Greater Than the Sum of its Parts

One of the fundamental components of herbal medicine is in the application of a holistic view and, as an increasing number of pet owners are becoming interested in pursuing a more holistic approach to health, the marketing of pet products is rapidly co-opting the term, misusing it and clouding its meaning. Holistic, as it pertains to health, is an approach that encompasses key foundational aspects (including physical, psychological, and social) as part of the whole dog as an individual, while also appreciating the physiological interconnectedness of the whole body. There is no such thing as a holistic dog food or a holistic flea spray or a holistic treat. There is, however, the consideration of how nutrition, exercise, social activity, and more affect the health of the whole animal.

The physical aspect of health is, of course, the largest. It involves not only proper nutrition and herbs, but lots of exercise.  Real exercise, where they can stretch their legs and chase and play out in the fresh air and sunshine (or rain, if it happens to be raining that day… they won’t melt!).  We appreciate that dogs will sleep on the couch all day and night, but that’s not what their bodies were designed for, and it contributes to a decline in health.  We hear a lot in holistic circles about feeding real foods and reducing the number of vaccines, but another important element in canine health (just as it is in ours) is exercise.

It’s not anthropomorphizing to suggest that the psychological and social components of health are also important.  Dogs require positive environments with healthy relationships in order to thrive.  Training and playing are great, but the mannerin which those take place does have a profound effect, even if not clearly visible.  Do you understand canine body language so that you know the signals that are being given by the dogs at the dog park, and when your dog is stressed? (There’s an app for that! It’s called Sue Sternberg’s Dog Park Assistant.) Force-free, positive training with your dog in a capacity that (s)he enjoys (or is genetically wired for) establishes teamwork and can benefit the mind in many ways.  Provide a crate so that your dog has a safe place when feeling stressed.  Sit on the floor and pet your dog from head to tail on a regular basis (it also helps you to identify new bumps and lumps, ticks, etc.).  We make fun of ourselves for talking to our dogs, but give yourself permission to do that – a lot!  It’s a compassionate connection and they benefit by those small interactions. Anxiety disorders may be caused not only by being left alone, but by a lack of positiveengagement.  Dogs do have an emotional life and meeting its needs can go a long way toward achieving health of the whole dog.

A holistic approach is one that plans for health, not disease.  In our current, conventional model, we feed dry, processed food, administer multiple vaccines annually, and then, when the dog becomes sick or develops chronic illness, we suppress the symptoms with antibiotics and steroids.  The big dog food and pharmaceutical companies are making a nice profit, but our dogs are experiencing a higher incidence of cancer and autoimmune diseases, among others.

A holistic approach to health is preventive. Just as in dog training, we want to set the dog up for success rather than wait for a problem to occur and then work to correct it.  If we consider the health model that we’re used to in the 21stcentury — where we feed processed food, wait for illness, and then combat it with the suppression of symptoms — it becomes clear that this reactionary approach fails to address the cause of the complaint.  Herbs can be used in this manner, but that’s not to say that they should.  Using 450mg of a standardized isolated chemical extract to reduce symptoms sounds very much like a conventional approach.  Let’s look instead to a holistic view of herbs, for it may inform a holistic view of health.

Each plant contains many (sometimes hundreds of) chemical constituents, some of which may be identified as medicinal in action; but there is an orchestra of chemical activity occurring in the plants, where some depend on others and it’s the complex interplay between these constituents that drives the medicinal actions present in the plant.  So, sometimes, when the chemical or compound is isolated, it loses the action for which it was identified. How short-sighted (and arrogant?) of us humans to assume that we know better than Nature.  The phytochemistry of plants is complex, and we do not yet fully understand the symbiosis of these chemicals in the plants. By utilizing the whole plant, we are providing the full array of actions as intended.

And so it is with health. Ask a qualified herbalist what herbs would be best used in supporting your dog’s health, and he or she will first ask you a lot of specific questions about your dog.  We may identify that a particular issue is occurring in the body, but without considering the interplay of that condition with others – how it’s influenced by other conditions and other organs in the body (and the energetics therein) – we are missing the larger picture.  How short-sighted of us humans to expect the more complex underlying issue to be resolved when we are merely suppressing a symptom – a symptom which is providing a clue to the larger issue. It’s not about refusing prescription drugs; it’s about not needing them.

It doesn’t mean foregoing chemicals for the health of your dog while continuing to feed a bag of processed food made by Procter & Gamble.  Conversely, it doesn’t mean feeding a diet of fresh, raw foods while continuing to administer multiple combo vaccines, year after year.  It doesn’t mean giving an herbal remedy instead of Prozac® to counter anxiety issues without first providing adequate social outlets for exercise and play. (Of course, many canine anxiety issues are far more complex, but the example is merely to help illustrate the point.)

