Veterinary botanical medicine: from historical use to contemporary need

01 August 2017, at 1:00am

BARBARA FOUGERE discusses the history of medicinal plant use and offers examples of the efficacy of decoctions such as chamomile

THE USE OF HERBAL TREATMENTS within veterinary medicine is not a new phenomenon, nor has it always been considered alternative! Ever since veterinary medicine as a discipline began, in Europe in the 17th century, plants have been an important part of veterinary medicine. A browse through any of the editions of Veterinary Medicines: Their Actions and Uses by Dr Finlay Duns – lecturer on materia medica and dietetics at the Edinburgh Veterinary College – is in effect a look at veterinary botanical medicine, the very basis and foundation of our profession. Words like demulcent, stomachics, tonic, astringent, purgative, nervine, and depurative, decoctions, tinctures – all part of the herbal language today – were part of our professional language right through the 1800s and early 1900s. Dr Dun (1854 edition) wrote of chamomile: Chamomile flowers have a hot bitter taste and a strong aromatic odour. They contain a bitter extractive matter, soluble in both water and alcohol; a small quantity of tannin, … and a volatile oil, which when first distilled, is of a beautiful blue colour and is the chief active principle of the plant. Chamomile flowers are stomachic, carminative and mildly tonic. Their stomachic and carminative properties depend upon the volatile oil… given to horses and cattle in doses of one to two ounces… and in the form of formentations and poultices used to remove external inflammations. Our veterinary forefathers had an empirical knowledge of botanical medicine which is supported by research today. Chamomile (German Chamomile, Matricaria recutita L., Asteraceae) is one of the most popular medicinal plants today as an herbal tea. It is well tolerated by cats and dogs. Chamomile decoction is protective against diarrhoea induced by castor oil in rats – having potent antidiarrhoeal and antioxidant properties confirming its use in traditional medicine.1 The tea is gastroprotective against ethanolinduced gastric ulcers in rats2, is spasmolytic3 and hepatoprotective.4 Chamomile tea in humans with type 2 diabetes (3g in 150 hot water three times daily), compared to placebo, significantly decreased glycosylated haemoglobin, serum insulin levels and insulin resistance as well as increasing antioxidant status.5 Topically, chamomile tea has been shown to be anti-inflammatory and effective in the treatment of chemotherapy phlebitis.6 Chamomile has a reputation for relieving anxiety. The essential oil of chamomile is evident in the smell of chamomile tea and the oil demonstrates pharmacological activity in animal models of anxiety.7 Many other herbs have been part of our orthodox pharmacopoeia. These include herbs such as ginger, aloe, peppermint, cascara, senna, linseed and others that feature in the veterinary pharmacology and medical texts right into the 1960s.

Why use an herb?

So why use an herb when we have well-researched, established medicines for many veterinary conditions? Where a conventional medicine is both safe and effective, it makes sense to use them. And while we currently have good treatment options, we are still
challenged by diseases like cancer, allergies, autoimmune and degenerative diseases in animals. Botanical medicine can be applied to conditions and health maintenance across the production animal industry and companion animals for a number of reasons, including:
  • alternatives to growth promoters, antibiotics and anthelminthics in the face of resistance issues;
  • growing consumer demand for organic produce;
  • human health and environmental concerns about chemical and drug use and residues in livestock, in aquaculture and poultry and on companion animals;
  • treatment options for animals that are refractory to conventional care, suffering drug-related side-effects or where conventional options have a low evidence base or safety concerns; 
  • the rising demand by companion animal owners for botanical medicines as a preferred method of treatment. The science is supportive of botanical medicine: a recent (2015) review in Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics reports promising effects of many Western and Chinese herbal medicines for treating parasitic diseases caused by protozoa and metazoan, and broad activity against bacteria and fungi. The review lists the main findings and methodologies of the latest research on herbal medicines, recognising the current issues regarding indiscriminate use of chemicals and antibiotics in aquaculture.8 A recent study published in the Journal of Parasitic Diseases demonstrated that the anthelmintic efficacy of crude neem (Azadirachta indica) leaf powder against strongyle infections in cattle was equivalent to fenbendazole when compared to infected untreated controls.9 The recognition of the potential of botanical medicine to improve equine healthcare and expand treatment options is exemplified by investigation into multiple plant agents for challenging conditions such as Prunella vulgaris for equine infectious anaemia virus (EIAV)10, and a review by Tinworth et al. (2010) in the Veterinary Record on the potential for botanical medicines to manage insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia in non-obese horses based on human and laboratory animal data.11 Plant-derived products called botanicals, phytogenics, and also phytobiotics are used extensively in feed to improve pig performance.12 Aside from having antimicrobial activity, these products potentially provide antioxidative effects, enhance palatability, improve gut function or promote growth.12 These examples should make us reconsider veterinary botanical medicine as not so much of our past, but of our future too. 


