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Have you ever noticed your horse, dog or cat eating a certain plant in your garden or out in the field? You may be witnessing Zoopharmacognosy
Zoopharmacognosy, referring to the process by which animals self-medicate, is a term coined by Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, a biochemist and professor at Cornell University. In this process, animals select and use plants, soils and insects to treat and prevent disease. The word is derived from the roots “zoo” (animal), “pharma” (drug) and “gnosy” (knowing).
I have noticed this behavior with my own animals and wondered why they would eat certain plants. Our golden retriever Midas eats the echinacea in my garden. Echinacea conta ins a number of constituents that stimulate the immune system to deal with both bacterial and viral infections. Midas was always dealing with a compromised immune system, and maybe this is why he loved to eat echinacea. Pete, my elderly and arthritic horse, would eat the yarrow in my garden. One of the components of yarrow is chamazulene, which is a strong anti-inflammatory. My horse Marcus went through a period of eating mullein while out on the trail. This, too, was very intriguing because at the time he had a slight cough and mullein is a highly regarded herb for coughs and congestion.
And, what about that catnip? My cats love catnip; they eat it, roll around in it and sometimes take naps in their little catnip garden. The appeal may be due to an active ingredient called nepetalactone, a terpenoid (a naturally occurring organic chemical). “Nepetalactones mimic a natural courtship pheromone found in male cat urine, which is thought to stimulate a pseudo-sexual reaction” . Nepetalactone is also very effective at repelling insects. It is reported that eating a small amount of catnip is not harmful but in concentrated doses it has a hallucinogenic effect, which may explain all that animated activity a cat may portray after eating too much catnip.
THE ZOO EXPERIENCE
A few years ago I had an amazing opportunity to work with orangutans, gorillas and black-crested macaques at the Denver Zoo through its animal enrichment program. I worked with individual zookeepers, designing an essential oil program for each primate in their care.
It was truly remarkable to see these various primates choose what essential oil they wanted and how they wanted it. We were watching Zoopharmacognosy in action.
Some of the conditions we addressed in the animals were:- distrust
- sinus problems
- digestive upsets
- being easily aroused
The essential oils we worked with were violet leaf, rose, jasmine, fennel, basil, sweet marjoram, neroli and ginger. Working with these oils and others resulted in some significant behavioral changes. Each primate has been affected in its own unique way by the use of essential oils and the zookeepers’ consistent work, adding to the animals’ quality of life in captivity.
Many indigenous cultures would study animals and see what plants they were eating and, in return, would discover medicinal plants for their own use. One example of this is osha root, a plant native to the western United States and Mexico. Another name for osha root is bear medicine. The story goes that Native Americans would notice bears rolling around in this plant, eating the roots and applying a root mash to any injuries they may have had. They also noticed bears would seek this plant out when they awoke from their hibernation; the reasons for this may be for the plant’s respiratory cleansing properties and to clean out their digestive systems. Osha root is known for its powerful antiviral and antibacterial agent, used for bronchial infections and sore throats.
Today, wildlife biologists still observe animals in their natural habitat and find many new medicinal qualities in plants through these observations: “Some species ingest non-foods, such as toxic plants, clay or charcoal, to ward off parasitic infestation or poisoning. Illustrating the medicinal knowledge of some species, apes have been observed selecting a particular part of a medicinal plant by taking off leaves, then breaking the stem to suck out the juice” .
In an interview with Neil Campbell, Eloy Rodriguez describes the importance of biodiversity to medicine: “Some of the compounds we've identified by zoopharmacognosy kill parasitic worms, and some of these chemicals may be useful against tumors. There is no question that the templates for most drugs are in the natural world” .
I teach the process of zoopharmacognosy in my “Working with Animals and Essential Oils” courses. The primary focus is to teach you how to work with the animal by letting it choose the plant or essential oil it needs at that time. It is amazing to watch the healing process when you give the animal a chance to choose its remedy.
1. Engel, Cindy. 2002. Wild Health, p 159
2. Biser, Jennifer A. 1998. "Really Wild Remedies — Medicinal Plant Use by Animals."
3. Biology (4th edition). N.A. Campbell, p.23 'An Interview with Eloy Rodriguez' (Benjamin Cummings NY, 1996)
Frances Fitzgerald Cleveland has worked with horses for more than 25 years in a range of disciplines. She obtained certification from the Institute of Dynamic Aromatherapy and the International School of Animal Aromatics and has completed the Apprenticeship Program and the Science and Art of Herbalism Program in the didactic, therapeutic, laboratory and fieldwork in herbalism. Her company, FrogWorks, founded in 1996, aims to heighten the well-being of people and animals naturally, through individualized use of essential oils. www.ffrogworks.com