Have you ever observed your dog or cat eating grass, a horse reaching for a new type of plant, or even a parrot consuming clay? These may seem to be surprising, even harmful choices, but often the animals know best. They may not have gone through veterinary school, but all animals are experts in zoopharmacognosy. Zoopharmacognosy is a term coined in 1993 by Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, biochemist and professor at Cornell University. According to Dr. Rodriguez, zoopharmacognosy is the process by which animals self-medicate, often by eating things that aren’t a part of their regular diet. The word comes from the root “zoo,” meaning animal, “pharma,” meaning drug, and “gnosy,” meaning knowing.
Both domesticated and wild animals are innately aware of the benefits of some food and nonfood items, and use them to relieve pain, get rid of parasites, and even cure themselves of minor ailments. If you’ve ever seen your dog or cat eating grass, you’ve watched them practice zoopharmacognosy. Often consuming grass makes these animals vomit, yet they continue to seek it out. Because most grasses are indigestible, dogs and cats use it as a solution to rid themselves of anything in their guts that is causing them discomfort. Dogs can even specialize in what kind of grass they’re looking for, often preferring a broadleaf grass called couch grass, or sometimes, dog grass. Couch grass, in addition to helping dogs rid themselves of something that’s causing them pain, also has known detoxification effects on the liver and kidneys. Beyond eating grass, a food already outside of the normal menu for a dog or a cat, some animals go even further in self-medicating. Some red and green macaws have been known to eat kaolin clay to help with digestion issues. Since their diet is mainly made up of seeds and berries, some toxic berries can slip in, and it’s thought that the clay that the birds eat binds itself to the toxins inside their bodies and helps them digest it all safely. Parasites can also pose a threat, and some animals in the wild have been known to ingest small doses of other toxic materials, such as charcoal, to ward off parasitic infections. Zoopharmacognosy doesn’t just help the animals that practice it; it also can help humans by revealing which plants have inherently medicinal qualities.
A common example is the discovery of the osha root, found in the western half of the United States and Mexico. This plant, also known as bear medicine, contains powerful antiviral and antibiotic qualities and is known to chase out bronchial infections and sore throats in both humans and animals. Story has it that the benefits of the plant were discovered early on by Native Americans who noticed that bears would eat the roots of this plant whenever they awoke from hibernation, and would even apply a mash made of its roots to injuries. Scientists now think that these bears were practicing zoopharmacognosy, and would seek out the roots after hibernation due to the clearing effect that the plant has on the respiratory system. Self-medication is a necessary part of a healthy animal, whether that animal is domesticated or in the wild. While obviously some animals, especially pets, can get into substances that aren’t good for them, if left to their own devices for minor stomach pains or colds, most animals find the tools to fix the problem in the nature around them.