Animals Deal with Sickness Better than Humans Do (Part Two)

Vernon Coleman and Donna Antoinette Coleman

Here, as promised yesterday, is another extract from our book `The Wisdom of Animalsí. In this very abbreviated extract we explain precisely how animals cure themselves when they are ill.

1) Ranchers in Utah used to turn out sick cattle which had diarrhoea, leaving them to fend for themselves. Initially this was done simply to be rid of the ailing animal and to prevent the spread of any disease. The ranchers were, however, surprised when after a few days their cattle repeatedly returned - quite well. An observant rancher followed some sick animals and saw that they travelled to clay banks and fed on the clay until they got better. The clay absorbed the toxins and viruses causing the diarrhoea. Sadly, cattle on modern farms are given little or no opportunity to self-medicate. Animals throughout the world use clay to deal with poisoning - clay detoxifies by binding onto the harmful substances. Humans could probably benefit too and clay pills might save many lives. However, there isn't much profit to be made out of selling clay and so no one is fighting for the right to do so.

2) A worker from the World Wildlife Fund followed a pregnant African elephant for more than a year. During that time the elephant ate a predictable diet, roaming about three miles a day. At the end of her pregnancy the elephant walked more than 15 miles in a single day and headed for a tree of the boraginacea family. Once she had arrived at the tree she ate it. All of it. She ate the leaves, she ate the branches and she ate the trunk. Four days later she gave birth to a healthy calf. Kenyan women brew a tea from the leaves of this tree to induce labour.

3) Chinese herdsmen have seen elderly deer nibbling at the bark and roots of the fleece flower. When the bark and roots were analysed scientists found that they contained ingredients likely to help reduce hypertension, cholesterol levels, coronary heart disease and other disorders common in old age.

4) In the Han Dynasty a defeated general called Ma-Wu and his army retreated to a poor part of China to rest and recover. Many soldiers and horses died. Those left were ill, excreting blood in their urine. One groom noticed that his three horses were healthy, and wisely he watched to see what they ate. He saw that they were eating a good deal of a small plantain plant. So he boiled some of the plant and ate it. The blood quickly disappeared from his urine. He then gave the same plant to the other men and horses. They were all cured. The plant is now known to contain ingredients which make it anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial.

5) In the 17th century, English doctors regarded watching animals as a reputable way of learning about medicines. Queen Anne's personal physician went to the marshes of Essex, where he knew the locals put their sheep when they suffered from a disorder known as `the rott'. He watched what they ate and by doing so discovered herbs with which he could help human patients with consumption.

6) Native American Indians learnt so much from watching how bears treated themselves when they were ill that advanced healers were known as Bear Medicine Men.

7) A herbalist in Tanzania rescued an orphaned porcupine. When the animal became ill with diarrhoea and bloating the porcupine went into the forest and dug up and ate a plant which turned out to be useful for treating internal parasites in humans.

8) A Creole herbalist in Venezuela watched deer chewing the seed cases of a plant. He subsequently found that the plant helped his human patients.

9) In the Middle Ages, English doctors noticed that when an animal licked its wounds the injury would heal more quickly. The doctors decided that animals' tongues must have some marvellous healing property and so they got into the habit of cutting the tongues out of puppies and using them as wound dressings. This didn't work terribly well and eventually (some centuries later) the doctors realised that it was the saliva which contained both an antiseptic and agents which encouraged wound closure.

10) Domestic cats and dogs chew grass. There are two reasons for this: grass is an emetic (causing regurgitation or vomiting) and a purgative scour (getting rid of worms living further down the intestine). Animals choose different types of grasses for different functions.

11) Elephants, who are herbivores, need a lot of sodium but there isn't much present in plants. Without the sodium they become ill. So the elephants need to find their sodium elsewhere. In Kenya, there is a series of caves high up on the side of an inactive volcano called Mount Elgon. These caves have been created by generations of elephants. Over the last two million years the elephants have eaten vast quantities of rock. Inside the caves the elephants have to crawl on their knees to dig out lumps of sodium rich rock. They also drink the mineral rich waters which contain calcium and magnesium.

12) Gorillas in Rwanda eat rock which they dig out of the slopes of Mount Visoke during the dry season. The rock the gorillas mine and eat contains a good deal of iron, aluminium and clay. The gorillas eat the rock as a medicine. The clay helps stop diarrhoea (a common problem among gorillas because much of their plant based diet in the dry season causes diarrhoea and dangerous fluid loss) and the aluminium has a useful antacid effect. The iron is useful because in the dry season the gorillas have to go higher to find vegetation and may develop altitude anaemia.

Taken from The Wisdom of Animals by Donna Antoinette Coleman and Vernon Coleman. The book contains over 40 examples of how animals treat themselves and protect themselves from illness.

`The Wisdom of Animalsí is available from the bookshop on

Copyright Donna Antoinette Coleman and Vernon Coleman 2012 and 2024