Roots play a vital role in the wellbeing of our companion animals and can be beneficial in a number of ways. Roots that can be eaten as food, like potatoes and carrots, are generally rich in vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates (sugars). These nutrient-packed roots can be an important part of the diet of many of the animals we care for.
Then there are roots of herbs that can be useful as first-aid remedies or to help prevent disease. For example, roots can be useful to help support the digestion (like Ginger or Dandelion), to ease anxiety (like Valerian), and to relieve pain (like Devil’s Claw). The Soapwort root can even be used to make a natural animal shampoo.
Some Useful Roots
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – All parts of the medicinal dandelion are useful. Her mild-bitter tasting roots are useful in promoting healthy liver and bowel function in animals. Dandelion gets her name from the French dent-de-lion, meaning “tooth of lion”, referring to the shape of her jagged leaves.
Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) – Devil’s claw root (tuber) is useful for animals suffering with painful joints and mild digestive upsets. Animals help to disperse Devil’s Claw in the wild. The Devil’s claw fruits are covered in impressive, claw-like hooks that catch onto the fur of animals passing by.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) – Ginger roots (rhizomes) have a broad range of qualities that are useful in animal healthcare. Ginger can help settle the stomach, especially useful in animals with travel sickness. Ginger’s warming nature can also help improve circulation and reduce joint stiffness and discomfort.
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – The sweet tasting liquorice roots (originally used to make liquorice sweets) benefit animals with respiratory problems, especially helping to sooth dry coughs. The naturally sweet taste of liquorice is also useful when trying to make bitter herbs better tasting. Liquorice grows as a weed in parts of the Western Cape.
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) – The common soapwort gets her name from her soapy qualities. The roots (and the leaves) contain saponins that lather when mixed with water. Soapwort can be used to make a gentle wash that is nourishing to the skin and coat.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – Valerian root has a distinctive odour that some people find offensive, however, like catnip, cats find it irresistible. The calming qualities of Valerian root benefit animals that are anxious or tense by helping to relax the nervous system.
Withania (Withania somnifera) – The root of this indigenous herb is useful as a general tonic for old or convalescing animals. Withania also has relaxing properties that are helpful in animals that are anxious or stressed by circumstances or events.
Roots from your Garden
Harvesting roots obviously requires killing the plant so only take what you need. The wild harvesting of roots can lead to precious herbs being threatened in their natural habitats, so it is best to grow your own where possible. Generally it’s best to harvest roots in the autumn. As winter approaches leaves begin to fade and the plant withdraws its focus from new growth and reproduction to storing vital nutrients. Harvested roots should be washed and dried before storage. Hang up the roots with string, or lay out on racks, in a dry warm place until they are completely dry and brittle. Place in an air-tight container and store in a dry, dark cupboard.
Where appropriate, roots can be finely chopped (fresh) or milled (dry) and added to an animal’s food. If a liquid is preferred, roots can be boiled in water, referred to as a decoction. After straining, and when the water has cooled, the water can be added to the food or be used as a wash.
Words of Wisdom
Avoid using any plants that have been treated with pesticides or herbicides. Always consult your veterinarian if your animal is on medication, pregnant, lactating or undergoing surgery before using herbs.