Zoopharmacognosy

Now there’s a word I would bet none of you have ever heard before!

I only came across it a couple of years ago as my interest in essential oils expanded from human applications to animals too, and also my knowledge of herbalism expanded alongside my aromatherapy knowledge. I have found that the more you know about one, the more curious you get about the other. As we have so many animals at home – 13 currently, it seemed to make sense to learn a bit more about how I could apply all this knowledge to them as well as to my humans. If nothing else, it will save on vets bills, but also I hate giving animals prescription meds just about as much as I hate taking them myself – in fact, even more so as they can’t tell you about any side effects they’re feeling.

So, what exactly is Zoopharmacognosy?

“This is the study of how animals self-medicate with medicinal compounds in the wild. The term is a composite of the Ancient Greek words “zoo” (animal), “pharmaco” (remedy) and “gnosy” (knowing). For historical reasons, the term zoopharmacognosy is typically applied to vertebrates. The word zoopharmacognosy was coined by Dr Eloy Rodriguez, a biochemist at Cornell University.”

Quoted from “Animal Self-Medication” by Caroline Ingraham.

Many biologists have observed self-medicating behavior of animals in the wild. For example, in Tanzania in the rainy season it was observed that chimps would get bouts of sickness and diarrhoea and when this occurred, they would forage for and chew on Aspillia and Vernonia amygdalina, both plants that they do not normally go near. They have no nutritional value at all, however within 24 hours the chimps would have recovered from their sickness. Faecal analysis showed that they had been suffering from a particularly high load of intestinal parasites. Once they were well, they left those plants alone again.

Elephants have been observed digging out salt in Kenya during dry season. This is believed to help neutralize the plant toxins that are evident at that time of year.

Lambs with intestinal worms will seek out plants that have high tannins.

Consumption of certain plants can help support physiological processes to maintain optimum temperatures (our bodies are always aiming for homeostasis!) Juniper consumption can increase body temperatures whilst wintergreen or eucalyptus can decrease them.

There are many more examples, but isn’t it amazing that they just know this? We probably do too, we’ve just “forgotten” it. (In the Western World, that is. I’m sure in villages in Africa and other third world countries, they know what plants to eat for what ailments.)

Caroline Ingraham has made it her life’s work to apply zoopharmacognosy to domesticated animals. She calls it Applied Zoopharmacognosy and has been successfully practicing it all over the world since 1990. Again, to quote her book: “It is the process of enabling domesticated, or captive (zoos, etc.) animals to self-medicate by introducing secondary metabolites into their environment and observing their behavioral responses. A species-specific methodology means each animal acts according to its natural self-medicative behavior.”

It’s a long read, 514 pages, but if you’re interested, I would highly recommend it.

“Animal Self-Medication – how animals heal themselves using essential oils, herbs and minerals.” By Caroline Ingraham. ISBN 978-0-9524827-6-5.

I’ve not read it all yet, but it has helped me to help my dog self-medicate through the pain of arthritis – he chose German Chamomile and Lemon essential oils again and again. Usually at night-time; I think they helped him sleep more comfortably. Sometimes he would even lick the top of the bottle of the German Chamomile. When he did this I would tip a few drops onto my fingertips and he would lick it right off. Some nights we would repeat this two or three times. Once he’d had enough, he would walk away.

It’s also helped my horse when he gets all anxious (he’s a Thoroughbred, it kind of comes with the breed.) He chooses Yarrow or Lavender and they will both calm him right down. It’s like a big release for him; you can almost see him sigh with relief.

I will be working with this more over the next few years at least, but if any of you take a look or give it a try, I’d love to hear your results.

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