Greg Tilford, co-founder and formulating herbalist of Animal Essentials was honored to join podcaster Shauna Wall on her recent series, “Plant Remedy Revolution”, which first aired on March 1, 2018. Listen here as Greg talks about how Animal Essentials came to be, it’s current mission, and his vision for the future.
Elytrigia [Triticum; Agropyron] repens Grass family
Appearance: Believe it or not, if you are a gardener, you probably already know and hate this plant by the name “quackgrass”. Couchgrass (pronounced “cooch-grass” in much of Europe, it’s native birth place and medicinal origin) is a profusely common, introduced weed in North America. To the untrained eye, Agropyron repens looks like every other waist-high wild grass— with perhaps the most distinctive exception displayed by its leaves. Each leaf (or “blade”) of couchgrass looks as though somebody pinched a crimp in it with their fingernails— about one or two inches away from the tips of the leaves. While this does not serve as a definitive means of identification, it provides a good point from which you can begin the process of “ruling-out” look-alike grasses in your area, one species at a time. If you wish to gather this plant for medicinal use, find some samples of what you think might be couchgrass, then take them to your local extension agent, a botanist, or somebody else who is up on identifying grasses. Unless you are very experienced at using a botanical key (a scientific, reference used to identify plants through recognition of their taxonomic features), attempts to identify couchgrass will be a hit-or-miss proposition. Fortunately, none of the look-alike grasses are toxic— but they’re probably not medicinal, either.
Habitat & Range: Couchgrass native to the Mediterranean area. It now makes itself at home virtually everywhere on earth. In North America, expect to find it areas where livestock grazing, farming, or other human motivations have delivered the seeds.
Cycle & Bloom Season: An aggressive perennial which reproduces by seed or spreading rhizomes.
Parts Used: The rhizomes (horizontally creeping roots).
Preparation: Tincture, decoction of the fresh or freshly dried rhizomes. As a dietary supplement, the fresh leaves.
Specific Uses: Historically, many animal lovers have come to know Agropyron repens as “dog grass”, because dogs, cats, and other animals love eating the fresh spring leaves of the plant. Our dogs are no exception— we have clumps of “dog grass” growing in the in front of our house, and whenever an opportunity arises (one which doesn’t interfere with a game of Frisbee), they both actively graze on the plants. It is very interesting to watch how they actually differentiate the couchgrass from other grasses in their intuitive drive to eat the plants. But even more interesting is the way they instinctively use this plant to fulfill special health care needs. Specifically, they will eat couchgrass to the point of vomiting, and while humans may find this somewhat disgusting, an inquisitive herbalist with a holistically-oriented mind can clearly see what the animals are doing— they are either using the grass as a digestive cleansing agent or they are vomiting so they can re-ingest their stomach contents. The latter may be indicative of poor nutrient absorption— eating food twice, in effect, allows for more complete absorption of certain nutrients. For more on this lovely subject, see the section on gastrointestinal problems. The point is this: if your animal eats grass, it is likely to fill a nutritional or medicinal need, and such activities should not be overlooked when assessing your animal’s holistic health— even if you do wish to look away and forget about it.
As a food, a patch of couchgrass provides a rich source of vitamins A and B, iron, rough fiber, and silica (for healthy bones, hooves, nails, coat, etc.) for grazing animals. However, most of the medicinal values of couchgrass are contained with the rhizomes of the plant. Couchgrass serves as an excellent tonic and disinfectant for the urinary tract. It is a soothing, anti-inflammatory demulcent and saponin-based diuretic with mild antimicrobial activity, and is considered a specific remedy for chronic or acute cases of cystitis and urethritis, where the root tea or tincture will help reduce inflammation, inhibit bacterial reproduction, and lessen pain during urination. It should be noted that although couchgrass has been shown to possess broad antibiotic activity1, it may be too weak to be effective against infections which are already well-established. In such cases, couchgrass should be combined with stronger antimicrobial herbs— such as echinacea, thyme, or Oregon grape (or goldenseal— provided it from cultivated, not wildcrafted sources). As a diuretic, couchgrass increases the volume of urine by stimulating sodium excretion, helping to wash away waste materials from the body via the kidneys. This makes couchgrass an effective adjunct to various liver-supporting, alterative herbs (such as dandelion or burdock), especially in the treatment of rheumatism or chronic skin problems.
The demulcent properties soothe inflammation and it can also be used for kidney stones and gravel, and because it is very gentle on the kidneys seldom irritates the bladder or urethra during long term use, it is a primary herb to consider when treating the symptoms of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (or Feline urinary Syndrome – FUS) in cats, a condition which is usually due to factors other than infection.
