Herbs for Animals
High in the unspoiled mountains of a land that will someday be the state of Colorado, a young Ute Indian watches from a safe distance as a grizzly bear digs roots in a marshy alpine meadow. It is the same big bear he had watched earlier in the spring, when she had first emerged from her long winter nap. The ground was still frozen, but he had watched as the sow anxiously tore into the icy ground to extract roots that lay dormant beneath. The young man was curious about what the powerful animal was eating, and he had gone to the exact spot where the bear had been clawing the frozen earth, but she had succeeded in taking the root--- and the ground was too hard for a mere human to excavate. But now the snow had melted, and a deep carpet of green flora covered the meadow. This time the young man could see which plant the bear was eating--- it was one with lacey, parsley-like leaves and white, umbel-shaped flowers--- but most notably it had a brown, hairy taproot with a strong pungent aroma. He remembered seeing other bears digging and eating this root before, and like this bear, all had taken only a few roots and had moved on, leaving plenty of plants behind for others to share. The bears obviously weren’t eating the roots as food, but for some other reason… perhaps to heal themselves?
The young man patiently waited for the bear to be on its way, then dug a few of the roots to bring to his people, being careful to leave plenty for others in need. Later he would learn that he was correct--- the roots were medicinal, and the Ute people decided to name the plant Osha', an Indian word for “bear root.” Eventually every tribe of the Mountain West learned of this powerful medicine--- one that is still used today for ailments ranging from a simple sore throat to serious cases of viral pneumonia.
As one who has been blessed with the opportunity of living close to the land in the mountains of Montana (I was off the power grid for 11 years) it is easy for me to hypothesize the early origins of herbal medicine. Like my ancient Ute friend I have spent countless hours studying the relationships between plants and wild animals. I too have watched wild animals as they nibble, dig, sniff or even lay down to roll in plants that are not their foods, but something else. I have watched deer nibble the tough, leathery leaves of Coptis occidentalis---a bitter herb with a gold-colored thready root--- the likes of which have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years as an antiseptic, antiparasitic, and liver stimulant. I have seen elk take just a bite or two of Arrowleaf balsamroot--- a tough daisy-like inhabitant of dry sub alpine hillsides, then move on. Arrowleaf balsamroot is a plant that I personally use as an alternative to Echinacea for immune health (by the way, both are old North American Indian medicines).
Indeed, wild animals are among Earth’s first herbalists--- and it is clear that herbs still stand as their primary choice of medicine throughout the animal kingdom. Of course they have an innate ability to seek and use what their bodies require. But what about the animals we have domesticated? Can they benefit from the healing powers of plants as well?
My answer is yes, they can--- but unlike their wild ancestors, the dogs, cats and other animals in our lives no longer possess the same depth of intuitiveness that their wild brothers and sisters enjoy. Instead, they depend largely on us to select and apply their herbal medicines for them.
But how do we choose the correct herbs for them? How do we know what will be effective, safe?
I will answer these questions later--- in future issues of Dynamic Living magazine. But first, there are a few very important principles of herbal medicine you should learn and take into heart right now--- important rules of holistic healing that apply to human herbalists as well.
First, you must keep in mind that herbs are best used in support of natural body functions. Not to shut down, bypass or otherwise substitute body functions as many drugs do, but to strengthen what the body already has in place.