Those of you who follow my Page on Facebook might’ve seen today, my post about finding the herbal solution for my dog Amara’s rather challenging issue – and finding it by using one herb , which I had selected as a test, a diagnostic, but that turned out to be all we appear to need at this time.My idea was to work with a single herb (or a ‘simple’) using an obvious herbal choice, and then according to what I see, add to the formulation or try a new direction altogether. It’s not exactly news that starting with “simples” is often smart – as my own teacher Paul Bergner reminds us “all single herbs are complex formulations in their own right”. So, I started using St.John’s wort all on its own for Amara, who had developed fecal incontinence, and as it turns out, we have not had an incident in the 8 days she’s been on it. I plan to write a bit more about this in the Newsletter, but the point here is, it got me thinking. How many people think of St.John’s wort as the “depression herb?” More than a few, I’m betting. And the thing is, while some cases of relatively mild depression are indeed relieved with this herb, it is sad to see the myriad other powerful applications basically ignored. It’s as if the world says to Hypericum, either you fix depression, or what good are you?
Well, as I’m always reminding my own students, it’s not ideal to think of a herb only in relation to a condition. If you want to learn herbalism – on any level, whether working towards a clinical career or home herbalists who just want to have knowledge to help their own family/animals , then start by considering a plant’s full range of actions.
Actions, energetics and constituents form the power trio of learning a plant – contraindications are always important, preparation and dosing, and last but not least, the botanical info – all part of developing your Materia Medica, your own journal of knowledge and use of the plants. (I’m getting ahead of myself; this is supposed to be the first section of a new series, shorter posts on herbal medicines for dogs). Let’s stick with this idea: no matter what you know a herb “for” – echinacea for colds, Slippery elm for colitis – they always, invariably, have more than one action. Yes, Echinacea certainly potentiates aspects of the immune system, it is superb at that. Did you know it is also a vulnerary, circulatory stimulant and lymphagogue/alterative?
Today, I want to talk about ten familiar herbs – you will almost certainly know them all – that are classified all too often solely by what condition they can be helpful with. And, they do so much more! Ten Herbs, and since I want you to read this all the way through and make actual use of it, I’m going to keep it short…as I can. 🙂 So let’s start with the star of my day….
St.John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) Many people are familiar with St.John’s wort as an herb used to address depression, as that is the usage for which it became commercially wellknown. I personally feel this is the least of it’s medicinal value, although it does appear to alleviate symptoms in some individuals, it’s a travesty to think of this amazing herb in only those terms. The core list of actions for Hypericum? Anodyne (relieves pain) astringent, anti-viral, antibacterial, vulnerary (soothes and supports healing) nervine trophorestorative (restores balance over time as opposedto treating transient symptoms) , hepatic, anti-inflammatory…and it is brilliant topically in compresses or salve, for all kinds of skin issues, human and canine (I make a salve every year with fresh St.John’s wort, calendula and some essential oils, and it is the most effective thing for spider bites, itchy stings that won’t heal, black fly bites, scratches and scrapes.) Because St.John’s wort is so useful for conditions such as sciatica, fibromyalgia and all kinds of nerve pain, I chose it as a starting point for my own dog’s issue (inability to hold stool) which I felt sure was nerve-related. And when it worked so quickly and effectively I thought of Kiva Rose’s words on this plant “When St. John’s Wort is truly indicated, it tends to work notably in a rapid manner, whether internally or externally. It’s not one of those herbs you have to wait to six weeks to see results from. If it doesn’t show any results from the first few times of taking it, try something else.” Yes, indeed. Think of St.John’s wort for inflamed, itchy skin, for older dogs who are experiencing what might be nerve pain, use it with disc disease, herpes virus and yes, by all means incorporate it into a nervine blend for dogs with PTSD, depression or CCD. Be aware that this herb has a number of otential drug interactions, so check with an herbalist experienced in canine health, before using if your dog is on any medications. But don’t overlook this powerful ally just because nobody in your house is depressed. It’s a superb healer and very much, an Herb to Know.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) in full glorious flower
Chamomile ( Matricaria recutita, Chamaemelum nobile) Almost everyone knows Chamomile, for it’s lovely flavour and ability to calm stressed out humans in a gentle and non-sedating way…and, it is a popular ingredient in all kinds of relaxing nervine blends for anxious canines as well. Did you know, too, that chamomile is highly anti-inflammatory and can be used topically? It’s supremely helpful in water based compresses for rashes, pruritis, or in salve on bites and stings. Steeped a little longer than we like for tea, chamomile (both varieties here) becomes bitter, and is a powerful ally for digestive issues including flatulence, bloating, stomach inflammation, and IBS. In addition to it’s wellknown relaxing nervine action, chamomile (both Roman and German) is anti-spasmodic, carminative, anti-inflammatory, bitter and vulnerary. I’ve used it for inflamed eyes, gums and stomatitis in cats; with acid reflux (in humans and dogs) and as part of a formula for leaky gut/allergies. Chamomile is indeed a wonderful nervine, but if that’s all you use it for, you’re missing so much.
Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva) Slippery elm is probably THE best known and widely used/recommended herb in the canine repertoire. The usual recommendation is to use it with colitis, IBD, or even bouts of bacterial diarrhea – internally, for it’s amazing mucilage content combined with some astringency, it can soothe and tonify intestinal walls at the same time. This same powerful demulcency can help with kennel cough, chronic upper respiratory disease in cats (especially when mucus is dry, stuck and thick) and elm an be used in place of marshmallow in urinary tract infections. What often gets missed is the topical uses for elm – as a poultice for abscesses/boils that have not come to a head it is superb. I’ve made most use of it topically with feline abscess, but it can help a range of canine skin irritations as well. By all means keep elm on hand for digestive complaints, but think of it, too, when a dealing with inflammation, infection or irritation of the skin. Lastly, elm is an aperient -mildly laxative – and I’ve made special use of this with cats, who can become constipated, but it’s fine for use with dogs as well, of course. Most of them seem to accept the nutty flavour, especially when mixed with a favorite food. Allow the powdered herb to dissolve in water before mixing with whole raw or cooked foods, canned fish or tripe.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) This popular and delicious culinary herbs is something even the most non-herbally-inclined will generally be aware of. Used as a seasoning for all kinds of foods in several cuisines, thyme is deeply aromatic and delicious. It is also one of my own first choice herbs for respiratory infections in both dogs and cats. Thyme’s impressive list of actions include; expectorant, antiseptic, antiviral, antibacterial, carminative and vermifuge (kills intestinal parasites). Far beyond thyme’s culinary importance, it is of superb value for both cats and dogs with upper and lower respiratory tract infection – indispensable for kennel cough, canine influenzas, and an array of feline ailments. Thyme is warm and drying so it’s best use is with damp, congested infection. Use in tea/infusion, in tincture and glycerite. Another home apothecary essential. I grow at last three varieties every year.
Cloves (Eugenia carophyllus) Widely used in cooking, the pungently aromatic cloves are popularly used to numb the pain of a toothache – I once packed my miserable abscessed tooth with clove powder to get through a terrible night before the dentist could see me in the morning, and it was a Godsend. Clove powder is a terrific local anaesthetic, no question. Beyond helping us all survive a toothache, cloves are also antibacterial, anti-nausea and carminative (helps to expel gas), so you can think about an infusion of clove for bacterial diarrhea, or wherever there seems to be trapped gas (stomach rumbling) Cloves are strong tasting but the good news is a little goes a long way; infuse just 1/8 tsp powder in a full 8 ounces of hot water. Added to bone broth or rice water cloves can help your dog recover from a bout of intestinal infection, alone or with other antimicrobial herbs.
Plantain (Plantago spp) Ok – so plantain is maybe not as wellknown as the others here – at least outside of herbal circles, where it is a staple. I posted about Plantain on my Page a while back, and several posts that followed registered disbelief, that the “straggly homely little weed” they saw all over could offer such medicinal support….so, maybe it’s not as wellknown medicinally as the others here, but you know it when you see it! The most popular use for plantain is often topical; a “spit poultice” made by chewing a leaf and applying it to a bee sting or run-in with stinging nettle, has eased many a painful outdoor incident. Plantain is anti-inflammatory, demulcent, and vulnerary for a wide array of skin issues and injuries; perhaps surprising to some, it is also expectorant, so makes a valuable addition to a formulation for lower respiratory tract infections. Plantain’s allantoin content makes it a powerful healing agent for skin, stomach and bladder. I include it in many protocols for IBD, much to some client’s surprise. As a general tonic, I collect (unsprayed, 100% ID’d) plantain of all three local species, wash well and whir in the blender for a GI support, especially important for my constitutionally hot, dry Ridgeback. Another Herb to Know, and know deeply. 🙂
Plantain, this is Plantago major, above^^ but Longleaf (Planatago lanceolata) is widespread/abundant and virtually interchangeable, medicinally. It looks like this:
Elecampane (Inula helenium) One of my own favorite herbs to grow and use with my animal and human family, elecampane (also rather charmingly known as Elfwort) is most commonly associated with respiratory tract conditions, as it is a superb warming expectorant, useful in bronchitis, colds and coughs for humans and all similar ailments in dogs and cats. Elecampane is a stimulating herb – it’s great usefulness is in moving “stuck” fluids, which can include urine ; in addition to its expectorant actions, elecampane has a mild diuretic effect, and also supports the production of bile, making it a valuable addition to many digestive formulas. Here’s the one that may be news – it’s been used for centuries as a vermifuge . I use this versatile herb in all my worming powders. Spectacular in the garden, indispensable in the apothecary. The bitter taste may put some dogs and cats off, but I’ve been consistently surprised by how many do accept it readily. If taste is an issue, as with all strong herbs, consider adding to green tripe or bone broth or any food that masks the flavour. I make elecampane honey every fall for our own use, and have found it a beneficial part of an herbal protocol for kennel cough, if your dog is ok with honey.
