herbal dog science

The Science of Herbal Medicine in Dogs

Why use herbs in your dog when you can use drugs? Good question. Let’s look at the science. 

The science

Many drugs derive from herbs. The list is endless, but some interesting ones include phyllodulcin, a food sweetener, from Hydrangea. It’s 4-800 times sweeter than sugar. Then there’s Ouabain from Strophanthus gratus, the liana vine, from central Africa. The locals used it for tipping arrows when hunting. In the West, you’ll be grateful for it if you have heart failure as it’s a heart medicine, a cardiotonic. 

If you’re a smoker, you might use products containing a-Lobeline, a smoking deterrent and respiratory stimulant. It comes from Lobelia inflata, a fascinating plant sometimes known as ‘puke weed’ because it is traditionally used to induce vomiting. Another name is Indian tobacco because First Nation peoples in America ceremonially smoke it. You have to be careful with Lobelia, though, as the roots can kill if eaten. 

The trouble is, when drug companies extract single active ingredients from herbs, they leave behind 4-600 other chemicals that make up the plant’s metabolism. These also-ran molecules soften or modify the toxic effects of the primary chemical, allowing the plant to be eaten by animals nutritionally or medicinally or selected by humans for therapeutic effects more safely. 

Pharmaceutical companies want to find bio-active (medicinal) molecules. They can then patent, and mass-produce the ‘drug’ industrially (think Aspirin from Aspira filipendula herb, for example). There’s a lot of money in it. 

The key ingredient in the drugs phyllodulcin, ouabain or a-Lobeline, for example, ‘do what they say on the tin’. But, because they’re not chaperoned by the ‘softeners’ or modifying chemicals found naturally in the original plant, side effects are more common. a-Lobeline, for example, boasts sweating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, tremors, mental confusion, hypothermia and possibly death among its unwanted extra effects. 

On the plus side for drugs, because they are so refined, the dosing is more accurate (essential to minimise side-effects). The results are also more predictable, which has to be a good thing, too. Last century, the pharmaceutical industry got into full swing. They synthesised thousands of new drugs. Most people in the West turned their backs on herbs, wrongly, because herbs still have a significant part to play in human and canine medicine. 

It’s essential, though, if you want to use herbs on your dog, to do prior research. Only use preparations from sustainably and reliably sourced plants, and be careful to select herbs and herb formulae that have been formulated by trained professionals.


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