Herbal medicine has seen a great increase in popularity of late, and this includes herbs for companion animals. With millions of petlovers concerned about the safety and wisdom of using dehydrated commercial foods for dogs and cats, along with a greater awareness of the dangers of environmental toxins, over-vaccination and excessive use of veterinary drugs, it follows that herbal solutions, gentler and less damaging than medication in many instances, would also become interesting and popular. I applaud this move, and encourage both veterinarians and the animal lovers I speak with daily, to develop knowledge of herbs and how to use them both safely and effectively for other species. My criticism, in observing thousands of cases over the years, is simply that most owners and vets have confined their work with herbs to those we might think of as “herbs of commerce”. …Echinacea, slippery elm, milk thistle, turmeric. All great herbs of course! However, there are so many more with much to offer and often, right outside your back door or at least, in a nearby park or forest. In this article, I’d like to review some of the amazing wild plants, most of them immediately accessible, and see how they can be used for cats and dogs. I would personally love to see “holistic medicine” for cats and dogs expand to include these plants and many more, either replacing or in addition to the standardized extracts and generically dispensed formulas that are currently in vogue.
So what are some of my favorites? Here we go.
These are very loosely grouped according to one of the more prominent actions/affinities of each herb. Several have multiple actions and therefore applications, such as plantain as a vulnerary for the skin and also an important anti-inflammatory gut herb. This overview should get people started using these plants in a number of ways, for dogs and cats. The idea is to start using immediately accessible herbs for minor health issues or to augment a protocol for more serious one – and of course, preventively. As with any wildcrafted herbs, 100% positive identification is essential – most of these are very easily recognized, but don’t ever take a chance if there’s a shadow of a doubt about any wild plant.
Two of the most popular herbs in use for dogs right now are slippery elm and milk thistle. Many holistic veterinary clinics sell products such as Denamarin, which contain high levels of Silymarin, one of the best studied active ingredients in Milk thistle. I like to use this approach only in cases of acute liver toxicity. More often,I have clients purchase fresh seeds and grind them, or get the powder pre-ground and simply add to food. Slippery elm is endangered, overused and many dogs will react to it; when it works, it is wonderful, but like any herb, it is not a panacea and simply dispensing it generically means a bit of a gamble. With digestive problems a full history is important; herbs, as well as dietary changes should be used accordingly. I use bitters and carminatives such as chamomile for many common canine digestive complaints, and other demulcents such as mallow and prunella, not always elm. Many abundant, wild herbs offer a number of actions that make them useful as basics in our home apothecaries.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) This very safe and underused herb (in the veterinary world) offers a wide range of actions and is useful in acute/chronic conditions as well as proactively. I recommend using the root in decoction, with a dose range from 5 – 30 grams decocted in 8 ounces of water, 1/3 cup per 20 bs, so some room to play with amount. As with many herbs, use the high end if no other herbs are employed. Burdock is mildly laxative so the only thing to watch for at higher doses is some loose stool. Many dog food companies now add inulin to their foods to promote gut health, and burdock is very rich in inulin. That said, how a dog reacts to it will depend on that individual and on how much fiber is already in the diet
I always use burdock with chronic skin conditions, liver disease and cancer. Isolated inulin appears to have some anti-tussive action in cats with chronic respiratory disease but this is not something I have worked with personally – yet. . David Hoffman writes “ In general, burdock will move the body toward a state of integration and health, improving indicators of systemic imbalance, such as skim problems and dandruff”. Of course, Hoffman was writing about human use, but I have the same to be true of working with cats and dogs, and encourage readers to investigate more deeply, for your own companion animals.
Burdock, Arctium lappa
Plantain (Plantago major, lanceolata) A superb herb for skin irritations such as hotspots, plantain (both species) is also indispensable with colitis, that is any inflammation of the colon for any number of reasons. I’ve seen fresh plantain added to a carefully formulated recipe turn the page for dogs with challenging IBD. Demulcent, antimicrobial, astringent and vulnerary, both the lanceolata (longleaf) and broadleaf varieties are useful. Simply chop fresh leaves directly into the food (my preferred way to administer it for bowel inflammation) . Plantain is extremely safe and can be used topically of course, but is often overlooked for internal issues. Try a quarter cup chopped fresh leaf for small dogs, ½ cup (fed twice a day) to medium (30-50 pound) individuals and up to a cup daily for large and giant breeds. These are therapeutic levels and should be worked up to, although I have never seen diarrhea with plantain it is always wise to go slowly.