Elder (Sambucus canadensis, nigra) A few years ago, the popularity of elderberry exploded – thanks in part to the “herbal resurgence” we’re enjoying in North America, which, among other things, emphasizes the use of local plants and Native American/European wisdom. Elderberry grows pretty much everywhere on this continent, as well as Europe – and is such a time-honoured remedy, it’d be hard to overstate how important it is in the Western repertoire. As with any herbal medicine that becomes popular/commercialized, elderberry is now associated with the condition it is most used for – colds – and rightly so, as it is not only immunostimulating but specifically antiviral as well. A tea made from the flowers is diaphoretic (encourages sweating) for humans, when served warm, and I tend to use in combination with the berry for viral conditions in both cats and dogs. As with the other herbs in this group, elderberry is not *just* for colds. The berry is rich in proanthocyanidins, a type of flavonoid that helps reduce histamine production as well as strengthen capillary integrity, making the berry a useful part of any herbal protocol for mast cell tumour (all too common in dogs) hemangiosarcoma (where we seek to minimize internal bleeding). The flowers make a lovely anti-inflammatory infusion to use as a coat rinse, apply to inflamed skin or make into a rich healing ointment for sores that don’t heal well. I love to see people using elder with dogs, but there are many more ways to make use of this wonderful, ancient remedy than simply to fight off colds and flu.
Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra
Mullein (Verbascum thapsis) Here is an unmistakable and very widespread wild plant that many dog lovers know as the “ear oil” herb. Commercial mullein oils abound some with garlic, some with calendula and many just plain mullein flowers – I’ve spent many a contemplative summer afternoon picking the flowers from these towering, majestic plants, to use in oils. but like the other herbs in this article, mullein offers us so much more than ear treatments. For human use, the leaves are the most commonly utilized part; mullein leaf is demulcent and expectorant, making it ideal for dry, hacking or wheezing coughs, in both human and canine(and for cats!). These two applications are very well known, but not as often do we hear about mullein as lymphatic, or about it’s sedating actions, or it’s potential healing effect on spinal injury/disease…all of which I learned about from Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald, who has researched and written extensively about Mullein. Thin about using the root internally (in tincture, decoction or glycerite) with conditions like spondylosis or IVDD, and the leaf makes a superb poultice for glandular swellings, particularly those that linger after an infection is *mostly* cleared. When we focus only on the flowers for “ear oil” we miss the incredible healing power of the whole plant, like all the others in this article.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) Calendula has become very popular in canine circles of late – mostly used as a topical treatment, in water -based preparations (infusions for compresses and rinses) or in oil-based(for salves and ointments). Calendula does excel at relieving inflammation and encouraging healing, but it is also an important herb to use internally…so important, in fact, I recommend it to students as one of THE top ten herbs to have on hand at all times, and to study indepth as they get started building more skill with herbal medicine. When we think about it’s wellknown vulnerary action on the skin, consider that it can do much the same internally, most powerfully with tissue it contacts – in other words, the digestive tract. So use calendula for healing a leakygut, soothing an IBD flare, settling a gurgling tummy after an “indiscretion ( long with cloves!) Calendula has antifungal action that can help in ear formulations, in protocols for Candida – and it is also an effective lymphagogue – assists the lymphatic system in clearing out toxins. Keep a bottle of dried blossoms and a few fresh plants close by for skin issues, but don’t stop there. Calendula has much more to offer and is always safe, gentle yet extremely helpful, alone or in formulations.
Now, I know that any of you who are already studying with me, or have a background in herbalism for human use, will likely already know much of what’s written here. But for those just starting out – learning how to understand a herb by more than what it is used for is tremendously important, and I hope this article gives you some ideas. I encourage students and readers to learn everything about a herb; draw it, take it in your own body in various ways, read what many authours have said, grow it and prepare your own medicines. That’s how we come to truly *know* a plant and what it can do for us and for our dogs – and, it’s fun! Each of these popular herbs merit much deeper study, beyond their commercial uses – so if you are using any of them for “that one thing” ? it could be time to take another look. Next up: Ten Culinary Herbs, medicinal uses for dogs – and no, none of them are “neurotoxins!”
Want to learn more? Check my online course Practical Herbalism for Common Canine Conditions here: https://thepossiblecanine.com/practical-herbalism-an-online-course