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Canine ZooPharmaCognosy – An Illuminating Article by Practitioner Carly Hillier

Except for a few short years, dogs have shared my home and been an integral part of my life. Mostly lurchers and mongrels, I know and understand the bond that we enjoy with our companions. I understand the day-to-day joys as well as the heartache of loss when they go. I know I am not unique. Dogs have held a special place in human hearts since they were first domesticated around 40,000 yrs ago. Not only have they provided us with companionship but also security, transport, hunting and herding skills.  We have brought dogs into our homes, made them part of our lives, treated them as our own kin.

One could in fact argue that there is very little of the wild wolf remaining in today’s pooch that once roamed the Siberian Plains.  The need to hunt being now obsolete with the majority being fed from a bag and enjoying priority boarding on the sofa. You would be forgiven for thinking that the ancestry and essence of wolf is all but a distant memory. But I for one would disagree. My work over the last decade with dogs has involved helping them tap into a powerful innate ability that still remains intact within our furry companions. This is the same ability that the animal kingdom (and I include the human species here) have used to survive, thrive and evolve before penicillin, vets and doctors became the norm.  The survival trait to which I refer is recognising the medicinal qualities within plants in order to self-medicate to regain and maintain health: a concept known as Zoopharmacognosy. A concept as old as life itself and used daily by animals in the wild to remain well. Given the opportunity, domesticated dogs can help themselves in this way too.

So How Exactly Do Dogs Smell What they Need?

Dogs have a secondary olfactory organ which gives them the ability to scent far superior to our own.  This organ, called the Vomeronasal organ (VNO) is located above the roof of the dog’s mouth and enables them to seek out medicinal constituents within plants that they need to restore health. During the self-medication process there are a number of pathways into the body that a dog utilises – ingestion, inhalation, topical application and olfaction. However, olfaction via the VNO is a particularly powerful tool in the process as it is connected to different parts of the brain (via the accessory olfactory bulb) including the limbic system (influencing memory and behaviour) which includes the hypothalamus well-known for its role in influencing hormones as well as maintaining homeostasis. So, as you can see ‘just a sniff’ can have a powerful effect on your dog’s body.

The whole self-medication process is mediated by the immune sensory apparatus which includes the senses of taste and smell.  To explain in simple terms, the more a dog needs a particular constituent, the more appealing the smell and taste. When the animal has had enough the aromatic chemicals are unwanted and the taste becomes bitter. In the human world this would be something akin to cravings experienced during pregnancy which are ameliorated by the consumption of a certain food or drink, or in some more rather unusual cases coal and chalk! This self-medication process is not to be confused with animals seeking out food to consume to store on a daily basis as fat as a precaution for possible leaner times.

How a ZooPharmaCognosy Session works…

The Zoopharmacognosist kit

Normally, a Zoopharmacognosy session will last between 1 – 1½ hours during which time a dog is offered herbal and mineral extracts according to presenting symptoms. These extracts may come in the form of herbal and mineral powders, dried herbal roots, therapeutic grade essential oils, macerates (infused herbs) and floral waters. Initially specific extracts are offered to encourage the dog to engage, followed by the extracts known to be selected for specific symptoms. So, for example, a dog with hormonal issues will be offered extracts that are known to balance hormones, such as Vetiver, Hops, Geranium, Liquorice powder to name but a few. Body language is observed and noted and each reaction directs us to the next relevant extract. A dog presenting with aggressive fearful behaviour could select anything from medicinal plants for physical pain, emotional trauma, hormonal imbalances all the way to extracts for gut infection. The beauty of this approach is that the dog’s innate wisdom knows the main issue for them at that moment in time. An external diagnosis, whilst is of course helpful will not always show the whole picture or where to find the root of the issue that can set the wheel of healing in motion.

