Dogs that self-medicate

26th June 2013
Beryl Shuttleworth
6 Responses

Let me tell you a story that might make you reconsider who the most intelligent species on earth is. This is a story called Zoopharmacognosy –  the word is derived from Zoo (animal), pharma (drug) and cognosy (knowing). This is a story of animals knowing how to heal themselves. Here are a few examples:



Jane Goodall recorded how chimps self-medicated. They would sometimes eat plants that made them vomit. They also swallowed whole the leaves of Aneilema aequinoctiale, an antiparasitic plant.




Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on Milkweed plants. But, when they are infected by parasites, they choose a different variety of Milkweed, one with far higher levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. When the larvae hatch, they ingest this Milkweed, which decreases their parasite infestation.


Interestingly, unparasitised larvae ingesting this plant, are more likely to die. The Monarch mom must get it right, or her babies die. And she does get it right.




Giraffes (and several other animals) with upset stomachs eat large quantities of termite mound soil. Now, this soil has a particularly high clay content. Clay is an effective binding agent and detoxifier, meaning it absorbs and deactivates toxins from bacteria. It also contains the mineral kaolin, which is used in many human treatments for diarrhoea.




Euphorbiaceae plants are not part of the normal diet of Chacma baboons. But, occasionally, and only in very minute amounts, these baboons will eat the leaves.  Scientists think the reason for this is the stimulatory properties that these plants have. But, the interesting thing is, they don’t overdose, they know the correct dose.




European Starlings, when they are suffering from feather parasites, collect and crush ants. Then they vigorously rub the dead ants into the plumage. Crushing ants in this way causes the release of formic acid (a strong insecticide and bacteriocide) and benzoquinones (insect repellents).


There are plenty of other examples. And I am sure you have observed some self-medication in your own pets. The important thing is – animals know what herbs to use, they know what doses to take and can sometimes even protect their offspring in advance of their birth.


How did we humans forget this?

6 Responses

  1. Hi Beryl. I’m really enjoying your articles especially as a dog owner. My latest acquisition, a retired Greyhound called Secret will usually chew her way through a few strands of a Cleaver plant commonly called sticky weed. After checking it out I’m happy to let her carry on with some in our own garden, (less chance of other dogs wee, human spit and worse).

    I read your comment about ‘how have human forgotten all this?’ I think it’s a combination of humans being foisted off with convenience foods, (ping dinners), the self poisoning of diesel and other oil based products, plus the voracious appetites of the multi national drug cartels feeding off our hard earned money with increasingly powerful and expensive drugs. Probably a few more things I haven’t added but the whole environment being contaminated with modern chemicals, combined with the assurances by their inventors and manufacturers they its all perfectly safe.
    After all that’s what the criminals behind cigarette smoking told us for decades.

    Disease and general illnesses have been with us since we were walking upright but like all animals we probably had the cures for these nasties all around us when we lived in cottages and hamlets etc. Now a company invents powerful drugs for the powerful diseases we have because of the lives we lead, long hours of work, stabbing each other in the back and having to suck up to someone who has the power of life and death over those under them.
    To a larger extent our animal friends have become victims of the convenience food industry (probably not the horses but certainly the cat and dog have. But, as you say, they have retained the memory of what to eat to alleviate various complaints, possibly because their domestication has only been recent.

  2. Beryl you can see by my comments that I have been browsing through your old blogs 🙂 Reading this article in conjunction with your article on the dangers of Comfrey, how would you then explain the dogs (and other animals) need for Comfrey? My dogs seek it out actively at certain times (they will bark and ask when it is out of reach, as I keep it now). They did not eat it constantly when it was freely available in good quantity growing in the garden, but at times they would mow the lot right down. Today I saw someone post a picture of Comfrey asking what plant it is because her dog, out on a walk, pulled free to get to this specific plant and voraciously ate thereof.

  3. Watching the exceptional parenting skills of Egyptian geese in my garden, I noticed that she walked the goslings all day, not on the lawn but over the rough terrain like dumped prunings and logs laid out for insect ecosystems.
    One winter the babies looked awful, I tried to feed them but she wouldn’t let them eat the wild bird seed. Instead she flattened a bed of yarrow, trampling it down.
    “Aw sweet,” I thought, “she’s making them a nest.” But no, she softened it and then showed them to eat. They ate until there was nothing left (a bit sad for me!) but the babies flourished.
    Next year I planted out two beds in readiness but she never went near them!
    I don’t understand the reason, not knowing the properties of plants but I know Yarrow is a healing herb.
    Most interesting article.
    Thank you!
    Emile Shreve

    “Goose Cottage”
    Somerset West 7130.

    1. Emile, that is SO amazing. And exactly what I was talking about. Not a lot is known about Yarrow, but it seems effective against digestive upsets, common colds and bleeding. The little ones must’ve been suffering from something like that. 🙂 🙂 🙂

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