Features February 2003 Issue

Herbal Medicines and Nutritive Herbs

Dogs benefit from these medicinal foods in the winter and early spring.

by Gregory L. Tilford

Wild dogs, researchers have observed, browse a broad variety of berries, grasses, flower blossoms, seeds, and even a few roots in their continuous search for food. Many of the plants they eat are quite tasty, even to us humans, while others are not palatable at all. In fact, some of the plants wild animals nibble upon may even be regarded by humans as potentially toxic. So why do they consume such plants? Because maybe they are not looking for food. Perhaps they are seeking medicine.

Young, fresh wheat grass or barley grass is easy to find and grow. Given free access to the plants, many dogs (and cats!) will graze on the tender blades.

Unlike human herbalists, wild dogs do not need a stack of herb books and years of study to effectively utilize herbal medicines. Instead they rely on a much more time-honored system of herbal wisdom – one that is based from an intuitive sense of knowing what, when, and how much plant medicine is needed to fulfill a specific need or to correct an imbalance.

However, domestic dogs have lost much of their intuitive abilities to seek and select the herbal medicines they need, and this problem is further exacerbated during winter months or in urban environments – where access to fresh, clean grass and other weedy medicine may be limited or out of their reach. Unlike his wild ancestors, the family dog relies on you – his caregiver – to provide him with the herbal diversity he needs.

The need for nutritive herbs
Although the canine appetite is generally focused on fresh meat and vegetables, dogs sometimes will have a craving for plants that are not part of their usual diet. From the perspective of a holistic veterinary herbalist, this urge comes from an instinctive drive to fulfill special requirements that cannot be addressed by diet alone.

For example, in winter and early spring, dogs may be particularly attracted to sprigs of common quackgrass (Elytrigia repens), a persistent weed that has earned an alternate common name of “Dog Grass.” Why the craving for dog grass? Because in winter months, when wild greens are less abundant, dogs have an increased need for things that help support digestion, hair growth, and digestion.

Each blade of dog grass contains silicon for strong joints and connective tissues, essential fatty acids for vibrant skin and coat, enzymes for good digestion, chlorophyll for antioxidant support, and soap-like saponin constituents that combine with stringy fibers to help cleanse the digestive tract and keep parasites in check.

The roots of this persistent weed are medicinal too, with anti-inflammatory and tonic properties that help strengthen mucous membranes, maintain urine pH, and safely reduce inflammation in the urinary tract – a condition that is sometimes unseen but nevertheless present as a result of low-grade infection or poor waste elimination.

Likewise, dogs will occasionally chew on berries, seeds, nuts, leaves, flowers, even tree and shrub bark, all of which may contain healing properties that their bodies need to stave off illness. The red or purple fruits of raspberry, rose bushes, and hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha), for instance, all contain flavonoid constituents that are beneficial to the cardiovascular system. The oils contained in the raw seeds of flax, currants, wheat and other grains, pumpkins, and squashes may be relished on certain occasions, when extra measures of essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals are needed for hair growth health.

Garlic bulbs, the green tops of onions, and all other edible members of the Allium family might also be the target of selective nibbling, as they possess antioxidant and immunostimulant activities that help boost the body’s resistance against bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection during periods of increased susceptibility or exposure.

Even certain types of algae (the stuff we often refer to as “pond scum”) contains a cornucopia of nutrients and disease-fighting chemicals that wild dogs may seek in times of need. But how do we choose these things for the “mighty wolves” that live amongst us? When do they need these things, and in what amounts?

Just add green foods
Fortunately, these questions are easily answered. By providing a daily helping of nutritive herbs and “green foods” at mealtime, your dog will be provided with added measures of nutritional and systemic support that his body can freely access and utilize. Several high quality choices are available in the marketplace, and although their ingredients may vary, they all share a similar purpose – to fill in the edges of a balanced, natural diet.

Products such as Ark Natural’s “Nu-Pet Granular Greens,” Animal Essentials’ “All-Organic Green Alternatives” (which I had a hand in formulating), and others will help bridge the gap between what your best friend receives from his diet and what his body needs from time to time for special systemic support. In other words, green food supplements put extra building blocks of health maintenance into place for your dog, in a way that replicates much of the botanical diversity that is used by dogs in the wild. Similarly, you can provide a green food supplement simply by providing your dog with a planter of fresh, live wheat or barley grass, a tablespoon or two of alfalfa sprouts, a sprinkling of spirulina, or a variety of dried herbs mixed with his food.

However, before you “go for the green” on behalf of your companion, it is important to realize that green food supplements can only serve to round out a good diet; they cannot be expected to replace the nutritional elements that may be missing from poor quality food. Therefore, if you insist on feeding bargain basement kibble, don’t waste your money on a green food supplement.

With that said, the following is a descriptive list of some safe and nutritious green foods that may serve as healthful additions to your dog’s diet. Many of them are used as ingredients in widely available, premium quality green food supplements.

