Herbal Medicine for Animals

Veterinary Herbal Medicine – Veterinary Herbalism

Phytotherapy – Herbs for Animals

herb vet, herbal vet, herbal veterinary medicine


We cannot advise the administration of Skullcap, Valerian or a combination of these medicinal herbs around the time that a general anaesthetic is being given.


Herbs have been medicine and food for animals, since animal life emerged. Nature has always had its own medicines. With its abundant wisdom and generosity, it is hard to believe that Nature does not provide a cure for every ill, if only we could find it. Having originated in the same environment as plants, it is not surprising that animals have an inherent instinct for herbal medication of their health problems (zoopharmacognosy*), whether horses, dogs, cats, cattle, rabbits or other species. Early human peoples must also have possessed this natural instinct for herb treatment for their own medicine and ancient civilisations used herbs for themselves and for their animals, later refining their use into a complex medical tradition. Modern ‘civilisation’ and ‘education’ have seriously lessened the natural instinctive ability and capability in ‘developed' nations but it is fortunate that many of the herbal traditions have survived, for our edification and benefit. In fact, many modern drugs have been derived from medicinal herbs, which was not a random process. Drug companies looked for medicines in the very plants that traditionalists used, confirming the wisdom of the lore handed down through generations.

Despite the fact that the modern Western medical establishment appears to like to relegate herbalism or herbal treatment to the status of ‘folklore' or ‘old wives' tales', herbs or derivatives from herbs form the basis of much of the modern conventional medical armoury. Unsurprisingly, while very willing to exploit the clear therapeutic benefits of herbs in this way, the pharmaceutical industry does not readily advertise the ‘humble’ herbal origins of its vaunted patented products!

Medicinal herbs contain a vast spread of pharmacologically-active ingredients and each herb has its own unique combination and properties. They are classified in modern herbal medicine or phytotherapy according to their spheres of action. Many herbs contain ingredients which provide the whole plant with several such actions, combined in the one medicine. Recognised actions include alterative, anodyne, anthelmintic, anti-catarrhal, anti-emetic, anti-inflammatory, antilithic, antibacterial, antifungal, anti­spasmodic, aperient/laxative, aromatic, astringent, bitter, cardiac, carminative, cathartic/purgative, cholagogue and anticholagogue, demulcent, diaphoretic, diuretic, ecbolic, emetic, emollient, expectorant, febrifuge, galactagogue, hepatic, hypnotic, nervine, rubefacient, sedative, sialogogue, soporific, stimulant, styptic, tonic, vesicant and vulnerary. A herb vet selects for treatment a herb with the required action or a careful combination of medicinal herbs with the desired properties (virtues – benefits).

Alternatively, herbal medicines may be classified according to the category of constituents in their composition. Constituents include acids, alcohols, alkaloids, anthraquinones, bitters, carbohydrates, cardiac glycosides, coumarins, flavones, flavonoid glycosides, phenols, saponins, tannins and volatile oils.

Herbal medicines are traditionally selected by a herbal vet (herb vet) according to the perceived needs of the patient and based upon the constituents of the individual herbs in relation to the above mentioned actions. Whether single herbs are used, or a combination of herbs is selected by the herb vet depends upon the spread of activity of each herb and whether or not it supplies the necessary spectrum of action in the body.

It is of fundamental importance in herbal medicine (phytotherapy) that plants should be identified correctly. They should be harvested from unpolluted areas, where possible and should, if cultured, be grown without the use of modern agro-chemicals. It is also arguable that, where possible, indigenous species should be used because they may prove more suited to the patient’s constitution than exotic herbs. Herbal vet Chris is also concerned that we should avoid the use of threatened plant species and to purchase from sources that do not plunder sensitive habitats.