Please note that ‘alternative’ is not the same as holistic.  A holistic approach may employ alternative modalities (such as herbalism, acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy), but one does not equal the other, and conventional medicine can be applied in a holistic manner (though it rarely is!).  A holistic approach is not necessarily in opposition to conventional therapies; rather, it seeks to achieve balanced health with the approach most appropriate for that dog at that time.  Complementary modalities in treatment should do just that – complement other modalities.  Conventional medicine that excludes all integrative modalities is no more complete or accurate than a holistic one that excludes conventional tools.  Rather, integrated, they weave the appropriate treatment for that dog with that condition at that time.  No approach that is exclusive of all others can really be truly complete.

And isn’t that what we’re aiming for?

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A post in one of the essential oils safety groups that I follow on Facebook warned members about celebrity doctors peddling their weight loss program, and I added a short reminder that popular veterinary doctors should also be regarded with some critical thinking.  I was reminded of a particularly popular vet using Young Living oils (which I’d seen before, in a meme), which indicates to me a certain level of salesmanship over integrity. (Essential oils in and of themselves are not bad, and there are many wonderful companies that make them sustainably and promote their use responsibly. Why any doctor would tout a multi-level marketing [MLM] company for something used in a healing modality is beyond me – much less one known for spreading sensationalistic claims and other misinformation, promoting unsafe practices, and selling adulterated product.)

A couple of days later, I saw a question posted (in a different group…  yeah, I should spend less time on Facebook) about applied zoopharmacognosy, and I had just seen a relevant youtube video in the search I mentioned above.  I knew about zoopharmacognosy (the ability of animals to self-select plants in the wild which can benefit its current state of health), but applied zoopharmacognosy (or “AZ,” as it’s called) was a new one on me.  I quickly learned that this involves offering essential oils within the confines of an office or room, and that there is quite a following for it – but let’s take an objective look at it without the marketing of a sales rep.

Part of my initial herbal training included essential oils and I respect their knowledgeable use in any practice.  I use them sparingly, myself, for multiple reasons, but mainly because I see them as sort of  “natural” pharmaceuticals.  I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but when you consider that the plants contain many active chemical constituents which work together with other constituents in the plants in a symphony which we have yet to really understand, the amount of oil is very small, due to its strength.  It is in balance within the plant.  In order to produce an ounce of oil, sometimes tons (literally) of the plant must be harvested.  Not only is this not sustainable over the long term, but this is extracting superdoses of chemistry while tossing the other constituents. To me, that’s not holistic; it’s more of a pharmaceutical. Then people wonder why so many adverse events are reported on a “natural” remedy. And that’s in humans – now consider not only that the dog’s sense of smell is something like 10,000 times our own, but with dimensions that we as humans are not physiologically capable of  even comprehending, let alone experiencing. If humans report getting a migraine from a little aromatherapy in a room or office, how is a dog experiencing that aroma?  I am also of the belief that dogs are more physically sensitive to their environment — especially herbs and drugs (especially if he or she is eating a diet of fresh foods), and that often, less is more effective.  The chemical constituents present in an essential oil may also be present in an herbal preparation such as a decoction or tincture, but in an amount which is balanced proportionately with the other constituents of that plant; one that is certainly more easily assimilated by a dog, not assaulting him.

At last year’s International Herb Symposium, I attended an interesting lecture on zoopharmacognosy which followed the case of a horse with Lyme disease as he self-selected the plants he ate while out in the pasture each day (some of whose roots he dug up using his hooves), and recovered well. It’s uplifting to see veterinarians who are closely monitoring their patients’ habits in the interest of learning from them, and it just seems to me that that is more the method of ingestion that Mother Nature intended.

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A Practicing Herbalist

I’ve been on the verge of being a practicing herbalist for a half dozen years or so. I’d always plan to hang a shingle after I design new labels or order more bottles or master tongue and pulse assessment or polish my website or attend that conference or gain a full understanding of canine nutritional needs, nutrient. by. nutrient. The thing is, I’m a perfectionist. I want to have a full understanding of canine anatomy, physiology, and pathology (both traditional and conventional, of course) before I see clients, but I also want to have a complete catalogue in my materia medica database including chemical constituents, energetics, contraindications, tissue states, and more before money changes hands. What if I misread the terrain of the condition? What if I miss a sign? What if the dosage is wrong? Worst of all, what if the dog just doesn’t improve? Surely, that will mark me as a failure. The fact that this is precisely why it’s called a practice managed to escape me.

I mentioned a bit of this to a friend who doesn’t believe in herbal medicine (because self-sabotage is not something I do?), who was happy to confirm that I am not qualified to see clients, and my realization of this is why she respects me. (This woman actually has no knowledge of what my training has encompassed; though I’m not sure she understands what it even is – it’s like homeopathy, right? Hocus pocus.) Thanks for that vote of confidence! There is a stubborn “I’ll show you” part of me that perks up in the face of such patronizing dismissal, and it became more committed than ever to establishing a successful practice.

