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  • Jess Barber

Applied Canine Zoopharmacognosy: Understanding Canine Self-Medication

More and more, pet owners are considering non-conventional treatments and medicines, instead of or alongside traditional veterinary medicine. Applied Zoopharmacognosy was developed by Caroline Ingraham, having observed animals self-medicating with food and plants throughout her career. The term ‘zoopharmacognosy’ derives from the ancient Greek - 'zoo' meaning animal, 'pharmaco' meaning remedy, and 'gnosis' meaning knowing.

Many animals, including dogs, show this self-medication. Dogs possess a specialised and sensitive sensory system, notably their exceptional olfactory sense. The theory of sensory modulation suggests that an organism's sensory system controls responses to stimuli, ensuring optimal interaction with the environment. That is, their sensory system shapes their reactions to environmental stimuli. This can aid in interactions, food acquisition, threat detection and more. Sensory modulation can be seen at work when dogs are instinctively driven to seek out and consume specific plants when feeling unwell – their bodies drive them to find the plant that will help them to heal. Even more fascinatingly, the taste of said plant can be modified by sensory modulation in order to make it more appealing to the dog. The more the dog needs it, the more appealing it seems! Once they have recovered, these signals stop and their taste perception returns to normal meaning the dog is no longer driven to consume it.

How many times have you seen a dog start to eat grass when on a walk and wondered why? Zoopharmacognosy may hold the answer. As it is a source of cellulose, an insoluble fibre, consuming grass can keep the digestive system healthy and moving, keep digestive worms at bay and help to keep teeth clean. Chlorophyll is found in grass and is rich in antioxidants and vitamins which may also prompt dogs to make a snack of the lawn!

The exact processes underpinning this behaviour remain unknown, though it is thought that it developed during evolution before veterinary medicine was readily available. Modern domestic dogs retain some of this inherent knowledge from their ancestors, passed down in their genetics, allowing them to seek out what they need.

Medicinal plants can be considered ‘secondary metabolites’ meaning they are not ingested for purposes of growth and include essential oils, alkaloids, and tannins. They cannot easily be stored in the body and often taste very bitter meaning dogs are unlikely to eat them unless signalled to by sensory modulation. Once their need has been met, the dogs will stop consuming the compound.

Dogs can take on medicinal compounds in several ways including ingestion and inhalation. Taking compounds in through the nose can be especially powerful, as it directs them to the vomeronasal organ. This organ then connects to various areas of the brain including the hypothalamus and limbic system.

Beyond your dog seeking out particular grasses that they need, Applied Canine Pharmacognosy practitioners can help your dog access the compounds they need. The dog is presented with a range of plants and extracts, selected based upon the symptoms they’re presenting with, and allowed to choose whether or not to take them in. The dog takes the lead, with their body language carefully observed to guide the next steps of the process.

Examples of some of the extracts that might be presented for various ailments include:

- Arnica for pain-relief and as an anti-inflammatory

- Lemongrass for fighting fungal and bacterial conditions

- Bergamot for antibacterial effects

- Carrot Seed and Comfrey for body tissue repair and healing, especially post-operatively

- Ginger for digestive complaints or arthritis

More information about Applied Canine Pharmacognosy can be found by visiting Caroline Ingraham's website:


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