Practical Application – Veterinary Herbal Medicine

Herbs can be used for dogs, cats, horses, ponies and many other animal species. Equines (whether horse, pony or donkey) respond particularly well. This has led to a recent explosion of commercial exploitation. More and more attractively packaged herbal products are appearing on the shelves of horse feed outlets, pet outlets and on the internet. However, there are few experienced herbal vets* in the UK, so safe and effective coordination in a holistic manner is not common. It is important to remember that herbs and conventional medicines can clash dangerously or can summate with a risk of serious overdose. Off-the-shelf herbal medicines can therefore be dangerous if there is no skilled professional herbal vet overseeing the entire input given to the patient. It is not uncommon to find mainstream vets disregarding concurrent herbal input, presumably considering it irrelevant, with obvious dangers to your animal.

*Herbal vets don't grow on trees but some important herbal medicines do! Take salicylic acid, for instance, harvested from willow bark to give us aspirin and the Hawthorn Berry (Crataegus) that is such an effective cardiac (heart) support. At the AVMC, however, we would give willow bark or meadow sweet (another plant that is rich in salicylate), in the raw state, in preference to the manufactured chemical extract. N.B.: Willow and Meadowsweet herbal medicines should not be given in conjunction with conventional NSAIDs and vice versa.

Traditional herbal medicine, whether Ayurvedic medicine, Indian herbs, Chinese herbs (Traditional Chinese Medicine – TCM), Western herbs, African herbs, Native North American herbal lore or other indigenous practice, is a holistic therapy and relies upon the whole plant, or defined portions of it. It does not presume to identify a single pharmacologically-active ingredient for isolated use.

Modern herbal medicine is drifting towards pharmacognosy, the science of defining specific supposed ‘active’ ingredients of herbs, then extracting and purifying them and using them in isolation. This is not holistic medicine and it is not, strictly speaking, herbal medicine (phytotherapy) and it carries inherent dangers, which do not attach to using whole plants. Herb vet Chris Day believes that the natural combination of ingredients of the whole plant tend to act in synergy and to balance each other in nature (a truly holistic concept), whereas man disturbs this holistic balance with his ‘interference’. This is also happening in the veterinary herbal field and is a far cry from herbal medicine's holistic roots. Many products are now being marketed in this way, especially herbs for horses and herbs for dogs. Some nutraceutical products are also formulated with this rationale. Caveat emptor.

It is then but a small step to altering molecules, patenting them and making millions of pounds/dollars from a marketed drug, with even greater potential for side-effects (this is the essence of modern conventional drug medicine, which has clearly evolved from herbal medicine in this way). This is reductionism at work (as opposed to holistic principles), with the lure of massive profits potentially blurring the boundaries of common sense, science and safety.

Herbal vet medicine includes such amazingly effective agents as willow bark (providing salicylate, which is an Aspirin-like and very effective pain killer, at much lower doses than one might expect, when compared to Aspirin itself), Digitalis or foxglove (a remarkably effective heart drug, having action on all aspects of cardiac function), dandelion (an effective diuretic also providing copious potassium, which modern diuretics tend to drain from the body! – French name pis en lit) and periwinkle or Vinca (a predecessor of the potent cancer drug Vincristine).

In horses and ponies particularly, since they are classical herbivores, herbs provide a useful source of minerals and vitamins, in my opinion better than artificial sources. In this situation, we may describe herbs for horses as food, playing an important part in the nutrition of the animal. The boundary between food and medicine was never so blurred as in herbal lore. Hippocrates is credited with saying “let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food”. The distinction is not clear and there is no reason for it to be clear. We are, after all, thinking holistically. It is true to say, however, that herbs fall into various categories, some much more food-like than others and some much more medicine-like than others. It is the context, the motivation and the dosage which govern the rôle of the herb.

Herbal vet usage: conditions often treated with herbs, in dogs, cats, horses and other animals, sometimes in conjunction with other therapies, include: COPD, laminitis, digestive disturbance, diarrhoea, nervousness, arthritis, liver problems (hepatopathy), sinusitis, chronic cough, skin problems, respiratory problems, heart problems, hoof quality (hoof health) and kidney problems. At the AVMC, we also formulate herb mixes to accompany grass pastures or for winter time, to ensure availability of essential nutrients. Modern grassland management, whether supplying grazing or conserved forage (hay, haylage, grass nuts, dried grass), is not conducive to optimum horse health and well-being and supplying a variety of nutritious herbs can compensate for this to an extent.

