Applied Zoopharmacognosy – Helping Domestic Animals Self-Medicate

Zoopharmacognosy is the scientific term for the fascinating way that animals self-medicate with the help of plants. The term was coined by biochemist Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, Professor at Cornell University, and anthropologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard, and comes from the Greek “zoo” (meaning animal), “pharmaco” (remedy) and “gnosy” (knowing).

Animals in the wild have been using plants, clay, algae and other natural sources to prevent and cure illnesses “forever”, and in the past few decades, scientists have started to pay a lot more attention to (and doing research based on) this phenomenon. They have found that the animals seem to know exactly which plants, etc. they need to use, and how to use them, to combat issues like parasites, insect bites, worms, digestive problems, infections, even malaria.

Dr. Michael Huffman’s “Aha-Moment”

One of the most well known researchers in this field is primatologist Michael Huffman, Professor at Kyoto University. His research with primates begun in the late 70s, and he had his big Zoopharmacognosy “aha” moment in the 80s, when he was studying chimpanzees in Africa. Along with a local medicine man, he observed one female who obviously wasn’t feeling well; she wasn’t very active, was clearly in pain, and not eating. The only thing she would eat were shoots from a plant called Bitter Leaf (which is not normally part of the chimpanzee diet). She removed the leaves and peeled the stems and only ate the innermost part. While she was eating the Bitter Leaf, the medicine man commented that she wouldn’t like it because it’s very bitter. Dr. Huffman asked “why would she eat it then?” The medicine man replied that his tribe uses it as medicine.  Dr. Huffman asked what it was used for, and the medicine man told him they eat it to help with stomach aches, diarrhea and parasites. Dr. Huffman says “at that point, a light bulb went off above my head”. He realized that what he was witnessing was something truly groundbreaking. It was the first time an animal had been observed clearly using a plant to cure itself. And it worked – within a day, the chimpanzee was up and running and back to her normal self again.

When analyzing the chimpanzee’s feces, as well as that of another chimp who also had been seen consuming Bitter Leaf, he found that they both had parasites. He begun doing research on Bitter Leaf and discovered that while the leaves contain a very toxic chemical, the pith contains beneficial compounds with anti-bacterial, anti-tumor and anti-parasitic properties. The chimpanzees obviously knew which parts of the plant would help (and which parts to avoid).

Others Are Making Similar Observations

Another interesting behavior is the way primates use whole leaves to rid themselves of worms and parasites. Richard Wrangham observed chimpanzees in Tanzania collecting Aspilia leaves, and swallowing them whole. The leaves went through the body undigested, and when eliminated, had brought with them worms, trapped in the hairs on the leaves. He sent a few leaves to Dr. Rodriguez, who found that they contain an oil called thiarubrine-A, which can kill several types of viruses, fungi and worms.

Researchers have since discovered that there are more than 30 different plants whose leaves are used in the same way by other apes. Interestingly, people in Africa have long used the same plants for a variety of issues, from earaches to dysentery.

Other fascinating examples include mice putting bay leaves, which contain several chemicals that kill flea larvae, around their nests, and “anting” behavior in birds: many species of birds rub certain types of ants and sometimes millipedes throughout their feathers – the ants contain formic acid, which is toxic to lice.

Even Butterflies Are Doing It

Even insects self-medicateEven insects seem to be doing this. Evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode, who studies Monarch butterflies at Emory University, has found that adult butterflies eat tropical milkweed to protect themselves against a particular kind of parasite that often attack them. Swamp milkweed does not provide the same protection, and one very interesting behavior de Roode has seen is that adult butterflies infested with the parasite choose to lay their eggs on tropical milkweed rather than the swamp variety, suggesting that they know they have parasites and are looking out for their offspring by giving them a “place of birth” that helps protect them. AND the milkweed also protects migrating butterflies against potential predators such as bats, spiders, and birds – it is poisonous to them.

Learning From The Animals

Many cultures have discovered some of their most important drugs thanks to watching the animals and observing what they eat. Dr. Rodriguez says “natural medicine begun as a defense; every plant has at least one substance in it that ensures its survival” (which can also help with our survival), and “people in the forest are very tuned into the animals, and have great respect for them, because they learn from them”. He also points out that “animals have given us many of the most used medications today – the top anti-cancer drug comes from a tree”.

Animals In Captivity

But what about our pets, who usually aren’t allowed go out in the woods on their own to forage for what they need? This is where Applied Zoopharmacognosy comes in. Caroline Ingraham, who has been practicing healing with the help of plant extracts for over 25 years, invented the method. She wanted to give animals in captivity the same opportunities as wild animals to self-medicate. Caroline also founded the Ingraham Academy of Applied Zoopharmacognosy where she offers canine, feline and equine workshops and diploma courses.

