Today I am thinking about an apparent contradiction that sometimes comes across in not only my own, but other herbalist’s writings – something that needs clarification, for those who have noticed and commented. It’s one of those superficial paradoxes, that holds a deeper truth. One of those “I have to write this, now” topics, and I hope it will be instructive and helpful. Your feedback, as always, is appreciated.
Here’s the paradox.
For those on my Animal Herbalist Facebook group, or the larger human-oriented Herbal Learning, the phrase “this-for-that” herbalism is one you will have heard many times. In my classes, too, I make a great distinction between using herbs as simple replacements for drugs, and go on to say that I don’t see this as “true herbalism” – it’s a good introduction, and in many cases, the herbs are safer, just as effective and much more environmentally friendly; but, it’s most definitely the tip of the iceberg, with regard to how much more we can do with plant medicine. I may seem disparaging when I simply wish to inform – one member called the concept “elitist” and provided the catalyst for this entry . “This- for- that” herbalism may be the hallmark of the novice, but that doesn’t mean it has no place in what a herbalist of any level does.
To be clear; what is “this- for- that” herbalism? (I think we have Michigan herbalist Jim MacDonald to thank for this term, but not sure. Always good to give Jim a shout out anyway, see resources for his amazing site).
Simply put, this-for-that herbalism is a way of approaching herbs as though they were simple replacements for drugs, not taking into account the full range of actions they provide, using them for specific conditions as allopathic doctors use them – aspirin for pain (just sub in white willow).
As a herbalist working with complex conditions and unique individuals – I take into consideration all aspects of the plants, I use as well as the animal I’m treating – I look not only at the presenting condition, but at the creature who has it. Good herbalists don’t base recommendations solely on the condition, given that illness and disease can appear in the bodies of so many unique types of beings. Give me ten dogs with IBD and I will be sending out 10 different protocols, in all likelihood. That’s the real depth and power of plant medicine, and sometimes, I tire of hearing simplistic advice passed on as though all it takes to work with plants is one of those Encyclopedia type popular texts, that lists herbs and “which conditions they are good for”. In that respect, I feel herbal medicine is diminished.
As has been noted – I often recommend to people on the groups, simple and straightforward remedies they can try for conditions – from the ubiquitous feline abscess to the equally common canine hotspot, from fleas and intestinal parasites to kennel cough and soft tissue injury. “Try cold infusion of mallow root with his upset tummy, one tbsp three times a day”….”compress the hotspot with infusion of calendula and green tea…dry well and dust with goldenseal”….” try milk thistle, one teaspoon ground seed, twice a day for three weeks”. Am I not contradicting myself?
Well, yes and no. I believe there is room for condition-driven, “home remedy’ type herbalism – as long as it is understood for what it is and used appropriately. There’s a place for so-called generic herbal advice, believe it or not, but it still needs to be thoughtful and precise and explicit (with regard to dose, possible contraindications, duration of use). I believe that giving this sort of advice – which is all anyone can do on a public forum – can be valuable on a couple of levels. It is not a replacement for indepth, personalized consulting when that is indicated – but it’s not a bad thing, as may have come across in some of my commentary.
Let’s take a quick look at where this for that herbalism – or the less deragotory “condition-focused’ approach can be valuable, and then at some of the limitations for use. And hope this clears the air a little!
Applications for condition-focused herbalism
The following is a basic, not exhaustive list of cases wherein I feel simple and generic ideas about herbs can be useful and effective. Note that even in these cases, it is always important to check with regard to allergies, any medications the animal may be taking, and be clear and specific about doses, forms of administering the herbs, duration of treatment, and possible interactions.
Yes, even with milk thistle, turmeric, calendula and elm. 🙂
1) Many acute, non-fatal scenarios can benefit from home remedy herbs. Some that come to mind include abscesses, hot spots, bacterial colitis, mild UTI, ear infections – although recurrent or more severe cases almost always indicate a dietary evaluation and more fine-tuned herbs, I’ve also cleared up countless cases of all these conditions using tried-and-true formulations.
2) First-aid – many stings, bites, bruises, sprains and related injuries can be greatly relieved with a simple herbal application – arnica for soft tissue injury, aloe or rose or calendula for burns, plantain for insect bites, a little nervine formula for distress – I carry all of these in my “help-bag”, as well as ginger for nausea, lavender oil, and salve with poplar resin and goldenrod for muscle strain (human, usually). It’s still important to know a bit about the animal before you use anything, that’s just commonsense! but no need, or time, for an Intake form here. I personally feel that using First Aid herbs is one of the best ways for the beginner to get used to plant medicine, accustomed to the Latin names, families, range of actions and constituents, and various applications. When I offer up a “top ten herbs for dogs” or similar kind of post, this is the application I have in mind.