Species treated by the herb vet at the AVMC include: horses, ponies, goats, donkeys, mules, cats, dogs, cattle, pigs, sheep, llamas, alpacas, buffalo, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, lizards, terrapins, tortoises, snakes, raptors, poultry (domestic fowl), cage birds, budgies, canaries, budgerigars, parrots, parakeets, macaws, birds of prey (raptors).

As a herb vet / herbal vet, Chris D believes that there is a logic in the notion that herbs indigenous to the patient's country should be used in preference to ‘exotic' herbs, although Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs have become fashionable in the UK, at present. There follow some simplified examples of Western herbs, classified according to pharmacological activity:

  • Alteratives e.g.: Burdock (Arctium)
  • Antispasmodics e.g.: Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga – USA)
  • Aperients e.g.: Flax seed (Linum)
  • Astringents e.g.: Golden Rod (Solidago)
  • Anthelmintics e.g.: Garlic (Allium)
  • Bitters e.g.: Tansy (Tanacetum)
  • Carminatives e.g.: Sage (Salvia)
  • Cardiacs e.g.: Hawthorn (Crataegus)
  • Demulcents e.g.: Comfrey (Symphytum)
  • Diaphoretics e.g.: Elder (Sambucus), Cleavers (Galium)
  • Diuretics e.g.: Dandelion (Taraxacum)
  • Expectorants e.g.: Vervain (Verbena)
  • Febrifuges e.g.: Angelica (Angelica)
  • Hepatics e.g.: Motherwort (Leonurus)
  • Nervines e.g.: Hops (Humulus)
  • Rubefacients e.g.: Nettle (Urtica)
  • Sedatives e.g.: Skullcap (Scutellaria), Valerian (Valeriana)
  • Stimulants e.g.: Horseradish (Cochlearia)
  • Tonics e.g.: Elecampane (Inula)
  • Vulneraries e.g.: Marigold (Calendula), Cleavers (Galium)

Horse Herbs Dog Herbs Cat Herbs

A herb vet can also use some herbal preparations as food supplements, mainly for their nutritive benefits: e.g. various species of seaweed (e.g. kelp, wrack, bladderwrack, algae, chlorella), garlic and brewers yeast. At the AVMC, we advocate buying these as unadulterated ‘straight' preparations, rather than in expensive packaged product form.

At the AVMC, we avoid brand wars and favouring one brand of herbal medicines over another but we advise using a manufacturing source with a deep tradition and with licensed products, rather than some more recent company with no experience, that has seen the marketing opportunity and leapt in with a range of herbal medicines with attractive packaging and seductive advertising and labelling.

In case it is helpful to clients, we do formulate off-the-shelf herbal mixtures, for general nutritional support, for arthritis, for laminitis, for respiratory problems, for hoof health and for other problems. Enquire at the office, if interested. This is a service for the benefit of current clients and patients.

Since finite doses of pharmacologically-active agents are being given in herbal medicine (herbal veterinary medicine), it is theoretically possible that dosing with many of the available herbal medicines would cause a horse or dog to fail competition ‘dope’ tests. There is also a definite risk of residues of phytotherapy in ‘food animal' products, such as meat, milk or eggs. It is possible, furthermore, that herbs can ‘summate', potentially dangerously, with conventional drugs that have been given for similar purposes. In addition, there is a risk of a clash with intercurrent conventional medication. An experienced herb vet should be aware of all these factors and be sensitive to them.