Flaxseed contains Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are very important in the development and maintenance of a healthy brain, liver, heart, and immune system. In fact, these acids are so important, an animal (or human, for that matter) cannot survive without them. Several studies have confirmed that Omega-3 fatty acids are essential factors in the brain development of young animals, and may even help protect the brain against certain types of neurotoxins. Numerous studies have also shown that daily supplementation with EFAs may dramatically improve the skin, coat, and nails in animals who receive them as a supplement to a good diet. Flaxseed also contains fiber and various other constituents that play important roles in maintaining a healthy digestive tract.

Spirulina is one of nature’s greatest super foods. This blue-green micro algae is a rich source of vitamins, including beta-carotene (vitamin A), niacin, biotin, pantothenic acid, choline, inositol, folic acid, vitamins C, B1, B2, B6, and a huge amount of vitamin B12.

Commercial supplements containing green foods can be a boon to dogs in winter and early spring.

Just as impressive is spirulina’s array of minerals and trace minerals. Up to 15 percent of its chemical structure includes calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, iodine, zinc, titanium, copper, cobalt, and manganese, to name just a few! Spirulina is also a very rich source of chlorophyll, a substance that is believed to possess powerful antioxidant qualities. To top all of this off, spirulina contains up to 70 percent bioavailable protein.

Perhaps the best feature of spirulina is the way it offers its nutrients in a concentrated yet fully bioavailable form. Have you ever wondered why your urine is dark-colored after taking a B-complex capsule? This is because the body (whether it is animal or human) can assimilate only a limited amount of the vitamins at one time. Whatever the body cannot use must be eliminated via the liver and urinary system. Unlike many nutritional supplements that contain unnatural megadoses of vitamins and minerals that cannot be fully absorbed by the body, spirulina offers its nutritional wealth to the body as a food that the body can use without added strain upon the liver and kidneys.

In fact, instead of causing added strain to body systems, spirulina supports liver function by helping with the elimination of waste and protecting liver cells against damage from various toxins and pathogens. Spirulina also helps feed the intestinal flora, thus aiding in digestion and boosting the bioavailability of nutrients contained in an animal’s diet. People who feed spirulina to their pets typically report increased energy levels, healthier coat, stronger disease resistance, and even improved behavior.

Garlic is well known for its qualities as an immune-stimulant, antioxidant, antiparasitic, and blood tonic. Scientific studies have shown that various compounds in garlic stimulate immune functions in the bloodstream at levels of activity that are unparalleled by any other herb – yes, even echinacea! Perhaps the most intriguing of these actions is garlic’s effect on the body’s natural killer cells – those that seek out and destroy cancer cells and invading microbes. In a study conducted with human subjects who had AIDS, garlic was found to increase killer cell activity three-fold. Similar animal studies have been conducted with similar results.

A 1988 study found that diallyl sulfide, a garlic constituent, prevented tumor formation in rats, and several other studies have shown that garlic inhibits various forms of cancer growth in the body. This may be attributable to the liver-strengthening actions of at least six garlic constituents. In this capacity, garlic gently enhances overall liver function, and triggers enzyme responses to help break down waste materials before they go into the bloodstream. In other words, garlic helps the liver cleanse the body, and thus helps prevent toxic accumulations that may lead to cancerous growths.

Dandelion root gently strengthens liver and gallbladder function, thus improving digestion and serving as a functional aid in the systemic elimination of toxins and waste products from the body. This in turn helps prevent chronic disorders such as arthritis, eczema, and psoriasis.

The liver is the primary filtering organ of the body, responsible for removing toxins and excesses from the blood for elimination via the kidneys. The liver also plays critical roles in digestion through its production of bile, bilirubin, and various enzymes. If bile ducts in the liver or gall bladder become congested, blocked, or otherwise diseased to the point of dysfunction, the body will invariably suffer one or more toxicity related imbalances. Such imbalances may be characterized by symptoms such as jaundice, rheumatoid conditions, or chronic constipation.

Dandelion root has a well-validated ability to stimulate bile production and circulation throughout the liver. In one study involving dogs, researchers observed a three to four times increase in bile production after administration of dandelion root. The gallbladder (which stores bile from the liver) is also stimulated, causing this small, hollow organ to contract and release bile into the digestive tract, thus aiding in digestion and acting as a gentle laxative to promote the elimination of solid waste.

Pumpkin seeds taste good and provide Omega-6 fatty acids and vitamin E for healthy muscles, nervous system, and strong skin and coat. Fresh ground pumpkin seeds also contain cucurbitin, a compound that is believed to combat and prevent overpopulation of intestinal parasites, especially tapeworms.

Kelp is a great source of iron, iodine, zinc, boron, chromium, selenium, and several other trace minerals. It is especially rich with vitamin B12, and is often used by herbalists to help strengthen thyroid function in animals that suffer hypothyroidism but do not exhibit symptoms of thyroid tumor.

