Did Animals Know about Herbal Medicine

Did Animals Know about Herbal Medicine before Humans?

Herbalists have long known that many of the defensive compounds found inside plants make effective herbal cures. They know that the natural environment provides a seemingly endless supply of potential medicines. However, the idea that animals might also use herbs (or anything else) to self-medicate has, until recently, been dismissed as romantic. Plants generate compounds for protection, and animals have, by trial and error, learned over millennia how to use these compounds. Humans have learned from animals how to use the plants in their environments. The studies are fascinating and provide us with a wealth of information about how animals instinctively understand how and when to use plants as medicine. Animals have been on the planet for hundreds of millions of years. Animal knowledge about the use of plants as medicines may be passed along genetically over the ages, or it may come from instinctual understanding. It may also come from the animal’s ability, like the those of the plant kingdom, to call to itself those substances needed to return to balance. “The idea that animals can convey meaning, and thereby offer an attentive human being, illumination is a commonly held belief the world over. The view is disparaged and disputed only by modern cultures with an allegiance to science as the sole arbiter of truth. The price of this conceit, to my way of thinking is enormous.” -Barry Lopez, The Language of Animals.


Traditional peoples have always learned from animals and assimilated this knowledge into their own systems of healing. Even in recent history, the cancer treatment practiced by Harry M. Hoxsey, (1901-1974), one of the longest-lived unconventional therapies of this century, came to us from an animal. The “Hoxsey treatment” was developed in 1840 by John Hoxsey, Harry Hoxsey^s great- grandfather. It was derived from grasses and flowering wild plants growing in a pasture where one of John Hoxsey^s horses, afflicted with a cancerous growth, grazed daily. The horse^s cancer reportedly disappeared, and John Hoxsey surmised that the wild plants had caused the recovery. He gathered some of the plants from the pasture, and later added ingredients from old home remedies for cancer. He used the resulting herbal mixture to treat similarly afflicted horses near his farm in southern Illinois The herbal formula was bequeathed to John Hoxsey^s son, then to Harry^s father John, and finally to Harry Hoxsey in 1919, whose father charged him with using it to treat cancer patients "if need be, in defiance of the high priests of medicine." Although Harry^s father, a veterinary surgeon, was the first to use the formula to treat people with cancer, it was Harry Hoxsey who made it famous. This Hoxsey Formula in truth was originally developed by the horse of Harry Hoxsey’s grandfather.


Animal Stories: Observations of Animals Using Herbs


Sick female chimp using Vernonia bush for parasites:

In her book, Wild Health, Cindy Engel reports an interesting story about a female chimpanzee. Dr. Michael Huffman, an American primatologist was working in Tanzania with an elder of the local Wa Tongwe tribe as a guide, who was both a skilled naturalist and an herbalist. While tracking an ailing chimp, they observed her stop in front of a vernonia bush (part of daisy family,) tear off a branch and begin peeling the bark. Prior to consuming the plant sap, the chimp was suffering from constipation, malaise, and lack of appetite. A day later, she made a spectacular recovery. They continued to track the chimp, and collected dropping samples to send off for laboratory analysis. The results showed at the time of the first collection, the droppings contained 130 nematode eggs per gram. In under twenty-four hours, the egg level was reduced to 15 per gram. The chimp resumed hunting, an exercise she had been unable to perform the previous day. Vernonia is one of the most important and widely used medicinal plants of Africa.Asian elephants find natural stimulant and pain killer: In the early 1940’s, scientists observed Asian elephants, before embarking on long treks, devour the fruits Entada scheffleri. Researchers theorize that the plant may serve either as a stimulant or a painkiller.


Pregnant elephant uses a borage tree to induce birth:

According to World Wildlife Fund scientist, Holly Dublin, African elephants seek out a particular species of tree when preparing for labor. Holly followed a pregnant elephant for more than a year in Kenya, and observed that the elephant followed a uniform diet and daily behavior. However, at the end of her pregnancy, the elephant walked 17 miles in one day, many more than her usual three, and ate a tree of the Boraginaceae family from leaves to trunk! Within four days, her contractions started and she gave birth to a healthy calf. Dublin never observed this creature eat this species before or after this particular incident. She also found that women in Kenya brew tea from the leaves of this tree to induce labor.


Pregnancy and fertility of Muriqui monkeys of Brazil:

Anthropologist, Karen Strier, from the University of Wisconsin, found that, at different times, Muriqui monkeys of Brazil seem to practice a natural form of family planning. These monkeys have been observed at times to make a special effort to eat leaves of Apulia leiocarpa and Platypodium elegans. These two plants contain isoflavanoids, compounds similar to estrogen, that are believed to increase estrogen levels, thereby decreasing fertility. Conversely, they will eat the fruit of Enterlobium contortisiliquim, perhaps to increase the their chances of becoming pregnant as this plant contains a precursor to progesterone called stigmasterol, the "pregnancy hormone".


Asian two-horned rhinos use tannin-rich bark of the red mangrove as anti-diarrheal:

The Asian two-horned rhino was observed eating so much of the tannin-rich bark of the red mangrove that its urine was stained bright orange. Tannins are a major component of some over-the-counter anti-diarrheal preparations. The concentration of tannins in the bladder of the rhino necessary to change the color of its urine was undoubtedly sufficient to have an impact on parasites in the creature’s bladder or urinary tract.


A Young Porcupine use mulengelele for parasites:

Shortly after being taken in after its mother was caught in a snare, a young porcupine became sick, suffering from diarrhea and lethargy. It wandered off from the village and the porcupine dug up the root of a plant the WaTongwe tribe call mulengelele. The baby porcupine recovered from its illness.


Bears use Ligusticum porteri, or Bear root:

Ligusticum porteri, or Bear root, has been known to be a fundamental medicine for American Indian cultures. > It is used as a headache remedy, as a fungicide, as an insecticide, and for numerous other complaints. More than a dozen compounds in bear root have been shown to produce known pharmacological activity Some birds use herbs to enhance the health of their chicks. Male European starlings have been observed selecting aromatic herbs to bring back to the nest. In North America, starlings preferentially select wild carrot, yarrow, agrimony, elm-leaved and rough golden rod and fleabane even when they have to fly farther from the nest to find them. These particular herbs are all highly aromatic, and contain high concentrations of volatile oils. The herbs are woven into the nest and refreshed even as the chicks are hatching. It has been observed that chicks in the nests with the aromatic herbs have a significantly greater chance of surviving into the next season than chicks in nests from which the herbs have been removed.


I have worked with hundreds of Veterinarians providing symptom specific Herbal Formulas for their animal patients. The most common report back from the Veterinarians is that “if only we knew that herbal medicine worked so well, earlier in my career”, they would have used it before using the powerful "big guns" of pharmaceuticals. Obviously the vast majority use only drugs, yet there is a rapidly growing trend, of holistically oriented Veterinarians who, in my opinion wisely, use herbs first before considering pharmaceuticals.