For use in urinary problems, the best way to administer this herb is in the form of a cooled decoction. Make the decoction by gently simmering a heaping teaspoon of the chopped, dried root, or two heaping teaspoons of the chopped fresh root (rhizomes), in eight ounces of water for about twenty minutes. The decoction can be squirted directly into the mouth of the animal. A safe starting dose is 2-3 ml (about 1/2 tsp.) per 20 lbs. of the animal’s body weight, twice to three times daily. If direct administration is too difficult, the dose can be added to the animal’s drinking water— try to figure out how much your animal drinks, then add enough couchgrass to meet dosing requirements. Glycerin or alcohol tinctures can be used at half the above dosage, and are best if diluted into water. Keep in mind that this is a very subtle herbal medicine— the needs and systemic requirements of the animal you are helping may require several increases in dosage over several days, or weeks of administration.
The efficacy of an herbal calming formula is influenced by several other factors— while quality, composition, and concentration of active ingredients all factor into the equation, we also must consider the physical and behavioral nature of the recipient dog, the causes of his anxiety, and the context in which a product is used as important aspects of how an herbal calming formula will act within the body.
To explain in more detail…
PICKING THE RIGHT PRODUCT FOR THE JOB
So, you are probably wondering: Which herb works best? What form of product is best? How much should I give?
First, it is important to know that not all calmative herbs are alike. Some, such as chamomile, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and valerian are especially well suited to calming a nervous stomach. While skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia), an herb that many of my veterinarian friends of mine are using for treatment of canine epilepsy is better suited to cases of nervous jitteriness, muscle twitching, or hypersensitivity to touch.
Passionflower can be used in a manner similar to that of skullcap, but it stands above skullcap when the situation calls for a remedy against emotional upset— like separation anxiety or fear aggression that is associated with jealousy of another animal.
It is also important to know that no single herb will work effectively in each and every animal. Why? Because no two dogs or cats are alike. Where one herb will work well for calming dog “A”, the same herb may actually aggravate the emotional condition of dog “B”. For example, most herbalists regard Valerian as a somewhat “warming” herb, that when ingested tends to warm the body and “heat the constitution” of the animal. If applied to a dog with a hot temperament— or one that is chronically hot, itching for no apparent reason, or displaying a bright fire-red tongue— valerian root may actually make the pup even more hot and irritable.
Some formulas however, balance out the heating effects of valerian or other warming herbs by combining them with an assortment of other “cooler” calmatives such as passion flower, oat flower and skullcap.
THE BEST FORMULATION FOR FIDO
In weighing the choices of which form of product (i.e., tablet, liquid, powder, etc.) to buy, your primary considerations will be two fold. Ease-of-administration, followed closely by optimum availability of active components.
Obviously, if you must chase your dog down and force-feed a vile-tasting product into him, you will be working against the goal of calming him. On the other hand, if you are feeding a product that he relishes because of all of the dried meats, grains, and flavoring agents it contains, you might have to feed large amounts to find effect.
My preference, of course, is biased by the fact that I own a company that produces a sweet-tasting; alcohol free tincture blend that I feel offers optimum potency and acceptable palatability in most dogs. But regardless of which type of product you prefer, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for how much to feed.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Even a dyed-in-the-wool believer of herbal medicine like myself is wise be a little bit skeptical. Beware of product manufacturers that make extraordinary claims. And if a calming formula contains an ingredient you do not recognize, don’t buy it— at least not until you do some research into exactly what the stuff is.
The sad truth is that clever marketing has made certain herbs bigger than life.
Despite the potential values of many of those “super trendy super herbs” out there, consumers must remain aware that market performance and popularity does not always equate to sound medicine.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.) is one example. Ever since this wonderful plant gained worldwide recognition as a potential alternative to antidepressant drugs such as Prozac, it has been pushed as a panacea against anything that vaguely resembles chronic depression. It has even been touted as a “mood elevator” by large pharmaceutical companies who added it in scant doses to their daily vitamin product (just how the FDA lets them get away with that is beyond me!)
The truth about St. John’s wort is that it might work in certain individuals (human or animal) that suffer from depression that may be attributable to serotonin-related or other brain chemistry imbalances. To say that it will work against the emotional or behavioral imbalances in a broad audience of dogs is bit of a stretch— at least in my mind. In fact, in the 15 years of working with hundreds of holistic vets who have employed St. John’s wort, I have yet to see it actually work upon the mood or behavior of any animal. In my opinion St. John’s wort is better suited to relieving nerve pain. I do not consider it effective for cases of acute (sudden-onset) anxiety— such as that caused by fireworks, a trip to the veterinarian, or a stay at the kennel.
So what DOES work? Well, when I am faced with a cat who insists on climbing the walls or a dog that hides under the furniture during a thunderstorm, I reach for my Tranquility Blend formula (available from Animal Essentials)— a combination of valerian root (Valeriana off), skullcap herb (Scutellaria laterifolia), Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) and Oat flowers (Avena sativa). These four time honored herbs combine to create a balanced formula that is safe and effective for all animal types. Plus, the product is in the form of a sweet-tasting glycerin liquid that is easy to feed.
Last year I had the pleasure of filming 11 episodes of Natural Pet TV with Robert Semrow of Pet World Insider. The episodes are aired on the Roku entertainment network, as well as YouTube (and soon, Amazon Network). Links to each episode appear below. Enjoy!
