breed. If you find your dog a little sleepy – you can omit the chamomile or use a little less of the infusion.
Along with a tonic made from dried herbs I always like to get some fresh in there as well! If you have access to nettles and dandelion, you can make a wonderful fresh tonic infusion for your dog simply by picking the fresh young leaves of one or both of these herbs, rinsing well and give a spin-dry in your salad spinner. Of course, any wild-picked plant MUST be both properly identified and harvested from a place where no pesticides or herbicides are in use. I prefer at least 100 yards from any high-traffic road, too..Nettle and dandelion are pretty unmistakable and have no poisonous look-alikes, so they are a wonderful place to start.
Don’t be afraid to add a little fennel, chamomile or other digestive/anti-inflammatory herb you are used to into your spring tonic. Fennel relieves gas, and chamomile does the same but with some relaxing nervine action. The ticket with spring tonics is not juts the herbs popping up first in our gardens and woodlots, but about adding a little support for whatever your individual dogs needs most.
One note: Be sure to use gloves harvesting nettle – after they have wilted about a half hour, you can rinse and spin, then chop coarsely along with the dandelion leaves and loosely fill a pint jar with both. Fill to the top with boiling water and allow the infusion to sit, covered for 4 hours. Strain and ladle into food as with the dried recipe above. Consider adding fresh violets if they grow in your area and you can readily ID them.
To sum up; spring tonic herbs are mild and beneficial plants that are used to support a dog’s overall wellbeing by tonifying the digestive system, the lymphatics, heart and joints, and immune system – and doing so safely, gently, over time. Ideally, they are given in small amounts daily, in either infusions or vinegar or chopped finely/blended well and added to food. The optimal way to use these herbs is to know your dog’s system and choose herbs that address his or her unique needs; even without that personalization, nettles, dandelion, violets, elderflowers, hawthorn and chickweed all offer benefits for healthy dogs. A few popular tonic herbs can be contraindicated in some cases (see above, specifically dandelion, motherwort and hawthorn, and no violet for cats) but are extremely safe overall.If your dog has seasonal allergies, I advise starting with just one herb at a time and testing to ensure he doesn’t react with the telltale signs (itchy skin, red patches, hair loss). Don’t forget your own tune-up! We all need to be healthy to take the best care possible of our beloved animal friends. Always check with a text such as Herbal Contraindications and Drug Interactions(Francis Brinker) before adding herbs to your diet, if you are taking any kind of medication. And Happy Spring!