I should probably add here that I have a little attention problem. I’m not sure if I’m full-blown ADD or if the artist’s brain is just wired similarly; but at any given moment, I have a list of things I’m either working on or am planning to be working on which contains no less than a dozen projects. Design and sew custom dog coats. Learn curling. Earn an obedience title with my dog. Get my Off the Wall project off the ground (matching local artists with local business wall space). Restart the Historic (Dog) Walking Tours blog. Coordinate a salon series and studio visits for local artists. Re-learn tai chi. Build the Finding a Swissy website. Get back to that homework for the Canine Dietary Formulation class I’m taking. Research the artist’s brain and its similarities with ADD. I also like to read fiction. And non-fiction. And bike. How will I be able to do these things when being a practicing herbalist will take up so many hours of my week?  

So, the self-induced hurdles included the non-herb-related. After Somerville Open Studios, after I move, after I finish this portrait, after after after. After so many “afters,” I decided to just be honest with myself and admit that being a practicing herbalist is just not what I’m after, right now. Maybe not ever. And that’s OK.  There are many herbalists out there who live this stuff from the moment they wake to the moment they go back to sleep, and I admire them.  I learn from them.  But I am wired differently.  Not better or worse; just differently.  My brain is fed by stimuli from multiple directions.  

I had always been an artist, but had stopped painting for many years and quickly rebuked the label when a friend called me an artist. “I’m not an artist,” said I. “I don’t do art.” But living in Somerville has lured my artist self back out from its cave, and I seem to have acquired a queue of painting commissions which is every bit as rewarding to me as herbal work. With commissions, though, I have no problem asking for money and I have full confidence in my ability. With only so many hours in a week and 1/3 of them allotted to sleeping, there is no way that I can devote enough hours to both and be successful at either.  With a new apartment around the corner from a studio building with available space (hard to come by in Somerville), the choice became obvious.  

So, wait- am I still an herbalist? That “I’m not an artist” sentiment is not unlike this crazy notion that I had in my head that being an herbalist requires a busy public practice. I thought of the friends that I bunk with at the International Herb Symposium every year. They have busy careers as therapists and social workers, not professional herbalists. And yet they are very active herbalists, incorporating herbs in their many forms into their daily lives, continuing to take classes and attend conferences, helping those around them as needed and finding joy in hearing the positive results. Their knowledge runs deep and wide, so I don’t hesitate to consult with them when puzzled by an issue, and they guide thoughtfully and confidently. They are herbalists to the core. image


After my minimalist self moved to this smaller apartment and a separate art studio, I offloaded a good portion of the possessions that I don’t use. While I didn’t give up my herbal supplies, the ones that I use less often went to a fellow herbalist’s basement – packaging supplies for retail (jars, product labels), shipping containers, vending booth supplies, empty jars, essential oils, and even tinctures and oils (there are just so many of them). After a few weeks in my new apartment of feeling not-quite-moved-in, I devised a storage system for my tinctures and funnels and sieves and oils. I promptly retrieved them from my friend’s basement and arranged them carefully.  Ah, Cleavers, look at you.  Ghost Pipe, I remember harvesting you in the Maine woods.  Sweet Leaf, how could I have sent you off to a basement? Rehmannia, you’re not local but I really should work with you more.

Relieving myself of the subconscious need to be a practicing herbalist has allowed me to get back to the journey of practicing herbalism. There’s a lot to practice, and it will take me the rest of my life.

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Sagging D-rings and Forelimb Integrity


oh, my

You’ve seen them, the dogs walking down the street with an Easy Walk harness hanging down over their shoulders. For me, there’s nothing that induces a facial tic quite like it. It’s not so much that it makes me want to adjust my bra strap, but that all it requires is a simple adjustment (or, really, a different harness, altogether!). I know a trainer who used to own a shop where Easy Walks were sold (before better products were developed), but all sales came with a lesson on proper fitting, and she demonstrated by adjusting it on the dog before the customer left the store. Unfortunately, it seems everyone just buys them at PETCO or orders them from amazon, neither of which have any interest — nor knowledge — in advising you of the proper use of any of its products (yet another reason to support your local businesses!). 

Freedom harness – much better!

