The Practical use of Herbal Medicine in Camelids
Robert J. Pollard, DVM
The very first graduates of The Ohio State University's School of Veterinary Medicine in the summer of 1885 were not allowed to use FDA approved pharmaceutical drugs . The main reason being that the FDA was first formed as an advisory board 21 years later in 1906 and didn't get enforcement powers until 1932. Veterinarians before the FDA existed had to know poultices and purges, tonics and liniments, irritants and counter-irritants. They had to know the dosage of herbs and basic chemicals like copper sulfate.
One of the most important areas of learning for any vet, long ago or now, is the natural life needs of the animal being treated. An all grain diet was not the best thing for a ruminants's stomach nor was standing in wet manure good for the hoofs. Those early vets didn't have to deal with pandas from China but if they did, they would have quickly found that a sheep diet didn't work well. We all know now that pandas require bamboo leaves just like koalas from Australia require eucalyptus leaves.
With South American camelids, the diets recommended in the mid 1980's were for small ruminants (sheep/goat). As the U.S. population increased and the value of each animal increased, efforts were made to save every cria. Crias that failed to gain weight just by nursing were supplemented by bottle or stomach tubing. Mistakes of human imprinting of young bottle fed males was recognized and discouraged. Owner's of mothers that were poor milkers were told not to breed them again because it was probably “genetic” and even some doubt was cast towards the poor milker's sire.
The problem of well fed poor milkers increased as the North American population of llamas and alpacas increased but really took off after the imports of the late 1980's and early 1990's got to producing age. Yet this problem was not seen in South America. If the mother had enough food, she nursed her cria with no problem in normal years. Drought years were different because without enough rain, many mothers didn't survive let alone a nursing cria. In normal years some observant camelid herders saw that males grazed on different plants on the high Altiplano than the nursing females. Mothers with a cria sought out plants high in natural plant hormones called phytoestrogens. The USDA would not be happy about introducing any new (possibly weed) plants from South America plus these plants grow mainly from 8,000 feet up to 15,000 feet elevation.
Plants with natural phytoestrogens are fairly scarce here in North America but areas with raspberry do much better than the rest of us. While quite a few camelid moms can get by without an outside source of plant hormones to raise a healthy cria, many benefit from the addition of the right herbs to their diet for 1 to 4 weeks. This is especially true for maidens at their first try at making milk.
The same problem of not enough milk from human mothers has been recognized for a long time. A large body of literature from midwives suggest different herbal teas to increase milk production with many herbs commonly used in cooking/flavoring like Anise, Basil, Caraway, Dill and Raspberry.
“The Herb Book” by Dr. John Lust lists 15 different herbs that are galactogogue (milk-making). In reviewing these some were rare and therefore expensive. Some like Goat Rue were nasty tasting and unlikely to pass the lips of a mother camelid needing more milk production. A kitchen batch of 5 different seeds was tried and worked well when top dressed on top of vitamin/mineral alfalfa pellets or COB at a dose of 2 oz SID or BID depending on need. While the rate of the cria weight increased, some moms got bored or for some reason would not finish the dose offered. Next Basil and Raspberry leaves were added that improved intake but after the first hundred or so moms to be supplemented with this Lactation Herbal Bland, the Anise was dropped because about 10% didn't like the licorice flavor. The current blend has been set since 1999 with about 1,000 pounds being distributed each month in the U.S. and Canada. Most orders are repeat orders because of the success of the first one.
At first the Lactation Herbal Blend was started when the cria was born but with experience, it is now started at 2 oz daily 2 weeks more or less before the cria's expected delivery date and goes up to 2 oz BID at birth until the cria has a steady daily weight gain. It then goes back to SID until a reasonable weight is maintained and then off the herbs while the cria is monitored for poor weight gain. Some days will have the cria gaining more weight than others so an average of 2-4 days is used to judge how well mom is producing.
The Blend can be fed the day of the next breeding and has shown no sign of reducing conception rate.
The next herbal project started because of my dislike of having to euthanize camelids only because they had arthritis and couldn't walk. Osteoarthritis (OA) can start from many causes such a poor nutrition, overweight, sports injuries, surviving septicemia all of which lead to the last “Blue Vaccination”.
The Arthritis Herbal Blend is a mixture of 3 nutrients and 8 herbs that were selected from 6 countries on 4 continents. The nutrients are glucosamine, MSM and Vitamin C which all help to support the growth of new cartilage in a damaged joint. Because OA is not a new disease, cultures around the world have examined the plants available to them that would help. Over thousands of years they learned to avoid plants that caused side-effects and pass from one generation of healers to the next the knowledge of those plants/herbs that provided the most benefit.
Like the Lactation Blend, I avoid the rare pricey ones and the ones that tasted like burnt rubber. I consulted nearly 40 new and old herbal medicine books until I had those 8 herbs that had a large consensus of agreement. The daily dosage was based on increasing the human dose level or reducing the equine dose level. Different flavors were tried but again the alfalfa flavor won over honey, rose hip or mint.
Click here to get a full description of each component as well as the amount in the regular llama/alpaca dose of 1 heaping tablespoon (½ oz).
While the Lactation Blend has been successfully diverted to a few other species (mare, bitch, human), the Arthritis Herbal Blend has worked well in everything from dogs and cats to goats and miniature (overweight) pigs.
The next herbal product is called Tendon Repair and was developed in 2003 mainly in response to a problem of fallen pasterns in young and middle age camelids. In the past, fallen pasterns were considered “genetic” problems so many males got gelded and females taken out of a breeding program. After several years in the mid 1990's, I became suspicious of the genetic connection because I knew llama families of 4 generations with no problem but then have a promising future stud/show winner move to a new location and within a year his tendons were lax.
It would be one thing if weak tendons were seen in a 15-20 year old, especially if they had been overweight or had carried 10 crias. At 2-3 years this didn't fit Darwin's “Survival of the Fittest” theory. A llama or alpaca really doesn't want to be the slowest runner when a puma is hungry in South America. Nowadays, if a llama or alpaca doesn't walk/run well in South America, it becomes the owner's dinner for the next week.
There also appeared to be areas in the U.S. where fallen pasterns were more common and other areas where it was rare unless expected in an old animal. Then there was this little fact left over in my mind from 40 years ago where some vet school avian professor talked about “Slip Hock” in young growing chicks. Not enough manganese in the diet prevented normal tendon development. It is now known that an even more rare trace mineral, boron, is needed in humans at only 3 mg/day to keep tendons strong. The third mineral was organic silica which is found in high levels in certain herbs. Inorganic silica would be called sand but when combined with a carbon complex becomes important for tendon strength.
The Tendon Repair Blend has the two minerals, Mn and B, in an amino acid complex form for 100% bio-availability. Several herbs high in organic silica like Horsetail and Nettles are used along with a few other herbs and nutrients to help weak tendons become strong again.
Reorders of both Arthritis Blend and Tendon Repair are needed so that after the initial improvement, a smaller amount is used for long term maintenance. I am sure these three herbal blends will not overcome every case. In some moms it might be genetic not to produce milk but then I would have expected that line to die out in South America along time ago. For Arthritis Blend, while it has helped many they also got older and there will be one last ranch visit for them sooner or later. With Tendon Repair, owners have reported generations of bad pasterns. Nutrition or genetic? Time will tell but many have a slow recovery because of excess weight since they don't move from the feed bunk very much.
The Green Pharmacy by Dr. James Duke
The Herb Book by Dr. John Lust
Wise Women Herbal for the Childbearing Years by Susun S. Weed