I've observed cats and dogs self-medicating with grass for upset stomachs before, but I recently witnessed a behavior in my dog that I'd never witnessed in a dog before. In response to getting a thorn in her paw she chewed on some willow branches to extract the salicylic acid for use as a painkiller. Only after the willow kicked in did she lay down and pull the thorn out with her teeth.
I have three theories for how she was able to pick out willow as a medicinal plant: 1) she was taught that plant by her mother as a young puppy in the rural parts of Romania, 2) some instinctual knowledge of that plant is somehow encoded in her DNA, or option I think is most likely, 3) her nose is sensitive enough to register the medicinal components in the tree.
There our some things that we can eat that dogs can't, but we've largely co-evolved the same diet in response to our close relationship with one another. While many of the foods and medicines that our ancestors consumed were likely discovered by trial and error (or were carry overs from the earlier species we evolved from which had better senses of smell), I suspect that our domestication of dogs led to our proliferation of knowledge about edible and medicinal plants. Once we observed the plant species that dogs identified through their sense of smell, we were able to use our mastery of tools to harvest these plants more efficiently to the benefit of both dogs and humans. While we certainly benefit from dogs for protection and as hunting partners, I suspect that our domestication of dogs had way more profound of an impact on the development of our species than we've previously believed.
I have noticed my dog is very particular about what grasses he eats--he can't pass up a tall stand of fresh "canadian wild rye," but never touches the turf grasses. Maybe something similar going on that he senses some substances he wants in the wild rye.
Weeds are just plants with enough surplus will to live to withstand normal levels of gardening!--Alexandra Petri
Animals have a lot of wisdom to share when we pay attention to them indeed! Zoopharmacognosy is fascinating!
My cat has had struggles with allergies/asthma and she had it partly controlled with plants for quite sometime. She was always eating hackberry seedling leaves and ragweed leaves. Turns out, eating ragweed is a remedy for allergy to it and other irritants. And hackberry has a history of use for sore throat. Her asthma got the worst when she didn't have access to these. That experience really taught me a lot and makes me wonder just how much I could learn if I knew how better to listen to the animals around me as they interact with plants.
It also made me consider planting a greater array of herbs for her to have free access to.
"The garden teaches us there is something we are all capable of doing. Only with something so small that can be in everyone's hand can we challenge the empire."
What an interesting topic for exploration. Mathew your three theories are intriguing; I'd like to add fourth for consideration. A primer first, I usually think of dogs and animals in general as still being themselves, natural and instinctive. To put it another way, they communicate with with their world and receive their world directly. There is no story or lens in the way and which interprets the world. I'm not saying I know what's going on with animals; I am saying, I think it's something like this and that lets me move to the real point of the matter. Dare I say it, most?, all? indigenous peoples, natural peoples, and probably your Great Grandmother or Grandfather in your lineage, have explanations of how they came to use medicinal plants. Prior to lore, they communicated with plants, had relationships with plants and the plants communicated with them. I realize that this last statement can evoke derision or support or other things depending on an individual's worldview. You know the a priori, unconscious assumptions that one agrees to before anything else. If one's "story of the world" one's metaphysics, do not include such a thing as plant communication, that person doesn't experience it, ever, because it can't happen to them. They have already decided that. And of course you know, modern physics bears this out, light being both particle or wave depending on the experiment, read point of view. Or, perhaps the most telling, an experiment which is observed by an observer alters the experiment's outcomes. Really. Our position in the world, what we believe, changes our world, figuratively and literally.
Well, suffice it to say Descartes' legacy, I think, has a hand in all of this; reductionism gone awry and the world and living things are soulless and don't feel. It's been awhile since I read Descartes, however, I think I have that last bit correct too. Back to your dog, perhaps we don't even have to come up with theories. Your dog "knew" and followed their knowing. We've all experienced that, knowing something without knowing how we know it, yet still knowing we do in fact know it, without equivocation. By the way, there are books about these kinds of things and they are a pretty good read; there are also classes in which this kind of relationship to life is taught. Imagine that!
Let's all look to creating a better world because it's what we believe and what we do and dogs have the wisdom, however they came by it, to heal themselves with a bit of willow.
The Greenhouse of the Future ebook by Francis Gendron