Nettle offers potent health benefits, even in small doses.

Nettle is a nutritive herb that lends mild astringent and antihistamine qualities to its long list of nutritional attributes. It is considered a tonic to the reproductive system, kidneys, and urinary tract.

Nettle is a perfect example of a food-medicine. One hundred grams of dried, pre-flowering nettle plant contain up to 30.4g (30 percent by weight) of crude protein, 2,970 mg of calcium, 680 mg of phosphorus, 32.2 mg of iron, 650 mg of magnesium, 20.2 mg of beta-carotene, and 3,450 mg of potassium; along with vitamins A, C, D, and B-complex. All of this is contained in a highly palatable form that can be effectively assimilated into the body without adding excess stress upon the liver, kidneys, or digestive tract. This makes nettle an excellent food additive for animals who need extra trace minerals and vitamins in their diet, but not necessarily in huge, multi-vitamin doses.

Alfalfa contains a broad spectrum of nutrients, including considerable quantities of protein (up to 50 percent), trace minerals, dietary fiber, and vitamins A, B1, B12, C, D, E, and K. It is also very high in chlorophyll, which serves as an antioxidant.

In addition to being highly nutritive, alfalfa is traditionally known as one of the best herbal treatments for arthritis, rheumatism, and gout. Clinical research of the aforementioned diseases have shown that at least 10 to 20 percent of human subjects will experience dramatic reduction of painful symptoms with the use of this herb. Traditional uses in animals have commonly led to similar results. This is likely attributable to alfalfa’s impressive chemical array of saponins, beta-sitosterol, stigmasterol, alpha-spinasterol, flavonoids, coumarin, alkaloids, beta-carotene, chlorophyll, octacosanol, and amino acids.

For arthritis and other inflammatory diseases of the joints, alfalfa can bring long- term relief to dogs, cats, rodents, horses, and various other herbivores who receive it as a daily food supplement.

In the urinary tract, alfalfa has an alkalizing effect, thus it may help to balance urine pH and prevent overly acidic urine.

Alfalfa also possesses cancer preventative qualities. It is believed that alfalfa induces complex cellular activities, and its considerable vitamin K content has been shown to be beneficial in remedying bleeding disorders that may result from long-term antibiotic therapies, anticoagulants, aspirin, and anticonvulsant drugs.

This nutritional plant also helps to stimulate appetite and is useful in helping an animal adjust to a new diet.

Yucca is known for its ability to stimulate appetite and increase absorption of vital nutrients in the small intestine. It has been shown to stimulate weight gain and increase metabolic efficiency in virtually every type of animal.

Yucca contains saponin compounds known as sarsasapogenin and smilagenin. These phytosterol constituents are believed to be useful for relieving inflamed joints in animals with arthritis and other rheumatoid diseases. More importantly, these and other compounds are thought to aid in the assimilation of important minerals and vitamins by promoting increased passage of critical nutrients through the intestinal walls. This optimizes the nutritional value of the food to which it is added.

It is important to note, however, that only a very small amount of the powdered root (perhaps a pinch or two) is needed to achieve the result of improved nutrient absorption. Too much of this herb, fed continuously, may actually have a reverse effect, causing nausea and irritation of mild intestinal mucosa, which in turn can actually block absorption of nutrients. With this in mind, I feel that it is not necessary – and may be counter-productive – to feed supplements that contain any more than 10 percent yucca root on a long-term basis, at least if your only goal is to provide nutritional support.

How to feed green foods
Regardless of whether you choose to provide your companion with dried herbs from the bulk bins at your local herb retailer or opt to buy a commercial formula like Granular Greens or Green Alternative, daily feeding is easy, economical, and safe. If you are the do-it-yourself type, nettle leaf, dandelion leaf, ground flaxseed, ground pumpkin seed, and spirulina all represent good, easy to find choices. In fact, all can be combined to make an excellent home-prepared formula that can be fed once per day at a rate of teaspoon per 20 pounds of your dog’s body weight. Simply mix the formula into wet food.

Likewise, a tray of fresh green wheat grass or barley grass can be left by the water dish at all times for occasional nibbling. However, if you intend to leave live grass in the kitchen for your dog, expect that sometimes he may want to eat it ravenously – for the purpose of digestive cleansing and/or regurgitation (yes, that means vomiting and then eating it again). This is normal behavior that has been passed down through hundreds of canine generations, from the mighty wolf of the wild north, to the homes of modern urbania. Just beware – if the occasional nibble turns into full-fledged grazing, it’s time for a walk!

See “Resources” for information about where to purchase supplements mentioned in this article.


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Greg Tilford is a well-known veterinary herbalist, lecturer, and author. He serves as a consultant and formulator to hundreds of holistic veterinarians throughout the world, and is CEO of Animal’s Apawthecary, a company that develops herbal products specifically for use in animals. He is author of four books on herbs, including All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets (Bowtie, 1999), which he co-authored with his wife, Mary.

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