Many unlicensed herbal ‘products’ exist on the market, advertised with great vigour and containing quasi-legal, unsupported, medical claims, whether in the literature, on the label or in the name. The AVMC advises to avoid these. They are neither tailored to your animal nor integrated with the patient's other medication or food. No effort is made to ensure that they are used safely alongside any other medication, which is potentially very dangerous. They are sold more for profit than for medicine. No effort has been spent on supplying proof of efficacy, safety and quality (as required for a product licence), despite the claims or implied claims of efficacy and many of the companies have no proper herbal tradition. Caveat emptor – buyer beware!


To illustrate the scope of herbal medicine, we have prepared several pages on phytotherapy for the major species:

Herbs for Horses, Ponies, Donkeys & Mules: Horses Herbal Medicine – Ponies Herbal Medicine

Herbs for Dogs: Dogs Herbal Medicine

Herbs for Cats: Cats Herbal Medicine

Aromatherapy (the use of so-called essential oils) is a branch of herbal medicine. However, it is mainly distillates (volatile fractions) that are used, so the indications and usages vary.

While homeopathy uses herbs in the preparation of some of its medicines, it should not be confused with herbal medicine. The rationale of use, the indications and the mode of action are very different in many cases.

Integrated Veterinary Medicine

Herbal medicine (phytotherapy) can be integrated satisfactorily with Acupuncture. It can also be integrated with Homeopathy, with care and caution. When combining Herbal Medicine with conventional drug medicine or Aromatherapy, beware potential dangerous summations and counter effects (Integrated Medicine). A herb vet should be aware of these and ensure that they are properly integrated. Sadly, conventional vets are usually unaware and may fail to consider the possibility, ignoring concurrent herbal input as if it were irrelevant.

Although we specialize in alternative therapies, seeking alternatives to conventional drug therapy, the herbal vet does not shun conventional therapy, per se, considering its worth in each case. No truly holistic vet or herb vet can ignore the existence of conventional drugs which, while quite unable to cure chronic disease, on rare occasions may be the only way to control distressing or painful symptoms. It is noteworthy how much the body can achieve without drugs, however. Our holistic and integrated service is offered in support of animal patients, ‘owners' and carers and the veterinary profession. We are always willing to assist vets in the UK and worldwide in providing integrated care for their patients, providing the natural therapy component of a treatment program. We believe that integrative medicine should be carried out in a spirit of cooperation and unity of purpose (i.e. to serve the patient).

Ecological note

There are plants which are being harvested from the wild, around the world, in unsustainable quantities. The unhealthy lifestyle of the developed industrial nations has given them a massive appetite for potential panaceas. It is important to try not to use threatened species or to plunder sensitive habitats by what we buy for herbal medicine and to use plants from sustainable regeneration programs, where possible. http://www.bgci.org/public-engagement/1768/

The Law

The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 restricts the treatment of animals (other than your own) with herbal medicine, by anyone other than a fully qualified vet.

Care and Administration of Herbal Medicines

See also: Birds, Cage Mammals, Reptiles, Wild Animals




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Herbal vet at work – we regularly visit an area stretching from Wales to London, from Devon to Kent, from South to North Midlands and from Bristol and West Midlands to the Wash and East Anglia, taking in Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Sussex, East Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex, Berkshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Avon, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, West Midlands, East Midlands, Rutland, Lincolnshire, .Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire. We visit patients in Greater London and Inner London. We have also visited the Isle of Wight.

Phytotherapy‘ is another word for ‘herbalism' or ‘herbal medicine'

We have a deep respect for Nature and we work with Nature

Added August 2009: It is a source of great disappointment to us at the AVMC, that a minority of professional veterinary colleagues act in an unprofessional and discourteous way when clients try to discuss the possibility of referral for alternative medicine. Whatever their opinions of alternative medicine, usually formed without first-hand experience of the subject, vets are supposed to assist clients with referrals, not obstruct them or give a rude reaction. As most clients who request referrals have already come to the end of the conventional options, it is difficult to see what gives rise to the objection. Pride and financial considerations should not enter into the equation, so we assume these are not the reason (see Prejudice). The fact that there may be a way of helping a distressed and chronically ill patient should be a source of pleasure and interest for the caring veterinary surgeon.

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