1. Sebai, H.1, Jabri, M. A.2, Souli, A.3 et
al. (2014) Antidiarrheal and antioxidant
activities of chamomile (Matricaria
recutita L.) decoction extract in rats. J
Ethnopharmacol 152 (2): 327-332.
2. Al-Hashem, F. H.1. (2010)
Gastroprotective effects of aqueous extract
of Chamomilla recutita against ethanolinduced
gastric ulcers. Saudi Med J 31 (11):
3. Maschi, O.1, Cero, E. D. and Galli, G.
V. (2008) Inhibition of human cAMPphosphodiesterase
as a mechanism of the
spasmolytic effect of Matricaria recutita L. J
Agric Food Chem 56 (13): 5,015-5,020.
4. Sebai, H.1, Jabri, M. A. and Souli, A.
(2015) Chemical composition, antioxidant
properties and hepatoprotective effects of
chamomile (Matricaria recutita L.) decoction
extract against alcohol-induced oxidative
stress in rats. Gen Physiol Biophys 34 (3):
5. Zemestani, M.1, Rafraf, M.2 and Asghari-
Jafarabadi, M.3. (2016) Chamomile tea
improves glycemic indices and antioxidants
status in patients with type 2 diabetes
mellitus. Nutrition 32 (1): 66-72.
6. Reis, P. E.1, Carvalho, E. C., Bueno,
P. C. et al. (2011) Clinical application
of Chamomilla recutita in phlebitis: dose
response curve study. Rev Lat Am
Enfermagem 19 (1): 3-10.
7. Yamada, K.1, Miura, T., Mimaki, Y. et al.
(1996) Effect of inhalation of chamomile
oil vapour on plasma ACTH level in
ovariectomized-rat under restriction stress.
Biol Pharm Bull 19 (9): 1244-1,246.
8. Valladao, G., Gallani, S. and Pilarski, F.
(2015) Phytotherapy as an alternative for
treating fish disease. J Vet Pharmacol Therap
38: 417-428.
9. Jamra, N., Das, G., Singh, P. and Haque,
M. (2015) Anthelmintic efficacy of crude
neem (Azadirachta indica) leaf powder
against bovine strongylosis. J Parasit Dis 39
(4): 786-788.
10. Brindley, M. A., Widrlechner, M.
P., McCoy, J. A., Murphy, P., Hauck, C.,
Rizshsky, L., Nikolau, B. and Maury, W.
(2009) Inhibition of lentivirus replication
by aqueous extracts of Prunella vulgaris.
Virol J 20 (6): 8.
11. Tinworth, K. D.1, Harris, P. A., Sillence,
M. N. and Noble, G. K. (2010) Potential
treatments for insulin resistance in the
horse: a comparative multi-species review.
Vet J 186 (3): 282-291.
12. Windisch, W., Schedle, K., Plitzner,
C. and Kroismayr, A. (2008) Use of
phytogenic products as feed additives for
swine and poultry. J Anim Sci 86 (suppl 14):