Growing Dog-Healthy Herbs
Even a very small organic garden can benefit you and your dog.
by Randy Kidd, DVM, PhD
There are many easy-to-grow herbs that are also good medicine for dogs (and their people).
But first, a disclaimer: When I say “easy to grow,” in my case I mean that they are easy for my wife, Sue, to grow. Sue is the family gardener; I help pick out the good-medicine herbs from the seed catalogues, and it is my strong back that does the autumn tilling and the forking of donkey dung over the beds. (I actually do some of the day-to-day watering and weeding throughout the summer, but so far, I’ve been able to claim a lingering football injury that lets me avoid the worst of the chores.)
If Sue has her way, I suppose she will eventually transform me into a true dirt farmer (although in 40+ years of marriage it hasn’t happened yet). Sue, as the real gardener in this family, claims she absolutely needs to get her hands in the dirt to feel healthy. I am the gardener-thinker, and I hope some of my ideas on gardening for pets will help you as you plan this year’s garden.
It is Sue’s “paws in the dirt” concept that I think is perhaps the most important when we are thinking about gardening for the health and healing of our dogs. I believe that all of us (two- and four-leggeds) absolutely need to “ground” ourselves with Mother Earth. What’s the first thing a dog does when you let him out of the house? Roll on the ground! Unless, of course there’s a cow pie nearby; then he’ll roll in it.
Give a dog enough free time on the ground, and (as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas observed and reported in her book, The Hidden Lives of Dogs) she will eventually dig a hole – a place to lie in throughout the day. A place to reconnect with the essence of the land. A place to be cool and calm and to bathe her skin with the healing elements of the soil.
Digging in the dirt, grounding, connects us with the soul of the earth, brings us to the calming resonance from the core of our true center. There’s more, especially for the organic gardener: Soils, at least those unharmed by herbicides and pesticides, contain a medicine chest of chemicals produced by the plants, beneficial bacteria, worms and bugs, and a thick weave of healing fungal mycelia. Volatile oils, substances that are used in aromatherapy for healing, are also dispersed by many herbs and are wafted over the garden in abundance. Garden plants utilize all these to help maintain their own healthy integrity, but the hands and paws that work the soil also benefit.
Sue and I also believe it is important for our pets to share the healthy aspects of being in the garden, and so far we have been able to train our dogs so they don’t destroy our plantings, just by being there when they have access to the garden, interrupting inappropriate behavior and encouraging good. When Rufus was still alive, he would simply pick a place nearby wherever we were working to lie down for the day. Our new puppy, Pokey, is understandably a bit more of a challenge, but we have been able to limit his diggings to the edges of the garden beds where he insists on burying his bones.
Mining the earth
Gardening is a way of mining vital minerals and other essential elements from the depths of the soil. Roots from the plants in the garden reach many feet into the dirt, spreading little rootlets throughout a vast expanse of mine-able soil. If we could see below ground level, we’d discover that the extent and mass of a plant’s root system far exceeds the greenery and flowers visible above ground. This entire mass of root system is actively bringing up the essential elements that the plant transforms into the nutrients and micronutrients that ultimately become vitamins, minerals, and medicinally active biochemicals.
When it comes to their ability for mining the depths of the earth, it turns out that weeds, with their extensive root systems, are some of the best miners around. Dandelions and burdock come to mind as especially proficient dirt-miners, but the key is to check out your yard and look for the weeds that want to grow there; these will be the weeds doing the work for you for free. Since many of the common herbs are such efficient mineral miners, they also make an excellent material to add to your compost.
Native Americans (and other traditional healers) thought that plants were sent here to be our healers, and some even believed that you could tell what disease was about to afflict someone in the family by which plant species were growing nearby. (This is one of the “myths” I always tell the folks in my workshops, and invariably I have someone in the group who has a dramatic story to tell about how this has proven true for their family.)
Whether or not you believe the myth, it can’t hurt to give a little respect to the weeds growing in your backyard and to harvest them for use as preventive medicine. Conversely, you can do plenty of damage to your surrounding environment and to the critters who walk on that land whenever you apply herbicides to kill weeds or pesticides to kill bugs.
