In my work with animals I am often asked what herbs people should get for a “start-up” kit – not exactly First Aid, which entails specific items for emergencies, but a general kind of “what herbs (and in which form) should I buy or make to get going with helping animals”? So, in this article I’ll make a few suggestions, useful for anyone just starting out, and hopefully some ideas for the more advanced herbalist, too.
Working with cats and dogs is, on one level, much like working with people; before we administer anything herbal, we have to evaluate the individual. We need to consider not just the herbs themselves, but which form to use, and of course, what dose to use. Beyond that, we want to consider if the herb will be used longterm or short, and in the case of the former, carefully evaluate any health conditions the animal may have. This is important with short term herbal choices as well, but when a specific formula or even one plant is used longterm, it may not only exacerbate existing conditions but promote the development of new ones, in the carnivore. High oxalate herbs should never be used longterm with dogs or cats, for one example. But the core of our work is to establish the form – given the fact many animals simply will not be persuaded to ingest infusion – and also which dose we will use. The latter here is quite simple for me – I start at the low end of the therapeutic range and build levels only as indicated. I tend to use tincture or glycerite most of the time, but some herbs (Marshmallow comes to mind) are probably most effective given in infusion, so get creative about how to slip it into the food. I use green tripe, special home made recipes, or honey – not peanut butter, cheese and other foods not optimal for dogs. In cases of urgent need, and with herbs such as milk thistle that aren’t so great in tincture – I use capsules. Depending on the animal, herb and condition, we can look to tinctures, glycerites, infusion, capsules and pastilles – but let’s start with a few basics the Animal Herbalist can rely on in a very general sense.
Note: this list does not cover medicine-making, but assumes you are just working with purchased products – at least for now. Because this article will go on forever if I start to recommend doses , I will cover the range in my next installment; for those who want to start right now, an excellent resource is listed at the end of this article. For now, here’s the basic starter kit. I’ve emphasized local herbs and those that do double duty, for example chamomile as a relaxing nervine (to help an anxious animal relax) and as a soothing carminative for upset stomach and gas.
Tinctures and Glycerites: Echinacea, Mullein leaf, Hawthorn berry, Calendula, dandelion (root and leaf) plus, a nervine , respiratory and a urinary formula, and perhaps one for pain. I say “perhaps” because there are many kinds of pain and it is always best addressed according to type; that said, a general formula can be a blessing, in acute or chronic scenarios. If you prefer glycerites to tinctures – there are pros and cons to both – some lovely products available here:
A few examples of formulas I like:
1) This is an excellent nervine formula, but you can of course work with individual herbs and experiment. I encourage you to do so! http://www.animalessentials.com/#products:66
2) Mountainrose Herbs has a line of herbal formulas I have used with animals over the years, and especially like the Bladder Care and Respiratory Blends here: http://www.mountainroseherbs.com/extract/combin.html
3) For pain, I often combine Corydalis and Meadowsweet with a relaxing nervine like Skullcap. A good formula can help a lot, but look for something with a nervine and possibly an anti-spasmodic like lobelia. Be aware that cats in particular should not have a lot of salicylic acid, so go easy on both White Willow bark and meadowsweet. Devil’s Claw is a superb anti-inflammatory and included in many formulas for pain, but it is contraindicated for dogs n heart medication. One popular formula is a capsule called “DGP” – DoggonePain – and can be used for most dogs with arthritic soreness. It contains, among other things, Boswellia, Corydalis, Cayenne, Feverfew and Turmeric.
Powdered herb: Goldenseal, Marshmallow root, slippery elm, blackberry root
With just these four, you have a powerful herb to use topically for infection; Mallow is the “bandaid for the stomach” you can use for dogs undergoing chemo or with any kind of gastric upset; Elm is endgangered but has its place especially with IBD and dogs who need extra nutritional support, and blackberry is a superb plant for diarrhea. Give in food, or honey, or home made capsules if need be.
Dried herb: Yarrow, elderflower, nettle, calendula, marshmallow leaf and root, milk thistle seed, burdock root, chamomile
This list – all of which can be made into infusion, placed directly in food, or used externally as washes/compresses – covers a wide range of uses. Yarrow, elderflower, calendula and chamomile are all superb herbs for the skin, as such can be used in rinses, compresses, poultices and home made salves. Internally they can be used for infectious conditions(yarrow and elder) for gastritis(calendula and chamomile) and anxiety (chamomile alone or with other nerviness, such as lemon balm, skullcap, passionflower, and others). Milk thistle is THE go-to herb for liver problems or just for general support; think of adding freshly ground seed in small amounts regularly to the diet, or a standardized extract of silymarin for acute conditions.
Stinging Nettle is a classic herb for animals who suffer with seasonal allergies. Make an infusion of the dried leaf and add daily, starting about four weeks prior to the allergy season. (Dietary changes, fish oils, other cooling herbs can ease symptoms a great deal as well).
Essential Oils: I never, ever use these with cats, as they are unable to metabolize them at all,and can die as a result of ingestion. Dogs can handle a little bit in dilution, but for the beginner I really only suggest lavender and tea tree, both of which are very useful but should be used with caution – and never internally.
Additionally you will want to have on hand: Honey – sometimes the only way to get that tincture into a reticent dog or cat is to sweeten it. A small amount of good quality honey can mask a few drops of tincture, or you can stir in a powdered herb such as mallow root, or elm and feed it directly.
Rescue Remedy (Bach Flower Essences)
Traumeel – by Zeel, a homeopathic blend used for animals in distress or pain
A good basic salve, perhaps made with calendula, plantain, chickweed or other mild safe herbs – for skin rashes and insect stings
Green tea bags – for hot spots
Apple Cider vinegar
Therapeutic clay – to mix with goldenseal and perhaps some tincture, apply to abscess or other sores
Scissors, tweezers, magnifying glass
Mason jars for storage (and for any infusions or other medicines you may make)
Cheesecloth, a small and a medium sized sieve
Measuring spoons and cups
Gelatin capsules (for filling with powdered herb)
Plenty of blankets and towels
A hot water bottle (NOT an electric heating pad)
Olive oil and beeswax, in case you are up to making your own gentle salves
And – very important! A good veterinary herbal that can help you make choices about herbs and dosing them safely and effectively. I highly recommend Veterinary Herbal Medicine by Drs. Susan Wynn and Barbara Fougeres. It’s THE reference book for both the home herbalist, and the clinician working with animals.
Next article I will take a look at conditions, and how all the herbs in your starter kit can be used most effectively. Until then – hug your furfriends, and eat the weeds.