Plantago major – you can use the lanceolata, or longleaf variety, just as well
Mallows (Althea officinalis, Malva negelcta, related species) I can’t overstate how helpful any of the mallow are with respiratory and urinary tract infections as well as skin and digestive inflammation – all conditions I see a lot of, clinically. My preference is to combine the leaf and root in cases of UTI (canine or feline) using cold infusion of both added to food. With skin inflammation I have found the leaf extraordinarily helpful, alone or with a cooling astringent such as rose – and the root is my go-to for digestive system distress. Althea officinalis is easily grown, a gorgeous garden flower and several species of wild mallow are easy to find and make use of. With UTI and respiratory issues I will always combine Althea with other herbs appropriate to the individual, but I have used just the root for gastric ulcer, non-specific colitis and IBD, with sometimes incredible results. Before starting with the Slippery elm, give mallow a try. Very safe and nontoxic, like any demulcent it’s best to administer mallow well away from any medications, 3 hours is ideal.
Marshmallow in flower, Althea officinalis
Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris) A widespread and familiar Lamiaceae family plant, prunella is usually known as Self Heal or sometimes, All Heal. The name gives us a bit of a clue as to how useful it is! I find very few in veterinary herbalism making much use of Self heal; I grow it, use it dried and fresh in water infusions, tincture and glycerite and oil made into salve. I use it in skin rinses, in compress with wounds , abscesses or rashes, internally as part of many cancer protocols (which I see all too much of in dogs). I learned from Matthew Wood to turn to prunella where there is dental disease and kidney problems; this is a very common scenario with cats, and prunella is now a go-to for me there. Self heal’s actions include the following: astringent, demulcent, vulnerary, immunomodulator, mild diuretic – the range of uses is very great, but start with topical and get to know this amazing little plant..
Self Heal, Prunella vulgaris
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Yarrow is a well known, well-loved herb in most repertoires for humans, but I am often asked if it has any application for animals, is it safe to use, and how to give it. The answer is an emphatic yes, it is both useful and safe! Often relegated in popular sites as a diaphoretic, this action doesn’t have the same kind of use with dogs and cats, obviously. What is so great about yarrow is how potently antimicrobial it is, making it a first choice for your first aid kit, to disinfect wounds, and the powdered plant has nearly legendary styptic properties, meaning it can staunch the flow of blood. I always carry both powdered yarrow and the tincture with me on hikes involving my dogs. Additionally, yarrow is a urinary tract disinfectant and can be incredibly useful especially if you can make fresh infusion. I use it internally with any bleeding disorder, from gastric ulcer to hemangiosarcoma (a cancer of the blood vessel lining in dogs, typically affecting the spleen or heart). This is one very accessible wild plant that should be in every animal herbalist’s repertoire.
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
It’s nice to see many animal lovers turning to herbs to help with mild UTI, which can usually be cleared up readily if herbal medicine is given in time. Cats can be very furtive about pain, and may have bladder crystals that need veterinary care so it is imperative to get any animal in distress, straining to urinate, or with a fever in to be seen asap. In less dramatic cases, herbs can be all you need. Just be sure to monitor your dog or cat and don’t let a serious infection linger.
Uva ursi is a go-to herb for both canine and feline bladder infections, and many folks use cranberry to help prevent recurrences,I generally include Echinacea, mallow and yarrow, but a couple of others deserve mention here. Gravel root should be used with caution, (see below) but agrimony combines well with any of the mallows, and horsetail is a classic herb for the urinary tract. All of these are widely available across North America.
Agrimony ( Agrimonia eupatoria) Among other actions, Agrimony is bitter, astringent, diuretic, anti-spasmodic and vulnerary, making it an ideal addition to a UTI formula.
Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatorium
Horsetail ( Equisetum arvense) Horsetail is a potent genitourinary astringent with diuretic action, well known as an anti-hemorrhagic and anti-inflammatory, it is a herb of choice for me where there is bleeding without fever, or bleeding post-antibiotic and we prefer not to do another round right away(or at all, if possible). Contraindicated with heart or kidney disease. Dose is 5 – 30 mgs per 8 ounces water, decocted 15 – 20 minutes, strained very well (I use a coffee filter)and then ¼ to ½ cup per 20 lbs Bodyweight, administered TID. Tincture is often useful, give about 1 ml per 20 pounds, short term
Horsetail, Equisetum arvense
Gravel root (Eupatorium purpureum) This one requires a bit of caution, as it does contain some PLAs (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) although not at the same level as comfrey root, Gravel root should be used short term only and never with existing liver disease. In older animals this may be undetected, so take that into consideration too. A classic antilithic (hence the common name) use with bladder stones (oxalate struvite) in tincture, about a ml per 20 lbs bodyweight. Not for use with pregnancy or lactation. Combines well with mallow, for small stones or crystals only.
Other options: Viburnum opulus (Crampbark) to ease discomfort and Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium) to address infection/support the liver
Problems affecting the skin are very common in dogs and cats, with a large array of causes, from fleabites and allergy to nutrition-related dandruff to the much dreaded hot-spot, plus the more serious disorders such as mange, pemphigus and seborrhea. Many of these issues require a comprehensive approach – including dietary adjustments and liver/gut support – but everyone wants something topical to try and we tend to hear the same herbs a lot of the time (Calendula, plantain, comfrey, green tea) all great and useful. I wanted to add that standby-for-the-skin Chickweed, and the wonderful wild rose to this arsenal, as many are surprised at the power of rose for animal issues; just make sure any type you gather has not been sprayed, and be sure to use some of this one for yourself as well.