  Allowing the front strap and D-ring to fall over the shoulders of the dog restricts its movement, even if not consciously or noticeably. When the musculature of the dog’s front-end assembly is constantly forced to adjust itself, what effects would that have on the structural integrity of the dog?  Years ago, I was gaiting my dog outside at a show for a couple of breeders, and one asked if I had used an Easy Walk. Surprised, I said yes, and asked how she would know that. She replied that his gait was off; that his front end lacked reach, as a normal dog’s should – which is often seen in dogs wearing Easy Walks. The effects of this are not merely an elitist dog show particular, but speak to the function that a dog should be able to perform in his or her daily life. Chasing squirrels in the yard? Running gleefully to catch a ball? Jumping off rocks on the trails? Turning sharp corners faster than you can say ‘tendon injury’? How are those tendons and ligaments going to fare if they’re compromised? Dr. Chris Zink gained notoriety for speaking out on the effects of early spay/neuter on growth plates and musculoskeletal development of the legs. It’s no surprise, then, with a specialty in canine sports medicine, that she would also raise concern with the use of front-clip harnesses. I was thrilled to open an issue of Whole Dog Journal and see that she had written a letter to them in response to a cover photo showing a dog in a front-clip harness. In an editorial, WDJ Training Editor Pat Miller wrote “Dr. Zink explains that these harnesses sit on top of the biceps and supraspinatus tendons, two of the most commonly injured structures in dogs’ forelimbs, particularly in canine athletes. She asserts that, just by logic, one has to assume that the pressure this kind of harness exerts on the dog’s forelimbs in an activity where the dog is supposed to be extending her forelimbs (i.e., running, walking), is not a good idea.” IMG_8976_2 I have a big dog bred for drafting work – the dog is hard wired to pull. Having had one that suffered rear weakness due to a collapsed cervical disk, I no longer use neck collars. Harnesses are far safer on spinal integrity, but does it need to cost muscular integrity? No. Look for a harness that doesn’t include a cross-chest strap. One no-pull design that I like is the Freedom Harness, which includes D-rings on both the front and back (between the shoulder blades). I have found that even clipping the leash to just the back clip is effective in reducing pulling. Another design that I use is the Holt (pictured, right) — which is marketed as a no-pull, but it’s really not. As an alternative to a collar, I just like its lightweight, rolled design as a seemingly more comfortable option for everyday use. If your dog pulls, though, no harness is going to train him not to. It may prevent him or her from pulling while it’s on, but only you can train your dog not to pull.


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Tick Juice

During class this morning at Herbstalk, a question was raised about Lyme and ticks — namely, how to avoid them!  Of course, that is a far larger topic deserving of its own class involving nutrition and the immune system and parasites and the actions of spirochetes and so on.  (Oh, lookie – an earlier blog post, too!)  After a little discussion, attendants had asked for the recipe of the tick spray that I make, and so here it is:

1 quart filtered water
4 oz Neem oil
2 oz thyme (dry herb)
1 oz Neem leaf
1 large lemon, sliced
Essential oils: catnip, citronella, tea tree, lavender, geranium

Simmer thyme, neem leaf, and sliced lemon in covered pot for several minutes in filtered water. Turn off heat, allowing it to cool while still covered (I like to leave it overnight). Once cool, strain and add neem oil and the following essential oils:

9 drops catnip
9 drops citronella
8 drops tea tree
6 drops lavender
5 drops geranium
Spray lightly before exposure to areas with tick populations.

Tea Tree has shown toxicity (seizures) in cats, so do not use if you have cats in the house.  A safe rule is to avoid use any essential oils with cats. Robert Tisserand writes “It’s true that cats are missing an enzyme (glucuronyl transferase) that humans do possess, and which is important in the metabolism of many essential oil constituents. Therefore, there is a theoretical risk of increased toxicity to cats.”  Honestly, I am not a fan of using essential oils at all with pets, and this is the only time that I use essential oils with dogs, but (as long as the oils are of good quality,) I feel it’s better than coating them in neonicotinoids and other neurotoxins that we are advised to wash off immediately if they touch our own skin.

Lavender and geranium are said to have bug repelling properties, but I haven’t seen much evidence of it. Ticks hate tea tree (I have seen that) and neem, but they smell godawful (especially on top of lemon and thyme), so I add the lavender & geranium more to make the odor bearable.  If they do help to repel annoying little bugs, all the better.


Now, go outside and play!


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Herbs to Support Liver Health


thIt seems that wherever canine hepatic issues are discussed, Milk Thistle is recommended for treatment or prevention. It has become a well-known panacea for any health issues related to the liver and, although it is extremely effective at improving liver function and clearing disease, other herbs may be more appropriate in this endeavor, as they may address the specific conditions of your dog. Remember, a holistic perspective differs from a conventional one in that it considers this dog with these conditions at this time rather than employing a one-size-fits-all approach.

