Category Archives: dogs



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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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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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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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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