Animal, Heal Thyself

On July 17, 2017
Oliver the cat self-medicates using catnip Nepeta cataria.

©Elizabeth Whiter’s cat Oliver self-selecting Catnip, Nepeta cataria

While researching The Pet Healer Project, I learned a new word: Zoopharmacognosy, the science of animal self-medication. Derived from the roots zoo (“animal”), pharma (“drug”), and gnosy (“knowing”), it is the animal’s innate ability to pinpoint therapeutic elements in plants. We’ve all seen our dogs eat grass and throw up; they are self-medicating.

Just recently I came across a story in a science journal that described how much of folk medicine, particularly in the undeveloped world, likely came from medicine men watching animals self-medicate. A shaman of the Tongwe tribe in Tanzania was said to have observed a sick porcupine eat the roots of a plant known to be poisonous. When the porcupine recovered, the shaman began experimenting with the root in small doses, first on himself and then on fellow villagers. It turned out to be an effective treatment for dysentery, one the Tongwe still use today.

According to a recent New York Times article, “Animals of all kinds, from ants and butterflies to sheep and monkeys, use medicine. Certain caterpillars will, when infected by parasitic flies, eat poisonous plants, killing or arresting the growth of the larvae within them. Some ants incorporate resin from spruce trees in their nests to fend off pathogenic microbes, employing the same antibacterial compounds, called terpenes, that we use when we mop the floor with the original Pine-Sol. Parrots and many other animals consume clay to treat an upset stomach; clay binds to toxins, flushing them out of the body.”

Healer and teacher Elizabeth Whiter explains, “I first became aware of zoopharmacognosy when I discovered my horse Wow eating the bark of a willow tree. None of my horses had ever done that, and I wondered then if he was doing some form of self-medication.  I looked it up: Willow tree, I learned, is salicylic acid, which is what aspirin is made from. He was self-medicating for pain! Then I noticed he was also eating rose hips for Vitamin C and bladderwrack for electrolytes, all of which help repair the body.”

Elizabeth noticed her cat Oliver outside choosing his own catnip and snapped this photograph.  The variety of catnip is Nepeta cataria.

And all along pharmaceutical companies were taking notice, too.

To learn more about how animals self-select healing plants and other amazing stories, read Sandy’s new book, The Pet Healer Project. (available September 2017)

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