We also see Milk Thistle recommended or utilized in more of a pharmaceutical manner. How is buying capsules of 450mg of a standardized isolate of silymarin different from buying a drug? Rather than using a neutraceutical, a better approach may be found in using the whole seed. Silymarin has been identified as a flavonoid compound consisting of silibinin, silidianin, and silichristine. But that’s just one of many compounds found in Milk Thistle. The phytochemistry of plants is complex, and we do not yet fully understand its symbiosis; so, while silymarin has been identified as a potent hepatoprotective, we may be losing other beneficial actions of the plant by isolating this one constituent. Using Milk Thistle in its whole state also allows the body to assimilate it more naturally and effectively, allowing you to see better results.

OK, but enough about Milk Thistle. I prefer to reserve its use for cases where there is more serious liver impairment. If you need to help damaged liver tissues to regenerate, then by all means – use Milk Thistle; but if you are trying to assist cases of bile insufficiency, inflammation of the liver or spleen, elevated liver enzymes, or just trying to prevent toxicity from drugs such as Phenobarbital or NSAIDs such as Rimadyl®, there are many other options – and ones that are likely more appropriate for your dog.



Burdock (Arctium lappa) is seen primarily as a blood purifier – but it does so by stimulating the liver to function more efficiently, thus filtering waste. As a broad-spectrum alterative for the whole body, it specifically balances and restores the liver, lymph system, and kidneys, making it ideal for preventing or treating drug toxicity.

As a bitter, it stimulates digestive juices – especially bile secretion. It helps moderate glucose levels, stimulate metabolism, and release excess metabolic waste from the cells and blood, which alkalyzes body pH (use with dogs prone to hyperacidity). It’s rich in minerals – especially iron.

The diuretic action helps to eliminate waste from the kidneys, taking some of the burden off of the liver. Seed tincture is used topically in TCM for psoriasis and chronic sores (ideal for dogs with skin issues). The seeds are considered more immediate; the root slower and deeper. The root is considered better when used fresh.

This is an excellent long-term liver tonic, gentle enough for use with pre-existing liver or kidney disease. A good choice for deep, chronic issues. Its thermal nature is cold, so use with dogs that tend to run hot.


Like Burdock, Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) is one of the first herbs to consider in addressing both kidney and liver issues. It tonifies, restores, and rebuilds, and its use is not so much for an acute state as for deep, chronic issues (think of roots as going deeper). This is a slow-acting herb.

The root stimulates the liver to eliminate toxins from blood, reduces inflammation of the bile duct and liver, and clears obstructions of the spleen, pancreas, liver, gallblader, kidney, and bladder. The root milk is bitter, which increases salivation and bile production (hence digestion).

In keeping organ systems flushed, use the whole plant. There is probably no diuretic more balancing than Dandelion leaf. Where other diuretics deplete potassium, this leaf is rich in it. It balances electrolytes, as well as reduces uric acid. This is probably the best choice for an herbal diuretic. By acting through the kidneys, the leaves reduce pressure on the liver to eliminate toxins.

Like burdock, it is hypoglycemic. With diabetic pets, use the whole plant. The root helps moderate glucose levels while the leaf acts as a bitter, aiding assimilation in the digestive tract. This is also a good nerve tonic, making it an excellent choice for dogs with issues relating to nerves.

Its thermal nature is cold. Think of it for conditions where you want to dispel heat – especially in the liver and stomach (dyspepsia is an example of stomach heat).

Beet and Burdock roots are excellent liver-friendly additions to meals

Another herb traditionally used to detox and cleanse the liver is Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus). As with the others, it acts as an alterative, enriching the blood and skin, so is well-indicated for dogs with skin issues such as hot spots. It’s cool, bitter, and damp, making it a good choice for pets prone to constipation (herbalist Matthew Wood reminds us to think of it as a heat reducer rather than as a laxative). It improves the flow of bile and stimulates peristalsis in the intestines, helping to regulate bowel movements. This is especially useful for dogs with hyperacidity and esophageal reflux (use tea or decoction). Use caution with quantities, as it can cause diarrhea; try using a little in conjunction with other herbs.

Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) encompasses all of the actions that most support the liver (cholagogue, alterative, bitter, and diuretic), and as such is effective in almost all liver problems. It stimulates the flow of bile from the gallbladder into the small intestine, and helps remove excess bile from the system.  As an antidiarrheal, it will normalize bowels (though diet changes and deeper causes should be considered in resolving cases of chronic diarrhea).

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is primarily considered a blood purifier and liver herb. It stirs up deep, stagnant, hot blood and brings it to the surface, improving peripheral circulation to rid joints of arthritic depositions and promote diuresis. It expels wind from the stomach, and its oils stimulate renal function. Its name is believed to be a corruption of saxifrage from Late Latin saxifraga, literally: rock-breaker (probably alluding to its ability to dissolve kidney stones), from Latin saxum rock + frangere to break.


This is a good stimulating liver tonic to help detox the overall system and clear blood disorders. Think of it for dogs with skin and skeletal conditions, such as acne, hot spots, and arthritic joints.


