In the ideal world, all dog owners would have a garden for their dogs to spend time in, with grass and plants available for self-selection, and a nice area of ground to explore with those sensitive noses of theirs for some mental stimulation. However, not everyone has that luxury, so if you live in a flat or only have a courtyard/balcony/roof garden, then know that there are still things you can grow there with your dog specifically in mind. Today we are going to talk about what herbs you can grow in your garden, whether large or small, to be available for your pet to self-select if they feel the urge.
But 1st, what is self-selection, and why is it a good option to offer to our pets? Many of you may have heard of zoopharmacognosy, and the queen of this in domestic pets Caroline Ingraham. Zoopharmacognosy is the practice of animals selecting and eating bits of plants to self-medicate, and it has been observed in all sorts of different animals, including dogs. It was 1st observed in chimpanzees, who purposefully ate part of a very bitter plant when they were showing symptoms of worms, to help rid themselves of these nasty parasites. Usually they wouldn’t choose to eat this plant as the taste was too unpleasant. Their health later improved, showing their self-medication had been successful.
When I worked in regular practice, I noticed that many owners would often report that their pet had been eating a certain plant or shrub in their garden. I would always ask which one and then look up what properties that plant possessed. It was fascinating to see that often this plant’s actions as a herb matched with the symptoms the patient was showing. Clients also always enjoyed that I actually wanted to know what it was and would look it up, as they frequently reported that most vets weren’t interested. I would like to think all herbalists would find this an intriguing part of the history taking.
Now, on to the exciting bit: What can you grow for your dog?
There is a huge range of plants you could grow, so this is not an exhaustive list. However, it is a good concise list for those growing with minimal space, but wanting the maximum impact. As you will see, some I have chosen for your dog to snack on if desired, some for their smell and some for their frequent use, so you pick them and make use of them for yourself or your dog. If you dry the herbs then you can offer them to your dog when out of season, as well as offering them fresh when in season. I have also tried to choose plants that are attractive in their own right, and are not easily found out and about on walks.
Grass: Now this one does contradict that last statement, as it is probably the most commonly seen plant when out on walks. However, it is also probably the most common plant that dogs will self-select so having some close by is great for your dog. If you have a garden then leave certain areas of the grass to grow a bit longer so your pet can choose the grass they want. If you are growing some in a pot, or your dog isn’t keen on the grass in your garden, then wheat grass or barley grass are good options.
Grass is selected by dogs for a variety of reasons. If they choose stiff coarse grass then they may be trying to induce vomiting, to ‘purge’ if they have eaten something that isn’t agreeing with them. If they choose softer floppier grass then it is theorised that this helps with normal digestion. Some think that the grass helps to clear parasites from the guts too, so you’ve nothing to lose!
Fennel: This is a tall attractive aromatic plant, whose leaves and seeds can be used as flavouring in cooking due to their aromatic flavour. This aromatic flavour comes from the volatile oils, which also give it its medicinal properties. Fennel is a digestive tonic, so your pet might select this when their gut is feeling a bit dodgy. You can also save the seeds each year to make fennel tea with, which is incredible for cramping or spasms in the gut, which can be very painful.
Chamomile: Everyone knows pretty chamomile, with its daisy-like flowers and attractive pleasant smelling leaves. Like fennel, this is an amazing herb for the digestion, helping to ease cramps, soothe inflammation, and acting as a mild bitter to stimulate normal digestion. It is also a great calming herb for those dogs who might suffer from stress or anxiety. If your pet doesn’t eat them, then cut the flowers and dry them to use to make tea, or feed whole into your dogs diet.
Calendula: Often known as ‘pot marigold’, this plant is a lovely addition to any garden, and can flower all year round if in a sunny sheltered spot. It has gorgeous orange or yellow flowers, and it is these flowers that are wonderful to use medicinally. Calendula is the healing plant, great for applying topically to any wounds or skin irritations. Make sure they have been cleaned 1st though, as it can be so effective infection could be trapped inside if the skin heals over an unclean wound. Calendula can be used as a tea or balm, and even fed internally, where it can help heal the gut following upsets, as well as supporting the body’s natural healing potential. The flowers can be used fresh or dried, and are best preserved in an infused oil or balm.
Lavender: Who wouldn’t want this plant to delight their senses on a Summers day? I absolutely adore Lavender and am frequently found with a sprig of it behind my ear when it is in flower. Like us, many dogs love this smell too and can find it very calming, so this one is essential if you have a stressed or anxious dog. As the flowers reach the end of flowering, cut the heads off and keep these. You can make a lavender pillow for you or your dog, or keep them in a jar to offer the smell when calming is needed, or even feed as a dried herb or make into tea. It does have a strong flavour though so less is more!
Garlic chives: These have a similar texture to grass, & are sometimes known as ‘garlic grass’. They contain some of the same herbal actions as garlic, but are much milder. Garlic can be great immune system support to dogs, but dose must be carefully watched, as too much garlic can be toxic, causing anaemia. With this milder form your dog can select some immune support without the same risk of toxicity.
Lemon balm: This is a favourite herb of many herbalists and to me has a gentle mothering sort of energy to it. It is a calming nervine so is a great choice for anxious or stressed animals, and it can help soothe the digestion. It is also good for cognitive function, so great for older patients, when their brain starts to decline. It also has antiviral properties, so a great all-rounder. The leaves can be eaten or fed fresh, or they can be dried and used in tea. Ideally you want to dry them quite quickly, so make sure it is a warm dry day, or they are kept in a warm, well-ventilated spot when drying. I would advise to keep this in a pot as it is prone to taking over if planted into the ground!
Mint: Not only does mint have a delicious smell and taste, but it also has medicinal properties. It is great for helping to soothe the digestive system in case of upset, and also very useful in coughs or other respiratory tract congestions and inflammations. Again this can be used fresh or dried. Like lemon balm I would keep this to a pot or it might take over your whole garden – in an area of my parents’ garden that used to be veg beds, some has taken over and you certainly know when you mow that part of the lawn!
Oregano/Thyme: These aromatic herbs are great for adding flavour to cooking, but their volatile oils also have potent antimicrobial properties. Dogs won’t often snack on them due to their powerful flavour, but you can pick the leaves and use them dried or fresh, as is or in tea form. They are great to give alongside antibiotics in bacterial infections, or in viral infections, especially of the respiratory tract, to help minimise the chance of a secondary bacterial infection. Thyme is also an expectorant, so fantastic for coughs and congestion. I also like to add them to hot water with salt, leave it to infuse and then cool (or add cold water if needed quickly) to use as a wound wash.
In summary, whether you have masses of outside space, or very little, these are all great plants to have, both in their own right, but also for you and your pets’ medicinal needs.