Examples of medicinal weeds worth harvesting include:
• Chickweed (Stellaria media) – For joint conditions and diseases of the blood or lymph systems.
• Cleavers (Galium aparine) – Used for urinary infections, constipation, and dermatitis.
• Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) – A potent diuretic, used for some kidney conditions. Also good for liver and gallbladder complaints.
• Lambsquarters (Chenopodium alba) – Leaves are a nutritious lettuce substitute; the seeds, left on the plants, make a good autumn wild bird seed.
• Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) – Used for cardiac problems and conditions of the female reproductive system.
• Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – For respiratory condidions.
• Plantain (Plantago spp.) – Used externally as a poultice to draw out infections and/or foreign bodies from abscesses. Leaves are used internally to calm intestinal upset and decrease inflammation.
• Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – A mild medicinal for many conditions: asthma, skin conditions, and infections; also reputed to have anti-aging properties.
Interestingly, we’ve tried to grow many of the above weeds, planting seeds or transplanting plants and then giving them the full benefit of Sue’s best garden care, to no avail. It seems Nature is once again telling us to leave her alone; she knows best how to handle things.
Grow what you love
The best gardening advice I ever received came from Kansas State’s sustainable agriculture specialist. She was looking for people who would grow various species of herbs and then scientifically evaluate the plant’s yields in measured plots, to see what plants might be commercially feasible in Kansas.
When I volunteered (actually I volunteered Sue), the ag lady asked me, quite seriously, “What plant do you really love?” I thought that was a strange question, especially from a scientist. She explained: “We’ve found that if a person really loves a plant – maybe they think a particular plant is especially beautiful, or they just love the smell of it, or the way it looks in a garden, or they may have a fond childhood memory of it – then that plant has the best possibility to grow to its full potential on that person’s land. Love of the plant seems to be the most consistent variable we can measure for the eventual success or failure of the plant’s growth.”
From my perspective as an herbal medicine man, it is not the most important thing to select the exactly correct herbal plant for the patient. Almost all herbs have a wide range of medical effectiveness, able to enhance and assist many organ systems at once.
I’ve told my clients many times: “The most important thing about herbal medicine is to use it. Don’t worry so much about learning the thousands of plants with known medicinal value and then trying to learn what each plant is specifically used for. Concentrate on finding an herb that appeals to you and your dog, and you will likely have found the correct herb.”
According to the research reported in Cindy Engel’s book, Wild Health, animals have the ability to keep themselves well by selecting the plants they need for healing at any particular time. I’ve found that most, if not all, our dogs can do likewise, and it is easy to give them the chance to do this. Simply give them a selection of several herbs (either by sprinkling herbs over their food or by letting them walk through the garden and observing which herbs tend to attract them), and they will often select the precise herb that should apply to their current condition.
Chemicals here and there
As a holistic veterinarian who recommends herbs for pets, I am a stickler for using only organically-grown herbs. There are several reasons for this.
Herbicides and pesticides are chemicals that have been manufactured and sold because of their ability to kill (or inhibit the growth of) plants and little critters. They are supposedly safe to use, when used as directed. Perhaps . . . But to my way of thinking, any amount of residual herbicide or pesticide is unacceptable and entirely unnecessary on a medicinal herb.
Whenever I think about the supposed safety of herbicides and pesticides, I am also reminded of the Big Environmental Mess we have gotten ourselves into by believing that antibiotics are perfectly safe. (See “Dangers of Antibiotic Misuse,” WDJ March 2004.) As with antibiotics, it can’t be good for the long-term ecology of the land that pesticides and herbicides indiscriminately kill a wide variety of the bugs and plants in the field, many of them actually beneficial.
Besides, when we grow medicinal herbals (and weeds) there is little, if any, reason to use herbicides or pesticides. Herbs (and the medicinal weeds) are typically resistant to almost all buggy pests. Pests thrive when we plant a large field of one type of a (typically hybrid) plant (monoculture) – the usual way commercial plants are grown.