Beet root (Beta vulgaris) has traditionally been used as a blood cleanser, but the leaves, being more bitter, are more specific to liver cleansing. What I often do is just cut up an entire beet plant – root and leaves – to include in the pot of simmering roots and greens that I add to my dog’s meals.


A cousin to Milk Thistle, Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus) is a pungent bitter that works on the liver and stomach/spleen. It is best used in damp (mucousy) conditions, diminished appetite, and dyspepsia.

When thinking about liver health and eliminating toxins and other waste from the dog’s system, the discussion doesn’t end here. The herbs above represent a small sampling of plants growing right here in New England and may provide a starting point for those interested in a more targeted, holistic approach. Ask your herbalist or holistic vet about them. With all of the great herbal options out there, please consider reaching for Milk Thistle last. Give other plants a chance to address your dog’s condition(s) more specifically and effectively. Milk Thistle will still be there, should you need it.



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Of Herbalism, Integrity, and Fire Cider

fire cider in the makingI shop local. One of the factors that gives my community its unique vibe is that we have lots of independently owned shops throughout our neighborhoods and squares, and I have no problem spending a little extra for an item if I’m supporting these businesses and my local economy. As a medicinal herbalist, I use only organic or wildcrafted herbs, and there are a few good sources for them online; but, my local health food store stocks jars and jars full of many of the herbs that I use – from the same company that I would normally order (Mountain Rose). So, of course, I stop in to pick up what I need when I can’t go out and harvest my own… as well as probiotics and vitamins and soap and incense and homeopathics and teas and fish oil and greens and– hell, even biodegradable dog poop bags. No wonder I was in there every week.

But today, I had to break up with them.

See, there is a formulation that herbalists have been making for decades, called fire cider. It’s an apple cider vinegar base to which is added garlic and horseradish and cayenne and other hot & spicy herbs, and some citrus fruit and maybe some honey. Some herbalists stick with the traditional formula which became well known to us from Rosemary Gladstar, while others play around with the ingredients a little bit and develop their own twist on the recipe. Come Fall, when the air gets colder and germs start jumping around from person to person, we are sure to have our bottle in the cabinet, macerating with roots and bulbs and peels, and there is no better defense against colds and flus. Some herbalists bottle it and label it and sell it off the shelf or online. It’s been this way for many, many years. There is no competition; that’s not how herbalists think. It’s a great remedy and many make it and the aim is to help people stay healthy, collectively.

Then, a little tiny company out in western MA trademarked the name “Fire Cider.” Apparently, this is their only product and they didn’t want anyone else getting in on their game (which was, um, everyone else’s game, first!). Not only did they trademark the name, other herbalists who were selling fire cider at Etsy began receiving letters informing them that they could no longer use the name “Fire Cider” on their own product.  Apparently, Shire City Herbals had filed a trademark infringement complaint. Wait. Seriously? Who does that?  ‘Screw all the rest of you; we’re in it for us?‘  The pure audacity of a few people out in western MA who are not even connected with the larger herbal community to co-opt a product that isn’t theirs and had been shared publicly just fine, and telling other herbalists that they no longer have the right to call it ‘fire cider’ because that’s now legally their property is simply deplorable. There is more to the story, but it further shows their lack of integrity (changing their stories and even reporting fire cider pages on facebook so as to have them permanently removed due to infringement?), and many of the businesses that sold Shire City’s Fire Cider have stopped – at least until the matter is straightened out. (There is currently a petition to revoke the trademark here. There is also an instructional video of Rosemary making fire cider there, if you are interested in making some, yourself… which I strongly encourage!)

But, there it was on the shelf at my local health food store.  I picked up a bottle and approached the manager. I asked if they were aware of the issue with it and she nodded yes. I didn’t press the issue, but instead turned around, put it back, and returned the items I was going to purchase to their rightful places on their shelves.  I wish that I had, though; I wish that I had asked “If you are aware of their actions, why do you choose to support a company with such an obvious lack of business ethics?”

Later, I did have the opportunity to sit down and have a lengthy conversation with the owner of the store.  We disagreed on this issue but found others where we were aligned.  I respect the work that he does in other areas, and I respect the passion that he puts into causes that he believes in.  Ultimately, he’s a businessman and said that this issue is small in the scope of the larger market.  That’s true.  I suppose we just have a different perspective on it, and that’s what makes the world go around.

Honestly, I have considered and reconsidered the wording of this post (I’m the chronically self-questioning and self-doubting sort, as it is).  I always try to remain positive —  especially on a public forum.  I also believe, though, that this sort of behavior should be called out; not only for its underhandedness, but for the precedent that it could set for the business practice of trademarking herbal (and other) products that are not rightfully their intellectual property.

