Horses and dogs self-medicate in the English hedgerows

Oak before ash

It’s May and I’m in England. The sun is shining brightly, the oak trees are out before the ash, which is hopeful (oak before ash we’re in for a splash, ash before oak we’re in for a soak), and the green fields here on my friend Pauhla’s organic farm are full of healthy lambs. I am walking down the lane with Doug the Collie, who at 18 months old needs time out from his brother and sister and a little special attention to keep him on the track to being a good citizen.

Doug is on the lead, part of the educational experience for a working collie who is used to dashing all over the farm with a pack of dogs, and we walk slowly down the road. He sniffs at the traces of badger, deer, fox, that cross the road, pointing longingly down into the woods where the wild tracks lead. Then we reach a patch of particularly juicy grass and he starts to snack on it, carefully choosing the blades, thicker ones that will cleanse the intestines and I make a mental not to check on his worm load, as rough grass is often used as a mechanical wormer, scraping the intestines clean. He finishes off his snack with a few bites of dandelion leaf, really delicious at this time of year and perfect for cleansing the blood after winter’s stagnation.

Nature’s health food store

The dogs have more or less free access to all the local herbiage, not to mention generous helpings of half-digested protein coated with digestive enzymes (otherwise known as sheep faeces), so I don’t often have the pleasure of going out grazing with them, but I regularly take Doodle, my horse partner, to graze the hedgerows. At this time of year the hedgerows are full of health-giving plants, and I am always curious about Dood’s choices as it gives me a clue as to what is going on in his body and if he is lacking anything in his diet. At the moment he is fond of the very tips of the hawthorn hedge and dandelion leaves.

Hawthorn (Crataegus species) is a common thorny shrub in the rose family, commonly used in the hedges of the British Isles. In May it is covered in frothy white flowers. Hawthorn contains many substances that may benefit the heart. These antioxidant flavonoids — including OPCs — may help dilate blood vessels, improve blood flow, and protect the blood vessels from damage.

Although the berries, leaves, and flowers of the hawthorn plant have been used for medicinal purposes, modern preparations use the leaves and flowers, which are believed to contain more of the flavonoids than the berries.

I’m all for Doods topping up on flavonoids and stimulating his circulation.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a rich source of vitamins A, B complex, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc. In traditional medicine, dandelion roots and leaves were used to treat liver problems. Native Americans also used dandelion decoctions to treat kidney disease, swelling, skin problems, heartburn, and stomach upset. Chinese medicinal practitioners used dandelion to treat digestive disorders, appendicitis, and breast problems (such as inflammation or lack of milk flow). In Europe, herbalists incorporated it into remedies for fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea.

Spring time is Liver time

Today, dandelion roots are mainly used as an appetite stimulant, digestive aid, and for liver and gallbladder function.

Spring is the best time to cleanse and strengthen the Liver and I noticed that Doodle’s Liver association point ( a point on the back where you can check the energy flow in the Liver meridian) was a little cold and hollow confirming that his Liver needed a boost. On top of his self-selection of herbs I offered him essential oils that support Liver function: seaweed (Fucus vesiculosa) for detox, juniperberry (Juniperis communis) for flushing out toxins, carrotseed (Daucus carota) for liver repair and digestive health, and bergamot (Citrus bergamia) to stimulate liver and gall-bladder function and stimulate the immune system.

Doodle chose the carrotseed and bergamot, so I diluted them in sunflower oil and he licked them from my hands enthusiastically. The next day when I came to visit him with a bouquet of hawthorn, dandelions and cow parsley he nibbled at them a little then spat out all but the dandelions, he still liked the essential oils but was a little less enthusiastic than the day before.

I was relieved that whatever imbalance he had been feeling was already under control, as shown by his decreased interest in herbs and oils, and happy to have such an easy way to understand and assist in my animals’ health. With just a little understanding of herbs and essential oils and observation of our animal’s behaviour we can enter into their world, and make them more comfortable in ours.

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