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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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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 Greater Dog


One of the literal translations of the latin canis major is “the greater dog” (as opposed to lesser, in size).  Yes, it’s true that I prefer big dogs and so that fits nicely, but as I’ve been evolving in my Work, I started to think about what it is that I’m aiming for, in dog care, and I realized that I’m pursuing the greater dog, in all respects.

When I was studying canine herbalism, I envisioned myself more as the community herbalist that people heard about through word of mouth. (“She’s a little odd, but she knows her stuff!”)  I pored over my books and attended lectures and classes and symposiums with some of the best herbalists from around the world. After becoming certified as an herbalist, I worked in a local veterinary office in the hopes of seeing exactly which health conditions were most common in my community, and to learn more about the conventional approaches to them. (This proved to be an almost comically poor choice for me.  As an honors student and Dean’s list graduate and all that, I was a complete nincompoop in trying to decipher the practice’s unending vaccine schedule, advise patients in proper chemical flea treatments, and recommend Hill’s Science Diet.)  Not surprisingly, this turned out to be very short-term employment, though I appreciate the patience of the staff for asking me to stay and give it a shot.

Working with a nutritionist and in small local retail settings, I realized that many common health conditions in dogs could be resolved (and prevented) through diet alone.  Here I was, thinking that I was settling for a retail job while I was getting myself on my feet, when in fact it proved to offer the best experience I didn’t know I needed.  Dogs came in with dull coats and flaking skin and itchy ears.  Petting dogs, I felt lipomas; trimming nails, I handled inflamed paws.  People came in off the street looking for dog food and after asking a few questions, I learned that the dog had loose poop or lots of poop or needed to lose weight or gain weight or stop farting or stop shedding or …!  Way too often, the person didn’t realize that there was any health condition to address.  They just wanted to know how to resolve separation anxiety or which collar works best for a dog who pulls or if they should use flea & tick preventive in the winter or is there a local trainer?

So, in trying to maintain a blog on canine herbalism, I found myself wanting to post about diet and mental stimulation and chemical treatments and physical activity and the importance of training with distractions and all sorts of things that are not necessarily plant-related.  But they do have to do with the greater dog – the whole dog in its potential as vibrant and healthy and happy.

Now, in walking dogs, I am enjoying a closer relationship with each dog, and it has been adding to a really fascinating and rewarding journey, so far.  I started taking them hiking for the kind of exercise that dogs need, and then to historic sites purely for fun, and realized how much fun we weren’t having, until then!  I know how they poop and if they’re eating and what they’re eating.  I know their preferences and what makes them anxious and that sometimes they need a good wriggle in the grass.Image

After doing obedience and drafting and therapy work and then getting involved in shelter work and the paths that opened up from that, and starting to settle into health care in the form of nutrition and herbs as the focus of my canine interests, I have found instead that as my journey flows and morphs, it comes full circle.  In pursuing different paths, I was building a more well-rounded foundation in my pursuit of The Greater Dog. I now find myself circling back to the obedience that my first Swissy led me into, back to my books on understanding canine cognition, back to engaging dogs in fun, and weaving those tools into a wider approach to The Greater Dog, which is found not just in nutrition and herbal support, but in learning new words and having a job and in positive relationships and environmental stimulation and in enjoying a laugh (yes, dogs laugh, too).

It is serving us well, and I am serving dogs in the community far better than I had imagined.

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Complementary modalities in treatment should do just that – complement other modalities. Conventional medicine that excludes all integrative modalities is no more complete nor accurate than a holistic one that excludes conventional tools. Rather, integrated, they weave the appropriate treatment for that dog with that condition at this time. No approach that is exclusive of all others can really be truly complete.

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Herb Walks on the Bike Path (bring your dog!)

It’s that time of year again, when plants are springing up from the ground all over the place.  Sure, sure – you call them weeds, but I call them medicine!  Dandelion, Japanese Knotweed, Purslane, Pineapple Weed, Sheep Sorrel, Red Clover, Evening Primrose, Comfrey, Sweet Leaf, Juniper, Burdock, Yarrow, Wild Carrot, and more – all of which have medicinal properties appropriate for dogs.

We’ve done some herb walks on the Bike Path in past years, and this year I’m planning a regular schedule of them on the 4th Saturday of each month.  If you’re interested in learning about native plants that can help your dog (or you!), come along. Bring your curiosity, your questions, a notebook and pen, and your dog! And $10.

Meet up on the bike path behind Rite-Aid in Davis Square at 11:00am. Well-mannered dogs are welcome.

May 26th
June 23rd
July 28th
August 25th
September 22nd

In the event of rain, come on Sunday.

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… and by the way,

join us on facebook (here) for little blurts and links and tips and updates and…

…and show us your dog!  Brag about him/her or ask a question or share a story or…

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just checking in…

… to acknowledge that I’ve been pretty absent from the herbal front, lately.


I found that, in going through pictures taken during the Tail Hikes each day, some will just need to be cropped and zoomed and then painted!

Anyway, I am participating in Somerville Open Studios  in May, and am focusing pretty heavily on painting, in preparation for that.

Come May, when everything is done and hung, I’ll be happy to dig back into the herbs – and just in time for Herbstalk in June, too!


Then, a healthy balance between herbs and painting…

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