This fire cider matter does not affect me, professionally.  I don’t sell fire cider. I do, however, think that it’s important for people to speak up for the values that they believe in.  Change is not stirred by sitting back and saying nothing.  Sitting back and thinking ‘well, it’s such a tiny issue in the scope of a larger market‘ is merely sweeping it under the rug.  Some day, all that dirt and grime under there becomes larger than the rug that shelters it.  And then we look at it, disheartened, and say “How did it become that?”

Speak up.  Do so kindly and respectfully, but please do speak up for the values that you believe in and would like to see reflected in your local community.


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…But Also, Please See Your Vet

I lurk in a few holistic groups on facebook, and  I see post after post from people looking for a remedy in order to avoid going to the vet. Many of these are from people who feed cheap, processed food and follow all of their conventional vet’s advice, but have decided that they don’t want to take Lucky to the vet for this pesky infection – surely there’s a natural remedy that someone on facebook can recommend, while they continue to feed cheap, processed food, and follow all of their conventional vet’s advice.  No, facebook isn’t exactly the pinnacle of awareness and intelligence in our culture, but I think this trend is far more widespread than it should be, and it’s harmful for at least a few reasons.

First, the approach of holistic medicine is not merely to utilize a “natural” remedy in place of an allopathic one.  Those who are looking for a natural ear solution to clean out gunk but are continuing to feed Nutro are missing the point, as are those looking for an herbal answer to anxiety, yet leaving the dog alone all day while they’re at work. It seems that people pop in to these groups to get a quick fix without ever realizing that there is a bigger picture or an underlying cause or a whole other concept of approaching health.  Unfortunately, a lot of the responses they receive perpetuate this by answering as though there really is a natural quick fix.  “Oh, your dog has IBS?  Give some Slippery Elm for that.”  Never mind looking at diet or antibiotic history or any number of other factors that could be contributing (or any of the other herbal options applicable to IBS!).  No, between turmeric and coconut oil, most of your problems can be solved easily on the internet.

Second, veterinarians are far more knowledgeable about your dog’s health than you or I or a group of people on facebook (where the saying “Never underestimate the stupidity of people in large groups” has never been more true).  You think that you are looking at a hot spot when in fact your vet can look at it, see a staph infection or demodex, do a skin scraping, and voila.  By not recognizing the actual condition, the underlying reason is overlooked (such as immune function in the case of staph), and by treating it inappropriately, you could be fostering the growth of something far more harmful.  Or, yes, it is a hot spot, but your vet begins to ask many more questions and examines the dog and notices something off that you were not aware of.  “Did you see this tartar way up here behind the front canine?  Let me scrape that off before it gets worse and leads to gum disease, as well,” or “Hmmm, these SNAP test results do show anaplasma.  Let’s address that.”  In either case, you may not have noticed any evidence, but you can address it now so that it doesn’t become a health issue later.

Recently, a question was posted to a raw feeding group, asking if others take their dogs in for bloodwork.  I know that groups of raw feeders like to think that they can throw their dogs nothing but random body parts based on what is available at the time and their dog will always remain impervious to any health condition, but I expected some to answer responsibly and say “oh, yes, I do in order to ensure that the values are right where I want them,” or “yes, so that I can show it when critics of raw feeding voice concern,” or “yes, I think it’s important to have a vet do a full examination on occasion.”  But no. The general response on that group was that there is no need for bloodwork when you can see how healthy your dog is.  Sadly, I think that’s indicative of a lot of raw groups.

On the contrary, it seems that we who feed raw and utilize herbs and other natural health approaches and refuse to overvaccinate should be even more responsible in taking the steps necessary to ensure the health of our dogs – even if merely to prove the naysayers wrong (I’m stubborn like that).  Those who avoid vets and then insist that their dogs are healthier for it while in fact their dog is harboring a parasitic overload or a nutritional deficiency will only draw more suspicion and criticism – and rightly so.

This past Friday, I took my own dog up to see his vet.  (I try to do annual bloodwork near his birthday, but sometimes things get in the way and he goes much longer.  No big deal.)  She gave him a veterinary examination – something I am nowhere near qualified to do.  She looked in orifices and used instruments and machines and I was able to ask questions about things I am not learned in and she offered feedback based not only in her extensive schooling and experience, but on the countless other dogs she has seen.  No vaccines were given, no flea & tick, no heartworm.  Instead, she drew blood to send to Dr. Dodds for a full CBC, chem, and thyroid panel.  All in all, she said that he looks fantastic and to keep doing what I’m doing.  I paid a lot of money at the counter before we left; money that I would rather have in my pocket the week before Christmas.  But that money was spent on the wellness of my dog, which is far less expensive than disease.

