Alternative medicines for the working animal (Proceedings)


One could argue that all our pets, all "pack and carry" animals, and all the meat and fiber-producing animals – in other words, all our domesticated animals – are "working" animals.

Working Animals

One could argue that all our pets, all "pack and carry" animals, and all the meat and fiber-producing animals – in other words, all our domesticated animals – are "working" animals.

Even the couch potato pet has as part of its job the care and keeping of its humans – working to comfort and perhaps protect them and to help keep them healthy, active, and amused. In addition, many pet animals have been trained to perform specific tasks to aid and assist their humans in a variety of ways: assisting the handicapped; offering comfort to the aging and dying; and helping convalescing humans deal with their maladies are but a few examples. Finally, hunting and athletic animals are asked to extend their innate and unique capabilities for the enjoyment of their human handlers.

Mind/Body/Emotion/Spirit connection

While most of us think of work as a physical enterprise, to work well also requires a functional mind, stabile emotions, and the inner desire or spirit to perform the task at hand.

Fortunately, especially when we are dealing with dogs and horses, we have several centuries of developing the traits that make these animals assume their human-helping duties as a normal course of their day-to-day activities. On the other hand, the expectations we may place on our "helpers" often requires them to extend themselves beyond their innate capabilities, whether we are talking about physical, mental, emotional or spiritual capabilities.

Natural medicines may be helpful for helping prevent this over-extension syndrome. And when physical or mental stress causes breakdown, the natural medicines can offer a gentle, effective remedy that is relatively free from adverse side effects.


Alternative medicines that enhance physical health for the active/working animal include: acupuncture; chiropractic; massage; and physical therapy. For the competitive athlete, these may be the difference between the winner's circle and the also ran; they are often used to extend the time that the animal remains competitive; and they are used to assuage pain and help heal injury from overextension. In addition, some of these, acupuncture in particular, have been used to enhance production and reproduction in food and fiber animals.

Chiropractic and acupuncture, either separately or in combination, have become so popular as an effective way to ease pain and to enhance musculo-skeletal functionality, many athletes – human as well as animal – are treated routinely, perhaps once a week or a few days previous to every competition. (Note that some competition events do not allow acupuncture during the competition.)

Other alternative methods to enhance physical capabilities include: homeopathy, herbs, nutritional diets and supplements.

Examples of homeopathic remedies that may enhance physical capabilities, oftentimes by easing painful conditions, include:

  • Aconite: For symptoms with sudden onset. Can be used initially in a barn, herd, or kennel outbreak, to be followed by more specific remedies.

  • Arnica: For injuries – bruising, sprains, sore muscles, eye injuries, over-exertion. Also available in salves and ointments.

  • Byronia: Helpful for arthritis or rheumatism. Symptoms get worse with movement.

  • Conium maculatum: For trembling and weakness, especially of the aged animal and when the symptoms begin in the hind legs.

  • Hypericum: Reduces pain in open lacerated wounds and in injuries to areas that are rich in nerve supply.

  • Ledum: Used for treating puncture wounds.

  • Nux vomica: Primarily used to treat digestive conditions. Is a "clearing", and strong constitutional remedy.

  • Pulsatilla: Used especially for female conditions of all sorts.

  • Rhus tox: The "rusty gate" remedy – for painful arthritic conditions that "squeak" when the patient first moves, but improve with continued motion.

  • Ruta graveolens: A powerful remedy for sprains and dislocations. Symptoms get worse after rest.

  • Thuja: One of the remedies to use when toxicosis or adverse reactions to drugs or other substances is suspected.

Herbal remedies aimed specifically toward enhancing physical capabilities include:

Cayenne, Capsicum spp.: Is a systemic stimulant; may be used with painful arthritis (topically and internally).

Echinacea, Echinacea spp.: Balances the immune system, and anti-microbial.

Ginger, Zingiber officinale: Stimulates circulation; calms the upset stomach.

Gingko, Ginkgo biloba: Used to enhance brain function.

Ginseng, Panax ginseng or Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian): Enhances physical performance and diminishes depression. Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen.

Hawthorne berries, Crataegus oxycanthoides: Cardiac tonic.

Kava kava: Anti-anxiety. Mentally relaxing while not interfering with mental or physical abilities.

Topical herbal remedies for treating wounds:

Herbal remedies for topical wounds, used to treat superficial wounds, include:

calendula, aloe, yarrow, and chamomile. All these can be readily found in proprietary salves, ointments or sprays ... however, I've found that the most effective remedies are those made up fresh, into a tea, then spritzed directly onto the wound. These all have antiseptic and antimicrobial activity, and at least calendula has the added advantage of containing substances which enhance epithelial cell growth.

A poultice of fresh-picked plantain (available in any yard that is herbicide free) is excellent for removing foreign bodies (bee or wasp stingers, splinters, etc.) and for drawing out pus from festering wounds.

Many of the essential oils have extensive antiseptic and antimicrobial activity, they can enhance the healing process, they relieve pain, and they often have the advantage of creating a calming effect as they work. Examples include the essential oils of lavender, chamomile, oregano, etc.

Herbal remedies for pain and/or anxiety:

Cayenne, Capsicum spp.: Is a systemic stimulant; may be used with painful arthritis (topically).

Chamomile, Anthemus nobile (Garden) or Matricaria chamomilla (German): One of the best relaxing herbs – for anxiety, upset stomach, or used topically (or via aromatherapy) as anti-microbial and for its pain relief and anti-anxiety properties.

Licorice root, Glycyrrhiza glabra: An adaptogen. Has glycosides with structures similar to natural steroids in the body. I used licorice root whenever I might have used steroids in my previous veterinary life.

Oats, Avena sativa: (Valerian, Valeriana officinalis; cat nip, Nepeta cataria): Calming.

Slippery elm bark, Ulmus fulva: For intestinal upset.

St. John's wort, Hypericum perforatum: For depression. Also acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial.

Willow bark, Salix alba: Natural salicylic acid (aspirin).

Mind/Body/Spirit of working animals

The mind/body/spirit connection is essential for keeping the animal in top physical condition ... and for keeping him interested in and willing to do the work. While centuries of breeding have made our animals more compliant in their willingness to work, maximal performance can only be accomplished when we pay attention to the importance of all three components.

One of the keys is to avoid breaking the animal's spirit, and we are seeing more and more that the older training methods of alpha dominance may easily break an animal's spirit. And, while the 'alpha-dominance" or overly aggressive training techniques may get good short term results, a broken-spirited animal may never reach its full potential.

In addition, most holistic practitioners feel that the natural medicines act to enhance the spirit component of the animal ... and some feel that such medicines as antibiotics, steroids, and vaccines work to diminish the spirit component of animals. Whatever your belief systems will allow you to believe about the spirit of animals, human patients report that many of the natural remedies improve their mental state as well as their physical state, and many report a livening of their innate vitality or spirit.

Flower essences (Bach flowers) and aromatherapy are especially geared to enhancing the mind/body/spirit connection, but so too are acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy.

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