By regular contributor, Lynne Allbutt
Having run my garden landscaping business for over 30 years, I have designed numerous gardens with the onus on outdoor entertaining, children, veg growers, wheelchair access, cut flowers and various sensory aspects; I have even designed several ‘garden gyms’ but my favourite gardens of all to design and create are those that include the needs and considerations of the family’s pets.
Whether it is incorporating hutches and runs for guinea pigs and rabbits, agility courses for dogs or a chicken friendly area in the garden, there is a real satisfaction providing facilities that our fabulous four-legged and feathered friends will enjoy and benefit from.
For the last few years, I have taken the concept a little further after working with the fabulous Caroline Ingraham and learning about the aspects of Zoopharmacognosy (how animals self-medicate in the wild).
I use essential oils, herbs and natural tonics to help animals whenever I can. My own hens have benefited generally from spirulina, my pet pigs from Neuroli essential oil, when they were being weaned, and any cuts and grazes are swiftly healed with Yarrow. The offering of oils has also helped animals with behavioural problems, especially anxiety and fear.
That led me to exploring the possible advantages of incorporating certain plants into the suggested planting schemes for clients, which the animals could use to self-medicate with as necessary. It is a very subtle process and it’s essential that the animal be allowed to choose it’s remedy freely, even when offering oils, so providing access to beneficial plants in the animal’s own environment seemed like a good idea.
It made sense. And has been successful.
One of the best-known examples of animals self-medicating is probably the use of catnip by our feline friends. Nepeta cataria is an ornamental plant, which contains the chemical nepetalactone, and is renowned for stimulating cats, usually through pet toys. It will have the same effects if grown in the border, where cats will enjoy rolling and playing in it. A lesser-known fact is that cats will also choose it as a sedative if that’s what they need.
It is also an effective organic insect repellent and nepetalactone extract has been shown to be ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET, and obviously infinitely better for the wearer.
And if that’s not clever enough, Nepeta cataria is also a fabulous pollinator, attracting bees and butterflies, and it can be used to make a refreshing tea for us too.
Many of the healing plants that animals select, most people regard as weeds. Chickweed is a fabulous tonic for chickens and can easily be allowed to grow in the corner of a veggie plot and harvested for the hens. And dandelion leaves and flowers are adored by guinea pigs and rabbits, as well as being great pollinators, so what better excuse than to let them co-exist in your garden.
Dogs will often choose to nibble comfrey leaves (use the common variety - Symphytum officinale), which are rich in vitamin C and also contain allantoin, a substance known to aid granulation and cell formation, which is what the healing process is all about.
Common comfrey is also excellent for the general health of chickens , and again can be made into a tea for human consumption.
There is a little controversy about comfrey being harmful to the liver if taken internally, but you would have to ingest a huge quantity for it to be a problem. With regard to animals, the whole ethos of self-medication ensures that they only eat what they intuitively know will benefit them.
Other examples of animals and even insects self-medicating include dogs preferring to drink from a muddy puddle when fresh water is available, as they want the spirulina, or beneficial algae, in the rainwater.
And interestingly, honeybees will often set up home in an old chimneystack as they use the soot to groom themselves and rid themselves of mites.
Back in the garden, I have witnessed Yogi, my own Westie, choosing to lie amongst the chamomile in my borders. I have planted German chamomile (Marticaria recutita) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) both of which are calming, relaxing and good for relieving anxiety and also great for attracting bees and butterflies. And once again, both are fabulous as herbal tea. You will spot a pattern emerging!
My brother’s older Labrador will often lie on a thyme bed in his garden. Thyme is good for easing joint aches (and as such, can be added to our baths), so I like to think she is choosing thyme over steroids!
Despite nature providing the original organic medicine cabinet, do please be responsible when introducing anything new to pets. Do your research thoroughly and/or ask for advice, and the most important thing to remember is to let the animals choose; they know best.
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