3) To start a shift in approach gently, not overwhelm – this isn’t a condition of course, but a paradigm thing; when people are new to herbalism, the simple approach is often much more manageable, and eases them into that first level of approach – the condition focused. Later I might start people thinking about herbs as preventive – using oral rinses for healthy gums, daily infusions for their own health – and thus, start looking at more individualized use of plants. But basic, home-remedy type herbalism can be a good starting place for novices. Some will want to stay there, keeping a home apothecary for the smaller things, and that’s fine too; herbalism is not a calling for everyone.
4) As casual advice on public forums – better a solid bit of herbal wisdom to a person in need ,than nothing for them at all! I see people asking all the time for milder, safer, more “natural” ideas to help animals with everything from internal parasites to cancer. And while I believe fervently that serious illness must be addressed holistically – not in generic terms as we are doing here – I’d still rather be able to offer the dose range and possible unwanted effects of popular herbs, than let the owner walk away overwhelmed with information or bereft of any help at all.
Echinacea spp. – often used as a remedy for infections, there are contraindications and dosing considerations for this popular plant.
When to move into depthwork with herbs
1) Serious or complex illness – cancer, renal failure, Cushing’s, IBD, pancreatitis, uroliths, diabetes, liver disease – all of these and more require skillful and personalized diet and herbal support. despite the plethora of simplistic ideas about them all, on the Internet. I am incredibly hesitant to make generic suggestions for these conditions. While most won’t really hurt (they can!) the casual approach is never optimal here. Not for beginners, and shouldn’t be condition based.Find a holistic vet who really knows herbs (eg, not someone just dispensing the same overpriced remedies to everyone) or better yet, a fully qualified animal herbalist.
2) Nervous system issues – I know I just suggested that carrying a good relaxing nervine in your help-bag or keeping one around the house is a good idea, and I’m not changing my mind here. There is, however, a vast difference between adding a little California poppy to a dog’s water after he’s been unnerved by a bee sting, and addressing chronic, sometimes serious issues such as reactivity, fearfulness, resource-guarding, or pain. As per my nervines entry, some herbs should be rotated, some given in formula, some alone, some in the acute phase and others on a daily, restorative basis. The dog fed too much protein may benefit from a reduction, and the on living on carb-based kibbles may need more meat and animal foods. Herbs can be very powerful allies in helping to calm, balance and restore confidence to a traumatized animal – but this is a case for the professional, the full history and the skill to formulate, dose and be ready to switch around – most definitely.
3) Animal is on medication of any kind – again, a case where we can’t just look up a herb for a condition, and even looking up the medication is often not adequate. Why? because the medication has been given for a reason, whether we as herbalists agree with it or not, and the animal needs an evaluation. This is not always the same thing as Number One; for example, a client might say” well his cancer is in full remission but we still give _____ preventively” or “he hasn’t had a seizure since we started the potassium bromide” – so they may not present as acutely ill, but there is nevertheless a condition there (as well as the effects of the meds).
4) Herb potency – when the herb you are considering has potent effects in low dosage, or specific warnings. This is no place for the untrained. Poke, pulsatilla,comfrey, lobelia and many others come to mind. Because someone on an email group said they use such and such all the time with no ill effects doesn’t mean you should.
Pasque flower – pulsatilla – has profound actions on the nervous system, but is not a plant to use casually
These are a few distinctions, certainly not exhaustive, to consider when approaching herbs for animals. I started thinking about Specifics, pro and con- and decided we need a whole entry on that group! I hope, I have given some clarity as to why I will say, apparently in one breath” go see a professional” and in the next “why don’t you try such and such?” Certainly, I grab a cup of chamomile when I’m stressed, a gulp of mallow root when I’ve had wine or garlic, and I’m never without the aforementioned sore muscle salve…herbs are GREAT for simple time honoured remedies, human and animal. But when I am confronted with a dog who has cancer, I need to know everything, from his diet to his meds to his stage and grade to his family history, if possible. Because a touch of insomnia or a hot spot is one thing; advanced lymphoma entirely another.
And if you are ever at all unsure as to safety – species-sensitivities, dose – anything – look it up, refer to a professional, err on the side of caution. I’ve seen severe reactions to very benign herbs – not often, but still! and we should never become so confident as to lose sight of that possibility.
Respect the plants, grow with them, and you will always be rewarded. Treat them like crude drugs, to be used generically for conditions, instead of individuals with conditions? You will not reap their full reward and you could, with all good intentions, even cause harm.
I hope this makes my ideas a little more clear and a little less contradictory! Enjoy the journey.
Rosalee de la Foret has a great article here, not about animals, but covers the core concept beautifully
Jim MacDonald, who may or may not have coined the term “this for that”
Animal Herbalist Facebook group