Rose (Rosa rugosa) Cherished for it’s gorgeous fragrance, the petals of rose are extremely useful medicinally. I use them mostly externally. Cooling and astringent, rose is one of my own first choices for hotspots and I include it in many of my home made shampoos and coat rinses. I make water infusion of fresh or dried rose, and always have a large jar of rose vinegar to dilute and apply on hotspots . The flower essence,home made especially, is good for animals recovering from loss of a loved one.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) A lovely little plant made much use of in herbalism, but less so in veterinary circles. Chickweed is very cooling, energetically, it is nutritive, vulnerary and demulcent. Useful internally for GI tract inflammation especially in dogs, chickweed is a classic herb for use with itching and generalized irritation.
Chickweed, stellaria media
Respiratory conditions in dogs are not quite as common as in their feline counterparts, but lingering kennel cough can be a nasty condition, and cats – well, I live with one who has chronic disease, it can be challenging. My article for next month will focus on the respiratory system and I’ll share some of what I’ve learned from working with cats as well as dogs. In this article today I would make mention of a few “wild weeds” you can look to for most chronic infections – just be sure to support the immune system as indicated (and this can often mean, a dietary adjustment) and see your vet if your animal appears not to improve with herbal support.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) What a fantastic herb for dogs and cats this is! Expectorant, anti-tussive, anti microbial and demulcent. If I had to pick one “go-to” for respiratory conditions it would be elecampane. You can grow or wildcraft this plant or simply purchase the dried rhizomes and make decoction or tincture yourself. I like a good strong decoction of about 25 – 30 ml per 8 ounces of water, simmered 20 minutes,and given at a level of ¼ to ½ cup per 20 lbs bodyweight. I start with the lower end and increase as indicated.
Elecampane, Inula helenium
Ground ivy ( Glechoma hederaceae) Ground ivy has some interesting common names – Creeping Charlie, Gill-over-the-ground – usually referenced how vigorously it can spread! It’s also one of those plants I will show people and they look aghast, as in “THIs stuff is actually medicinal?” well yes, it’s a great little herb, I use it for my own allergies all the time and yep, for dogs and cats. Usually plentiful around homes and fields/forests, I recommend the infusion, but in case the animal won’t take it(Ground ivy is strong tasting) , I make glycerite.
Ground ivy, Glechoma hederaceae
New England Aster( Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) I learned about the usefulness of new England Aster from Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald; it grows abundantly near my home and so I set about to work with it, starting with my own cat zhouzhou. Over the years with this cat I have pretty much exhausted every respiratory, antiviral and immune modulating herb known to the world, but not this one. Without a doubt the addition of the tincture was visibly helpful to her during her watery, sneezing, copious mucus phase. I am now rotating formulas according to her symptoms and the season, but I would be able to recommend this safe and very useful plant to anyone working with animals. Again, just make sure you have the proper ID! I used a vodka tincture, and about 10 drops 3 times a day for a 15 pound cat. You could try a glycerite: I am planning to do so this summer myself.
New England Aster. Symphyotrichum novae- angliea)
Three I love and use in a variety of ways would include Elder flower and berry (Sambucus Canadensis, nigra) Alder bark (Alus spp) and the lichen Usnea (Usnea barbata) with alder and usnea usually in tincture during the acute phase, and elder in decoction (berry) given liberally throughout the day. Useful with feline abscesses, acute respiratory illness (I’m thinking especially of kennel cough) with UTI in cats and dogs . I have found consistently that using usnea and elder with respiratory infection and alder with abscess can completely clear infection in an average of 48 hours with no need for antibiotics. It is however imperative to monitor the animal and take to the vet if fever develops or if clinical signs become worse, and not better as we anticipate!
This is but a small sampling of wild herbs we can make great use of with our companion animals; I make regular use of mullein, Fireweed, Wood betony, Solomon’s Seal, Purple loosestrife, Monarda, yellowdock, Boneset and blackberry, all wild and abundant plants that can be harvested and prepared at home. We will take a peek at these plants in Wild Weeds Part Two. of course, for those who might not wish to wildcraft, these herbs are available from a number of organic sources online and you can purchase them and work with tinctures, infusions and compresses as needed. It is truly empowering once you realize that many of the common herbs we use most for our beloved pets are close to hand and every bit as effective, or often moreso, than more expensive isolated compounds and formulas.
One final word: please do check potential interactions with any herb you use and veterinary medications. The ones listed here are overwhelmingly safe, but a check in is always wise. Do not use any herb with a pregnant animal unless you are certain of its safety.