Features February 2004 Issue

The Calming Herb Chamomile

This safe and versatile herb has a broad range of uses for dog (and man).

by Gregory Tilford

With hundreds of trendy herb products lining the shelves of pet shops and health food stores these days, it is easy to forget that many of the most useful herbal remedies for pets are already in the kitchen.

Many of the herbs we use every day in cooking or in a tasty cup of tea are also very medicinal. In fact, virtually every home spice cabinet contains remedies for upset tummies, nervousness, sore gums, itchy skin, or even intestinal worms. All we have to do is recognize them and remember they are there.

Chamomile is easy to grow in all climates, and once established, its promiscuous, free-seeding character yields abundant growth year after year.

Chamomile is just one example. One of the safest and most versatile herbal pet remedies around, chamomile has a broad range of scientifically proven uses.

Among the herb’s attributes are anti-spasmodic, carminative (gas relieving), anti-inflammatory, sedative, antimicrobial, digestive, vulnerary (wound healing), tonic (strengthens body functions and/or structures), and antihelmintic (worm-expelling) activities, all of which can be safely and effectively applied to dogs, cats, and most other types of animals.

Calm the nerves and stomach
Chamomile delivers reliable antispasmodic, carminative, and mild sedative effects to the digestive system, making it useful in cases of indigestion, gas, or vomiting. I find the tea or tincture especially effective when used in dogs who are prone to stomach upset during episodes of hyper-excitability. You know, the “nervous stomach” types who get gas, a gurgling tummy, or end up vomiting whenever meal time is followed by an exciting event.

For these pups, a sweet-tasting, glycerin-based tincture can be squirted directly into the mouth. One milliliter (about ¼ tsp.) per 30 pounds of the dog’s body weight fed once every two or three hours should do the trick.

Alternately, a strong infusion of cooled chamomile tea can be used, but you will need to feed more – perhaps a full tablespoon every couple of hours until digestive upset subsides. Brew the tea on the very strong side: 4 tea bags, or 2 tablespoons of bulk chamomile flowers packed in a tea ball, to each cup of boiling water. Sweeten with a little honey if necessary, and allow the tea to steep until it has completely cooled before using. Unused portions can be stored for up to four days in the refrigerator.

If you don’t see results after two feedings, don’t be afraid to increase the frequency of the feeding to once per hour. Chamomile is safe enough to be used fairly liberally.

Why does chamomile work so well against stomach upset? The answer is somewhat of a mystery, although scientists have identified several chemical constituents of chamomile that are known to have powerful medicinal qualities. Among these constituents is a complex assortment of volatile oils (i.e., apigenenin, chamazulene, and its precursor, matricin) and various flavonoid constituents are known to be strong antispasmodic agents.

In the digestive tract, these chemicals serve to ease nervous spasm, help expel gas, and aid in the production of bile (thus improving digestion). Many of these same components have also been shown to reduce inflammation throughout the intestinal tract, making chamomile useful for various forms of inflammatory bowel disease as well.

Clear skin and eyes
For itchy, inflamed skin, including flea bites, contact allergies, or minor bacterial or fungal infections, the same (but unsweetened) cooled tea can be used as a soothing, healing, antimicrobial skin rinse. Apply by soaking your companion’s coat and skin with the tea, and allow her to drip dry.

For added itch-relieving and healing effects, peppermint tea, aloe vera juice, or calendula tea can be combined with chamomile tea in equal proportions. If raw, open patches of skin are visible, certified organic goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis) tincture can be added for an even stronger antibacterial effect. Add the tincture, which is available at any health food store, to the rinse at a ratio of ¼ tsp. per cup of tea. However, be aware that goldenseal can temporarily stain your companion’s coat yellow.

For conjunctivitis, whether it is from bacterial infection or just airborne irritants or allergies, the cooled infusion can be carefully strained through a paper coffee filter and diluted with saline solution (the stuff made for contact lens care) at a ratio of 1 part tea to 3 parts saline; the end product should be transparent and light yellow. This inflammatory/antimicrobial eyewash can be liberally applied into the eyes with a dropper, twice or three times per day until inflammation subsides.

If stronger antibacterial activity is desired, try adding 5-10 drops of goldenseal tincture to each ounce of the eyewash. However, if inflammation persists or worsens after a few days, or if pus, severe swelling, or damage to the eye or eyelid is apparent, consult a veterinarian.

Heart and reproductive tonic
Chamomile has also been shown to have tonic (strengthening) effects on smooth muscle tissues throughout the body, including those of the heart, bladder, and especially the uterus.

For dogs with functional deficiencies of the heart, chamomile extract can be combined with hawthorn (Crataegus sp.) extract and/or garlic for use as a daily heart tonic.

Chamomile also combines well with raspberry leaf or nettle leaf for use as a pre-pregnancy, tissue-strengthening tonic for the uterus.

See a holistic veterinarian to find out if such a formula is appropriate for your companion.

The worms go out
Chamomile’s usefulness in expelling worms is often overlooked in favor of stronger, antihelmintic herbs such as wormwood, black walnut hulls, or garlic. However, while chamomile may not act as quickly, it is relatively nontoxic and can be used over extended periods. It serves well as an added measure against worms.

And, when added to antihelmintic herbs such as wormwood (Artemesia absinthe) and garlic powder, chamomile offers anti-inflammatory activities that can help minimize the side effects of parasites that have already wreaked havoc upon intestinal mucosa – especially when the soothing, lubricating properties of marshmallow root are added to the regimen as well.

Chamomile safety
While the uterotonic activity of chamomile is very subtle, its use in pregnant animals should be limited to tea forms of the herb (which are less potent than tinctures).

Like all herbs that constrict uterine tissues, high concentration chamomile extracts may act as an abortifacient if used in excessive amounts during early pregnancy. Furthermore, studies suggest that excessive use of chamomile during pregnancy may increase fetus reabsorption and inhibit fetus growth in some animals. Therefore, common sense dictates that chamomile is best reserved for only occasional use during pregnancy.

Although chamomile is without doubt one of the safest herbs in existence, some animals (and humans) are allergic to it. Always check for sensitivity before feeding this herb, especially if your companion is already prone to hay fever or other plant allergies. Apply a small amount of the preparation to your dog’s skin. If no redness or other reactions are observed within a couple of hours, feed just a drop or two and watch for anything out of the ordinary.

 

Also With This Article
"What You Can Do..."
"A Natural Regimen for Worm Prevention."
"Grow Your Own."

-Greg Tilford serves as a consultant and formulator to holistic veterinarians throughout the world, and is CEO of Animal’s Apaw-thecary, a company that develops herbal products specifically for use in animals. Tilford is also author of four books on herbal medicine, including "All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets," co-authored with his wife, Mary. See "Resources" for more information.

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