In Applied Zoopharmacognosy, the animal is offered several different essential and macerated oils as well as dried, powdered plants to choose from, and the practitioner decides which ones to use based on the animal’s body language.

Meet Jo Rose

Today’s featured practitioner is Jo Rose, founder of Jo Rose Holistic Therapies and Training in Oxfordshire, England. Jo grew up on farm and first discovered alternative therapies (Reiki) while living in New Zealand. Back in England, she started practicing Reiki on animals and went on to study many other alternative modalities as well (kinesiology, reflexology, Animal Spinal Therapy, Merishia massage, and many more). Today, she has a busy holistic practice treating both humans and animals, in addition to teaching courses in a variety of therapies.

Jo is also a graduate of the Ingraham Academy, and leads foraging walks and teaches Hedge Herb self-selection and introductory Applied Zoopharmacognosy workshops (the next class is coming up on February 25).

Jo kindly agreed to be interviewed and share a few case studies with us:

Jo, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me! How did you first come across Applied Zoopharmacognosy?
A colleague recommended it to me. I was already working with the idea of self selection of touch, colour and sound for well-being, so it seemed to fit.

There are lots of different plants out there. Do you narrow it down to just a few for each session? How do you decide which oils and plants to use – what is the “diagnosis” process like?
There is no diagnosis – I just use knowledge I gained from my training and through books on the properties of the oils and their traditional uses, plus a bit of intuition, and then offer them to the animals to select what they want.

How many different oils and plants do you usually offer an animal during a session? Do you have to limit it to a certain number to prevent “scent burnout” (like when we try perfumes in a store, for example)?
It depends on the animal’s interest. I go with their responses. Sometimes they will spend a long time inhaling and processing one oil. I guess it’s in the range of 5 – 15 essential oils. I tend to switch between essential oils and macerated oils and plant powders, so there isn’t a smell overload.

You practice a lot of different healing methods. When somebody contacts you and asks you to help with their animal, do you always incorporate Applied Zoopharmacognosy, or does that depend on the situation?
I don’t always, as I do need to go with owner expectations, the vet’s permission, and most importantly the animal’s needs at the time. But my sessions do tend to be a mix of physical work, energy work and Applied Zoopharmacognosy.

Is it mostly used for chronic conditions, or acute as well?

Are there any conditions that respond better than others?
The oils can potentially help any condition; emotional or physical. I suppose I tend to work with inflammation and anxiety more than anything else.

So emotional issues as well?
Yes. Blue Yarrow seems to be chosen by troubled animals, along with other oils known to be calming and comforting.

It sounds like it would be something that caretakers at shelters, sanctuaries and zoos should be using on a regular basis, since those are all extremely stressful environments for the animals. Do they, as far as you know?
Battersea Dogs Home has been using the method. I know that some rescue centres use sprays, but not necessarily through the self selections method. I think people are becoming more aware of the values of plants and herbs, so I hope it’s filtering through to rescue centres etc. I know of a few who have volunteers who are trying to integrate the method into the rehabilitation of the animals.

Are there any risks? Are there times when an animal picks the “wrong” plant and it does harm rather than good?
Unless the animal is starving (would eat anything – such as horses eating excessive ragwort) or is taking a medicine that would contraindicate the plant / oil, it won’t poison itself. There are occasions in the wild where animals choose to eat what is seen as a toxic plant, but will then eat clay or another plant which seems to cleanse the toxins out of the system once they have done their job. For example; horses eating acorns (high in tannins, which potentially would kill off parasites), and then licking clay to chelate them out. So in theory, if the horse chose a toxic oil or plant which has a beneficial anti-parasitic effect, but doesn’t have access to a clay or plant to help clear that out of the system, it may compromise itself. However, I’ve never come across this in practice, so whether animals only go for the more toxic compounds if they are also being offered a product which will chelate it out of the system, I don’t know.

Cattie’s note: “Chelate” means to remove harmful substances from the body by also ingesting a chelating agent (such as clay) which forms a complex with the toxic substance and allows the body to remove that complex using its natural mechanisms of waste product removal.

How do the animals know which plants to select in the wild? Do they learn from their parents?
It’s innate. They are born with the ability.

So should we let our pets eat whatever they want? Or do domesticated animals lose the ability to self-medicate on their own? It doesn’t seem like they always know what’s good for them or not: My dog used to try to eat dried slugs she found on the sidewalk, chocolate, snow, etc. She once ate a neighbor’s entire garlic patch and threw up every day for a week (and our vet told us that eating too much garlic can cause anemia in dogs).
Yes – I do wonder whether domestication / breeding programs have decreased the ability for some animals to break down certain chemicals in food, so they don’t always recognise them as dangerous, such as dogs eating grapes. However, animals do appear to sometimes use plants to purge the system – which may have been the case with the garlic – possibly trying to clear out an infection. The dog threw the garlic up, rather than keeping in its system. Maybe it had done the job. Dogs eating stuff off pavements and general foodstuff is different as that’s more hunger related (not that they are always hungry), or filling the need to get calories for energy in the system rather than self medicating. And they don’t always choose the nicest or healthiest things to get their calories, so no, we shouldn’t just give them what they want.