Virtually any credible herbalist will tell you, “there are no silver bullets; no panaceas.” This is absolutely true— nothing cures everything, and there is not a single herb, drug or medical treatment that will help every individual, every time. There is however a few herbs that reach closer to being a “fix-all” than most others, their medicinal values just waiting to be discovered. At the top of my list of discoveries is the humble but very powerful olive leaf (Olea europaea); an herb that can quite literally transform a non-believer of botanical medicine into a devout follower.
For thousands of years humankind has realized the remarkable values of olive trees. Their delicious and nourishing fruit, the sacred and curative oil contained within the pits, and perhaps most important of all, the strength and resiliency of the trees themselves. Compared to most other types trees and neighboring flora, olive trees are remarkably resistant to drought, blight and marauding insects — so much so that olive trees are often seen flourishing amongst a virtual boneyard of weaker neighbors. It’s no wonder that early healers picked up this plant and began to use it in pursuit of their own wellness. Holistic herbalists, like myself and our ancestors, know that a medicinal plant isn’t merely a botanical resource from which certain chemistries can be extracted and exploited, but an integral part of a much grander design. One which includes and requires participation of all who feed upon the fruit of a tree, or rest in the shade of its branches. Watch the birds as they feed upon berries to ultimately plant seeds for future generations. Observe the deer as they feed upon foliage while at the same aerating the soil with their hooves, and scattering droppings to build rich compost. Check out the bacteria and fungi that transform fallen fruit and leaves into food for other plants. Herbalism isn’t about replacing pharmaceutical drugs with natural alternatives, it’s about an awareness that all life is connected and that we must not just consume, but participate in the natural systems of our living planet.
Humans of course, are difficult students. After all we are relatively new to all of this— we’ve only been around for a couple million years. Plus, we are endowed with an amazing, super developed brain that, as part of its uniqueness, has forced us away from the instinctive behaviors of animals. We don’t fit here, unless of course we learn to.
Olive leaf brings the lessons to us. By all accounts, early healers saw the natural resilience of Olea europaea as an indication of its medicinal capacity, and began using it for sore throat, infections of the skin and many other ailments.
Perhaps the first formal medical review of the plant came in 1854, when fellow named Daniel Hanbury reported to a Pharmaceutical Journal that olive leaf had demonstrated an ability to cure severe cases of fever and malaria. Hanbury published a simple formula: “Boil a handful of the leaves in a quart of water down to half of its original volume. Then administer the liquid in the amount of a wineglass every three or four hours until the fever is cured.” In his article Hanbury reported that he had discovered the herb in 1843, when he used it to successfully treat sick Britons who were returning from Her Majesty’s tropical colonies. Olive leaf soon became well known as a very effective febrifuge remedy, and was seen as much more effective than quinine in treatment of malaria. In 1962 Italian researchers recorded that one of several active components of olive leaf, oleuropein, could reduce blood pressure in both humans and animals, and it was soon established that oleuropein is strongly antibacterial and antifungal as well; two traits that help explain it’s remarkable resistance against various plant-killing pathogens.
By the mid 1900’s multiple studies had been published about the amazing healing capabilities of olive leaf, and in 1969, Upjohn; a major pharmaceutical manufacturer, went to work at develop what they envisioned to be a powerful antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal drug. To accomplish this they focused their studies on what was already regarded as the most active component of olive leaf, oleuropein, along with calcium elenolate, another compound that showed strong activity against various viruses, bacteria and pathogenic fungi. The findings of Upjohn’s in vitro (test tube) studies were astounding. Virtually every microbe that was inoculated in their studies was killed by even the weakest extracts of the herb. Olive leaf was shown to be effective against dozens of pathogenic microbes, ranging from rabies, HIV, influenza and even polio, to several of the most drug resistant strains of bacteria and fungi. Best of all, olive leaf and its derivatives exhibited almost no risk of toxicity. But despite Upjohn’s amazing findings, their plans of developing a new super drug were ruined when they learned that oleuropein and elenolate didn’t work so well when used in vivo (inside a living body) unless the rest of the plant’s chemistry remained as part of the formula. It turned out that like all herbs, the “entourage effect” of multiple chemical components, including among others, caffeic acid, verbascoside, luteolin 7-O-glucoside, rutin, apigenin 7-O-glucoside, luteolin 4’-O-glucoside, maslinic acid, hydroxutyrosol and oleocantha all contribute to the wonders of this amazing botanical. Hence the old herbalist’s saying, ”The whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts.” Knowing that it would be virtually impossible to develop a patentable drug from a whole plant that lives in easy access to billions of people worldwide, Upjohn abandoned their studies, leaving their amazing findings to herbalists like me, who will always regard olive leaf extract as my number one “go to” in virtually any case of viral, bacterial or fungal infection. Unlike conventional pharmaceuticals, olive leaf extract is virtually harmless. And unlike many conventional antibiotics which are quickly becoming useless against deadly forms of drug-resistant bacteria, olive leaf offers a complex mix of antimicrobial compounds that even the most stubborn bacteria will have a very difficult time finding a foothold against.