Support your holistic vet.  If you are not comfortable with your current vet’s recommendations, or find that (s)he doesn’t agree with your choice of diet, or are tired of having to refuse unnecessary vaccines, find a vet who is more aligned with your approach.  One excellent source is the AHVMA’s (American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association’s) search function at their website (  Feeding raw or administering natural remedies is not license to avoid veterinarians.  Find one that you can feel comfortable with!  I travel an hour to see my vet; not only because I know that she supports me in my decisions, but because I only see her once a year, at most.  I think I can swing the hour once a year for the continuing health of my dog.

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Understanding Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics

th-3Chances are that in recent years you’ve heard about digestive enzymes and probiotics. Why all the buzz?  What are they, actually, and why are they being touted as so crucial?  Researchers are really only just beginning to understand them and their important roles in the body.

Enzymes are catalysts made up of amino acids that enable chemical reactions to occur in the body (such as the breakdown of food, in digestive enzymes).  There are different types of enzymes (metabolic and digestive) and, within these types, enzymes are further broken down.  For example, digestive enzymes are broken down into the different food types that they help to digest; i.e., protease breaks down proteins, amylase breaks down carbohydrates, and lipase breaks down fats.  When not aiding digestion, these enzymes perform other crucial roles; for example, lipase supports hormone production and gallbladder function.

th-2While the pancreas does make some digestive enzymes, they should ideally come from food. Researchers now believe that the body starts out with a supply (or, bank), which is drawn from when the enzymes needed are not available with the food entering the digestive tract.  Food consumed by animals in the wild contains the enzymes necessary for the breakdown and digestion of that food. Unfortunately, enzymes are destroyed at temperatures of 118°F or higher, so food that is processed or cooked contains no viable enzymes to help digest it.  What happens then?  A withdrawal will need to be made from the enzyme bank!

To further complicate things, metabolic enzymes function throughout the body to enable biochemical reactions in the cells (remember the Krebs Cycle in high school biology?).  They are responsible for every function in the body – including fighting disease.  When enzymes are not available for digestive processes, metabolic enzymes are utilized to aid in processing the food instead of performing the role they are designed for. This is called enzyme robbing.  With the increase in our pets’ chronic health issues since the introduction of processed food, many are linking it with the lack of enzymes.


Farther down the digestive tract, we meet the probiotics, which are live microorganisms that live in the intestines.  Also called the “good bacteria” or “flora,” they are continuously interacting with each other and with the cells lining the intestinal walls, aiding in the assimilation of nutrients.  These organisms are also involved constantly with the immune, endocrine, and central nervous systems.  While there are over 500 species of bacteria in the gut, probiotics usually fall into two groups, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.  These overpower and crowd out the bad or pathogenic bacteria which may otherwise wreak havoc in the system.  Probiotics also stimulate the intestinal immune system and produce some vitamins, as well as short-chain fatty acids, amino acids, and antioxidants.  Some increase the production of intestinal anti-inflammatory modulators, which is why they are indicated specifically for conditions such as IBS and IBD.

Probiotics are destroyed by the use of antibiotics, but they are also destroyed by chemicals such as chlorine, and even stress.  So, a pet treated with amoxicillin or doxycycline would benefit by a 30-day regimen of probiotics, but many would benefit by having them on a continual basis, since even something as seemingly harmless as drinking tap water may be wiping out your pet’s good intestinal flora.

While digestive enzymes and probiotics are distinctly different and function separately in the body, they play significant roles in the digestion and assimilation of nutrients, helping to keep your dog healthy.  If you have any questions regarding how they may benefit your dog or to better understand them, just ask!  If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out for you.

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The Natural Weight Loss Secret No One is Talking About


thYes, I totally stole the ridiculous headline from some internet site.  But, I have a stubby-legged little client that prefers to spend his time curled up on the couch than actually moving his little legs.  He was being fed a grain-free food, but his treats started coming more frequently and his harness was slowly getting tighter and tighter.  A veterinary check-up resulted in the recommendation to lose a few pounds.  And yes, once again in the world of nutritional advice dispensed by veterinarians with a waiting room full of Hill’s Science Diet, they sent him home with a bag of – you guessed it!  Science Diet r/d, their weight loss formula.  The list of ingredients starts “Whole Grain Corn, Corn Gluten Meal, Chicken By-Product Meal, Soybean Mill Run, Powdered Cellulose, Soybean Meal, Chicken Liver Flavor, Dried Beet Pulp, Lactic Acid, Soybean Oil, Caramel Color…”

Hill’s says right there on their website “Factors contributing to weight gain include age, lack of exercise and overfeeding,”  but instead of suggesting more frequent exercise and smaller portions, they want to sell you a bowl of corn and gluten and by-product.  Now, I’m not a veterinary nutritionist, or a scientist of any sort, and I don’t think I need to be to guarantee that if you’ve got a chubby dog, he or she does not need a bowl full of corn, gluten, and by-product meal.  Your dog needs less food and more exercise.  I think that’s science.

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