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Two Herbs for the Medicine Chest:
Slippery Elm and Calendula

Annie Roach

Herbs offer wonderful alternatives or adjunct therapies to many conventional treatments for our animal companions.  Yet, with so many herbs available for so many conditions, how does one decide which herbs are absolutely essential for the daily medicine chest? To get you started, here are two simple yet powerful herbs which can each do the work of many, Slippery Elm and Calendula.

Slippery Elm

Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva or rubra) is a slow-growing deciduous tree native to the Eastern U.S. and Canada. It is the inner bark that is used medicinally. Useful for digestive upsets of all varieties as well as diarrhea and constipation, Slippery Elm will go a long way in solving many acute problems. Internally and externally, Slippery Elm soothes and tones tissues while drawing out and eliminating toxins from the body. From mouth to colon, it acts as a lubricant and protectant, making it an excellent choice for any inflammation or ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract.

As a nutritious, antinausea food, Slippery Elm has no equal. It contains vitamins A, C, K, B complex, and is high in calcium and magnesium. Due to its gentle action and easy assimilation, Slippery Elm Gruel is helpful as a food during convalescence and will often be accepted and tolerated when all other food is refused. Think of it especially after intestinal surgery. This gruel is also useful in cases of bronchitis or kennel cough (soothes respiratory passages), urethritis (soothes and lubricates urinary tract), gastritis (soothes stomach distress and acts as an antacid), arthritis (acts as a joint lubricant), and colitis (soothes irritable bowel).

For diarrhea, slowly pour 12 oz. hot or boiling water over 1 T. of powdered bark, stirring constantly until mixture is smooth. Add a little honey if desired (dogs only). If constipation is the problem, use only 1 tsp. powder and proceed as above. Note that in smaller doses, Slippery Elm acts as a soothing lubricant while in larger doses, it acts as an herbal “glue” or bandage that the body will use where and as it is needed.

To make Slippery Elm Gruel, mix 1 tsp. of the powder with 1 cup water or broth in a pan. Heat slowly to a boil, stirring often (a wire wisk works best for this). Reduce heat and let simmer 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Take off heat. Add honey and/or other supplements if desired. Let cool and add to food, or feed separately as a porridge, or by syringe if necessary.

How to administer Slippery Elm preparations:

Note that the following dosages refer to the liquid preparations described above, not to the powder alone. Slippery Elm should always be taken with water, and since you can’t entice your companion to drink a glass of water on command, always prepare it according to the recipes provided. Having said that, here are some general dosing guidelines for companion animals.
Cats: 1/2 tsp. (or 2ccs by syringe) 3-4 times daily until improvement is noted.
Dogs: 1 tsp. for small dogs, 1 T. for medium sized dogs, and 2-4 T. for large dogs. Repeat dose 3-4 times daily until symptoms subside.
Unused portions of these preparations can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Externally, Slippery Elm makes an excellent poultice for boils, abscesses, ulcers or burns. Simply moisten the powder with enough water to make a paste and apply to the area. Mixed with honey and a little goldenseal you have a wonderful antibacterial, soothing dressing for any wound, sore, or burn (add bandage if necessary).

Because it is so good at what it does, excessive or prolonged use of Slippery Elm can overcoat the digestive tract and interfere with assimilation of some nutrients. This effect is easily prevented by taking 2-3 days off per week during extended internal therapy, and always mixing the powder with water before administering it to your pet. Please note that if your companion has a chronic (recurring or persistent) condition, it would be wise to consult a homeopathic practitioner, who will work with you to address the underlying imbalance and get to the root of the problem.

On a personal note, I was fortunate to participate in the harvesting of a Slippery Elm tree here in N.C. in the Spring of 2000 with Will Endres, a gifted herbalist who has devoted his entire life to wild plants. Will watches these trees for years before determining if, when, and how they will be harvested. He only harvests one every 3-5 years. We worked in teams. No power tools were used. Once we felled the tree, my partner and I stripped off the outer bark to reveal the smooth, slick inner bark, whose mucalige we proceeded to spread all over ourselves and each other! It was a wonderful, even sensual experience. As the days went by, I came to truly understand and appreciate the wonderful gifts of this tree. The aroma alone of that bark had me giddy for days. So gentle and so powerful. So NOURISHING! That’s the word that kept coming to mind. I felt nourished--physically, emotionally, spiritually. Use this herb with respect and appreciation.


Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is another of the most versatile and useful herbs you can have in your medicine chest. Like Slippery Elm, it is gentle, soothing, and highly effective for many common ailments. Although it is often called pot marigold, Calendula is not a member of  the Tagetes family and should not be confused with these garden variety marigolds.

You should keep a bottle of Calendula tincture on hand at all times. As an all-around topical first aid remedy, it is unparalleled. Whether used as tincture, lotion, salve or ointment, Calendula in all its forms will effectively help stop bleeding, soothe the pain of injuries, insect bites and irritations, and promote the healing of  tissues. While acting as an herbal disinfectant and antifungal agent, it promotes healthy granulation and rapid healing.  The infused oil used alone or in conjunction with other herbs is very soothing for ear pain and inflammation. As an antifungal, Calendula is useful for ringworm and other fungal and yeast problems. A spray of diluted tincture (lotion) is an effective treatment for hot spots, soothing the pain and irritation while promoting healing of the area. Post-operatively, the spray or lotion can be applied to sutures to speed healing and help prevent infection. The lotion is also excellent as an irrigant following tooth extraction.

Salve/ointment: Apply as needed to external irritations and abrasions.
Lotion: Add 10 drops tincture to 1/2 cup water. Use as an irrigant for superficial wounds or put in a spray bottle and apply as needed to hot spots, scrapes and other skin irritations (make a fresh batch at least every 3 days). Great for wounds that won’t heal, ulcers, etc. Useful in frostbite and ringworm (apply full-strength tincture 2-3 times daily in these conditions)
Eyes: For injury, inflammation or irritation, mix 1 drop per 1/2 oz. (1 T.) distilled water. Apply as needed (1-4 times daily) as eye drops or eye wash. This mixture should be made fresh daily.
Ears: Use 5-15 drops (1/4-1/2 dropperful) infused Calendula oil (alone or in conjuntion with other herbal oils) to soothe irritation and promote healing. This can be applied once daily for 3 days, then every 2-3 days for up to two weeks if needed. Adjust the number of drops according to the size of your companion--less for cats and small dogs, more for larger animals.

So there you have it--two herbs to get you started. Keep in mind that when purchasing herbs and herbal products, you should always buy from a reputable source to insure that you are getting the highest quality. When purchasing powdered Slippery Elm, try not to buy more than you think you will use in a 6-8 month period, after which it will begin to lose its effectiveness. Salves and oils will keep for a year or more. Alcohol-based tinctures (i.e. Calendula tincture) will keep for at least 5-10 years if prepared and stored properly.

While proper herbal therapy can go a long way in helping you manage many acute as well as chronic conditions in your animal companions, please remember that no home treatment is a substitute for professional veterinary care. When in doubt, always consult your veterinarian!

© 2003 by Annie Roach

This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of The People's Pet Journal. It is the first in a series of articles on using herbs with companion animals. For subscription information, send an email to, or call 1-877-337-3380.