plants for pets



Zoopharmacognosy is the latest buzz in the complementary treatment of cats and dogs. There are courses in it for pet owners, and some claiming to certify you to offer the service to others. There is also letter in the Vet Times encouraging vets to get involved. So, is this a treatment you should consider with your pets?


Zoopharmacognosy means animals self selecting medicinal plants or minerals to cure themselves of illness. Scientists have observed several animal species using naturally occurring plants or minerals when unwell. The two most commonly cited cases are that of elephants with diarrhoea seeking out a special type of clay to eat and sick chimpanzees eating bitter and mildly toxic leaves to treat parasite infestations. In our domestic animals we see cats and dogs chewing grass; as this often induces vomiting it has been suggested they eat the grass when feeling sick to help remove toxins or parasites from the gut. otherwise evidence for this type of medicine in companion animals is largely anecdotal. Yes, rabbits will often choose dandelion leaves over grass when they have gut stasis, but we can’t know if they are seeking out the gut stimulating bitters in the herb, or whether being offered a favourite food is why they choose it. There is also a story of a worm infested dog choosing an onion over and apple and never touching an onion again; was he really trying to rid himself of worms, or did he make a bad choice and decide onions weren’t tasty? How did he know that the dose of onion he took was safe (as onions are quite toxic to dogs).


This is an important question and hinges on our domestic pets still being able to detect toxic plants from safe plants, and knowing when to take mildly toxic plants and in what doses. The experience of most general practice vets would be that domestic pets aren’t that good at it; we’ve all treated dogs, cats, and small pets which have eaten toxic house or garden plants, unsuitable vegetables, toxic substrates such as cocoa mulch, and garden bulbs. Part of the safety element relies on the therapist only offering safe plants, and then knowing what dose is suitable for the animal. Another element is the form in which herbs are presented; we know that horses won’t ingest toxic ragwort when it is growing (unless they are starving) but readily ingest it in hay. Plants may be safe whole and dried, but their refined essential oils much less safe, especially for cats. Finally herb quality must be considered; not all suppliers check the quality of raw ingredients and there have been cases of contamination and substitution, even in big high street brands!

If zoopharmacognosy is practised then it should only be offered by experienced trained herbalists. The many courses are as yet unregulated making it hard for owners to know what level of understanding a practitioner has. The practitioner needs an in depth knowledge of herbal medicines, animal physiology, and conventional drugs- as many herbs interact with conventional medication. We feel that non-veterinary practitioners should work under the supervision of, and on referral from a vet (as with other valued paraprofessionals such as physios, behaviourists, hydrotherapists and massage therapists). Sadly the Vet Times letter suggests that Zoopharmacognosists don’t have to have veterinary referral (an issue we are clarifying with the RCVS).

In conclusion, whilst we are BIG fans of herbal medicine, and find it effective in a wide range of cases we will continue to recommend that you seek out a diagnosis by a vet, and that any herbal treatments are prescribed by a vet trained in herbal medicine. If you do decide to see a Zoopharmacognosy practitioner ensure your vet is involved in case of any reaction or interactions.


Despite our concerns about this therapy (which is in it’s infancy and may prove useful with more research and safety considerations) there is some fun you can have with self selection at home! Plant a range of tasty treats for your pets to nibble on if the fancy takes them…this is especially useful for indoor cats and rabbits.

Rabbits and guinea pigs: try dandelion, chicory, fennel, mint, and french marigold.

Cats: try valerian, catnip (these two have opposite effects so don’t plant them too close!), lavender, and cat grass (a type of oat).

Dogs: try fennel, mint, parsely, lavender, cat grass, and cleavers (goose grass).