Do you find that some [domestic] animals are better at choosing plants and oils than others?
The animal has to be focused on what’s going on, so if its feed time for everyone else, or there’s something exciting to look at, the oils may not be so appealing. However, there are a few which are calming and focusing and may help to bring their attention to the session. All animals are able to self select, including us to a certain degree – although I would say that other animals are better than us.

How soon do you see results?
Instantly to a few hours – depending on what they have chosen, and what it’s acting on, and how they have chosen it as well. The flehmen response to oil goes instantly to the brain, while licking goes to the digestive system and takes longer to be processed and get to work on the area where it is needed.

Cattie’s note: The flehmen response is that curling of the upper lip that you sometimes see animals do. It helps draw a scent into the vomeronasal organ. See illustration to the right here, and also the video below, which shows Jo offering garlic oil to a pony with a dry cough and arthritis:

Jo: Notice how he smells the garlic oil with one nostril and the then the other, licks the bottle and flehmens regularly. He is taking elements of the oil into respiratory system through inhalation, digesting system through licking and into the brain through the flehmen response.

Is this something pet owners can do on their own once you have determined which oils/plants the animal needs?
I would recommend that if you want to use the method with your own animals, at least attend an introductory workshop, and get some good books on the subject. Or, if a practitioner was to come out to see a pet, they may leave oils and powders with instructions for the owner.

Do you work with a veterinarian, or do they refer people to you, or how does that work?
I ask the owner to get their vet’s permission for me to work with their method with their animals, which is professional courtesy and a legal requirement.

Are there any regulations around Applied Zoopharmacognosy in the UK?
Yes – above. And insurance to practice can only be obtained on completion of a full qualification, such as Caroline Ingraham’s Diploma course.

Are the treatments covered by pet insurance in the UK?
Not that I know of – but good question, and worth looking in to.

Applied Zoopharmacognosy Case Studies

And now, the case studies. Which plants/oils did you use on these animals? (if you’re willing to share that info)
I use blue yarrow a lot, so where there is inflammation, this is offered. I also used clay on the pony’s wound as a natural poultice. That pony chose melissa and peppermint oils, which have properties that are said to help with nerve damage. Where there are skin conditions or digestive conditions with dogs and cats, I always offer spirulina.

Huey the dog had very irritating allergy problems. He scratched his ears and chewed his paws until they were red and becoming infected. Within a couple weeks of working with Applied Zoopharmacognosy (in conjunction with veterinary approval), the irritation had subsided.

Merlin the Norwegian tree cat:
Merlin, fine stud cat and Champion show cat to be, had a very nervous disposition around the lady cats and at shows. He couldn’t control his bowels or bladder. In fact, he wasn’t particularly in control over these areas at the best of times! With veterinary approval, Jo used Kinesiology touch techniques and Applied Zoopharmacognosy. Merlin appeared to be very relaxed by the end of the session. Only the next day his owner told Jo that he’d produced his first normal ‘movement’, and appeared very relaxed and confident in himself. He went to become Champion show cat soon after!

At 5 months old, Seb caught his headcollar on fencing, and spent hours struggling, causing severe damage to his face and skull, which required intensive care treatment. Although well enough to return home, the skin and tissue on his nose started to disintegrate, almost to the bone, due to the friction damage.

With veterinary approval, Jo worked with Applied Zoopharmacognosy. Seb selected a number of oils, clays and plant powders. Jo used some of his choices to make up a clay poultice, which was applied and left on.

Two weeks later new tissue had grown and the wound was closing up. Jo offered more oils and re-dressed the wound. Two weeks beyond that, and hair had grown back on the tissue. Only a narrow scab was left.

I would like to thank Jo for taking the time to talk about Applied Zoopharmacognosy, and for sharing these studies with us. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is intrigued with this healing method.

Since writing this post, I have enrolled in Caroline Ingraham’s diploma program – I just had to learn more. Read about my trip to England to study with Caroline.

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Cattie Coyle

Cattie Coyle

Founder and Editor at Animal Wellness Guide
Cattie is the founder and editor of Animal Wellness Guide. She is a freelance photographer, graduate of Bancroft School of Massage Therapy’s small animal program, and has studied Applied Zoopharmacognosy. Learn more about Cattie
Cattie Coyle
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