Case Study 1: Jess, Spinal Arthritis

Jess and Spirulina
Jess being offered some spirulina in water…

In a Zoopharmacognosy session a dog self-selects incredibly accurately – even if the selections don’t correlate with what we think is the issue. For example, a few weeks ago I worked through Zoom (online video platform) with Jess (13yr old Terrier X collie) that had been diagnosed by a Vet with spinal arthritis. When it came to the session Jess’ initial interest was in extracts that are normally selected for anxiety as opposed to those selected for pain. The anxiety manifested itself during the initial stages of the session with obsessive licking of furniture and the floor. Taking Jess’ lead, I guided her owner to offer calming extracts for obsessive behaviour (Sandalwood, German Chamomile), followed by extracts for trauma (Linden Blossom, Yarrow, Rose floral water, Arnica Co2) and extracts for comfort (Jasmine, Violet Leaf) Only after working through the emotional and possible gut issues (Liquorice root and Spirulina powder were the favourites here), did she then go on to select extracts which are considered to be analgesics and nervines. After diligent daily reoffering by Julie, Jess’ progress has been steady and positive. After 2 weeks her licking has subsided significantly, her restless nights are all but a distant memory and the stiffness has reduced by 30%. In the morning she is less crippled and recovers a lot quicker after exercise. She very rarely cries and moans in pain as she used to and she is brighter and more balanced. Jess is a prime example of the benefits of ‘Offering and following’ as opposed to administering.

Case Study 2: Dog with Pannus

Dog and Pannus

Another case demonstrating the power of self-medication is of a 5yr old German Shepherd affectionately known as ‘Dog’, that was brought to the Sligo clinic for a session to see if we could help her as she was going blind. She had been diagnosed with Pannus (autoimmune disease resulting in blindness considered incurable). Dog was knocking into walls and furniture and needless to say, Dog and her human family were finding this rapidly progressive blindness extremely distressing and worrying. Dog had been prescribed immunosuppressants in an attempt to slow down the deterioration of her eyesight. After collaborating with the Vet, it was felt that the key to resolution was to redirect the immune system’s response which then guided the type of extracts to offer. Key selections during the session and for the following days were Liquorice root powder, Cornflower Floral water, Spirulina powder, Linden Blossom absolute, Nutmeg essential oil and Arnica Co2. Within 10 days of the session, Dog’s eyes became fully clear and her sight fully restored. According to her owner, the Vet was astounded and barely recognised Dog. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t just the eyesight that was restored. Her ability to hold weight on returned and her coat went from dull and dry, to shiny and healthy. So, it would appear that the eye issue was only part of the problem and she selected extracts that supported all of her needs as opposed to just for her eyes. A truly holistic resolution!

In all cases of successful resolutions, whilst the initial session is important, the follow up offering over the proceeding days and possibly weeks is just as important. Both Julie and Berenice, at the time both new to the self-selection process, by following guidelines, offered diligently for the following days.  Essentially, the purpose of reoffering the extracts is ‘topping up’ the self-medication process as the dog’s body uses the plants to restore balance and needs more (albeit normally reducing daily) to continue the process. Eventually, as the body finds balance the extracts are no longer needed.

Herbs and oils suitable for self selection

It’s all about Following Your Dogs’ Lead…

When you start a session, you never really know for sure where it will lead. That may be a little disconcerting for some and take a little getting used to – as a culture we tend to prefer certainty over uncertainty. To get onboard with this approach it takes a considerable mental shift to let the dog take control, to show us the way and lead. With this approach we don’t administer, but we offer. We don’t control, we let go, trust and follow. Once the penny drops and your dog realises that they ‘have a voice’ and that they are the ones driving the session, magic happens.

For some dogs, it can take time for them to ‘open up’, and gain the confidence required to step into their power and take the lead. Particularly those that are ‘closed down’ and have suffered abuse and are untrusting of people and themselves. Nevertheless, those are the ones that can benefit the most and once onboard can often be extremely keen to engage when they become aware of a way forward. For example, Gunnar, our demonstration dog for our online canine workshop last year, initially was quite aloof and it wasn’t until offering on the second day of the workshop that he started to wholly engage.

Whether it’s a case of a sore paw, historical pain or unhelpful memories gained from a less happy time that prevents them from enjoying life fully, it is so rewarding and humbling to work with them in this way. To be trusted by them and to accompany them on their healing journey is an aspect of this work that continuously fills me with wonder and gratitude.


Carly Hillier runs Live online interactive workshops helping dog owners alongside professionals within the industry to work with this approach. She also works individually with dogs and horses at her clinic in Sligo and virtually by guiding sessions online. She qualified at the Ingraham Academy (UK) as a Zoopharmacognosy Practitioner over 10yrs ago and has worked with a wide range of dogs, including service dogs, such as customs and farm dogs, to the family pet.  You can contact her on 00353 (0)86 8306168 / [email protected] or find out more at

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