In contrast, herbal gardeners usually grow their herbs in small patches, oftentimes hidden in the midst of a bigger garden. These small patches of herbs avoid the problem of attracting a population of plant-eating pests, and in fact, organic gardeners often plant small herb patches throughout their garden as a holistic means of pest control.
About weeds: Remember that many of the so-called weeds are medicinal, so harvesting them simply adds to the overall yield of the garden. Other weeds can be controlled by altering the chemical composition of the soil with organic soil amendments or by applying heavy layers of weed-inhibiting mulch. Finally, if the main reason to garden is to get our hands in the dirt, aren’t the weeds and the time we spend removing them by hand actually helping us achieve this objective?
Good organic gardening simply substitutes labor- and brain-intensive methods for the ease (and expense) of using commercial herbicides and pesticides. Any good organic gardening book will describe an abundance of nontoxic techniques to keep weeds and pests to a minimum.
Organic gardening techniques from the books will also demonstrate how to adequately fertilize the garden. Composting is the mainstay here, with weeds and leftover table scraps and garden produce often providing plenty of organic matter (humus) for the entire garden. It is important to realize that healthy soil creates its own balance of minerals, and humus is the essential component that allows this balance to occur.
It is also important to realize that a healthy soil balance allows plants to produce the bioactive chemicals (medicinals) they are meant to produce. If you alter the balance, the plant may not be able to manufacture those medicinals. Any time we alter the balance of the soil (by adding synthetic fertilizers, for example) we may temporarily increase the yield of green matter, but we will also alter the basic biochemistry (and thus the potential medicinal value) of the plant.
A few more tips
When picking out the plants or seeds for your herb garden, I suggest going for the wild. Many of the plants recommended for today’s gardeners are hybrids – plants that offer more flower, more smell, different colors, etc. The problem with these hybrids is that, while we have altered some showy aspect of the plant, we may have also altered its ability to produce medicinal substances, or its specific medicinal qualities may have been altered.
I’ve heard herbalists complain, for example, that the newer, fancy-colored varieties of yarrow (pink and blue, for example) don’t seem to have the medicinal qualities of the white variety typically found in the wild.
When buying seeds or plants, insist on species with the Latin name that you will find in the herbal medicine books. Here’s a hint to help you avoid hybrids: If the Latin name in the seed catalogue looks something like this: Lavendula x intermedia or Plantus officinalis v non-officinalis, then you are probably dealing with a hybrid. In these examples, the x and the v are the tipoffs.
Food is medicine; medicine is food. Don’t forget this when you are planting your garden (nor when you are feeding your dog). Tomatoes, for example, contain lycopenes, which have antioxidant properties, protect against cancer, and stimulate the brain. Carrots are a wonderful source of carotenoids, a potent source of vitamin A and antioxidants. Many purple-colored berries contain anthocyanidins, strong antioxidants that fight cancer and allergies and aid the immune system.
One final piece of advice: when it comes to gardening, small is beautiful. There’s nothing more discouraging than looking at an acre of garden that is choked with weeds because you didn’t have the time to properly tend it. The best part of growing herbs is that you can harvest pounds of plant medicine on a very small plot. Even a window planter or a few flower pots of herbs can yield lots of herbal medicine.
Some failsafe (almost) herbs
While the following list represents herbs that are typically easy to grow, how well they will grow in your backyard depends on your climate, the condition of your soil, and the love you have for the plant itself.
• Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – Most commonly used externally for wounds; has broad spectrum antimicrobial effects and speeds wound healing. Also used internally for gastrointestinal conditions.
• Cayenne (red peppers) (Capsicum annum) – Used internally and externally for joint conditions and muscular tensions. When used internally it is said to enhance the efficacy and distribution of other drugs.
• Culinary herbs – Most of the culinary herbs have a wide range of medicinal properties: antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and multi-organ system enhancement. In addition, they have high antioxidant values, often higher than better-known antioxidant vitamins C or E. Finally, they add spice to a dog’s typically bland diet and can thus enhance a lagging appetite.
Culinary herbs of note include: basil (Ocimum basilicum); lemon balm (Melissa officinalis); marjoram (Origanum majorana); oregano (Origanum vulgare); parsley (Petroselinum crispum); peppermint (Mentha piperita); rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis); sage (Salvia officinalis); and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).
• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) – A medicine chest in one plant. Balances the immune system, fights infection, helps heal wounds, and decreases inflammation.
• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – Used both internally and as an aroma to calm restlessness and insomnia.
• Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) – Used to treat irritation of the oral, pharyngeal, and gastric mucosa.
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – Used externally to stem bleeding and to help heal old wounds; known as “warrior’s wound wort.” Internally used to treat colds and flu and as an aid to liver problems.
Using herbs you’ve harvested
For using herbs internally, my advice is to use herbal “sprinkles” from the garden whenever possible; that is, fresh or fresh-dried herbs crumbled on the dog’s food. Use herbs routinely (at least several times a week) for their nutritional value as well as their medicinal components. I consider them as preventative medicine rather than cure, and when a cure is needed, I suggest that you rely on a qualified herbalist to help with the herbal selection, the dosage, and method of application.
Using a sprinkle of dried herbs gives your dog a small amount of the herb in its entirety, providing herbal medicine that is most likely to enhance your dog’s healthy whole-body balance. At the same time, this method of administration is highly unlikely to contain enough bioactive substances that could potentially be toxic. Sprinkles also activate the oral component of the immune system, which in turn enhances whole-body immune function. And perhaps most important of all, by giving sprinkles, you promote your dog’s innate ability to select what is best for him.
Use fresh herbs whenever possible. Simply let your dog be with you while you work in the garden. Let her absorb the healthy vitality of the entire garden through her pores and nasal passages. Then, take some of the fresh herb and sprinkle it over her food. If you think you must, brew a mild tea from the fresh herb (about a teaspoon to a tablespoon per cup of water), cool to room temperature, and pour it over her food. Or, put the tea into a dish and simply let her decide if she wants to drink it straight.
The easiest (and I think the best) way to use herbs topically for dogs is to brew up a tea of the herbs you have selected, let the tea cool to room temperature, then, using a plant sprayer/mister, apply the tea to the affected area as a mist. This way you get the full benefit of the herb without worrying about your dog licking off oily or greasy stuff from ointments or salves. The problem with this method (a problem I actually think may be an advantage) is that the effects of the herbal tea may not last long; you’ll need to repeat the spray several times a day.
While fresh herbs are best for either internal or external use, you can dry your excess herbs for storage and wintertime use. Dried herbs are used the same way as fresh, remembering that you only need about one-third to one-half as much of the volume of the dried herb to equal the same amount of fresh herb.
You can, of course, produce your own tinctures or capsules from your garden-grown herbs. I recommend using only the non-alcoholic tinctures (glycerine or glycerol) for pets. And, while tincturing is relatively easy to do, remember that no matter what method you use to extract the herbal essence, you have altered the basic biochemistry that the plant offered in its wholeness. This alteration has likely changed the medicinal potency and possible toxicity of the plant, so you need to know what you are doing before you proceed.
Let nature do your gardening work for you (or find a good mate). Harvest the weeds first (and educate the neighbors while you’re harvesting). Get your hands and your dog’s paws in the dirt, and enjoy the health-giving aromas coming from the plants. Grow what grows best in your area. Grow what you love. Plant and tend small, manageable plots. Stay away from chemicals. But finally, and most importantly, use your gardening time to reconnect your and your dog’s body and soul with nature.
When you give herbs to your dog, think health first, disease prevention second, and lastly, think about curing a specific condition or disease. Keep it simple – use fresh or dried herbal sprinkles whenever possible. If you want to move on to the next step – tincturing or encapsulating your herbs, do some research first.
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-Dr. Randy Kidd earned his DVM degree from Ohio State University and his Ph.D. in Pathology/Clinical Pathology from Kansas State University. A past president of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, he’s author of Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Dog Care and Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Cat Care (see "Resources").