Caring for Aging Animal Companions

A couple nights ago, I found myself sitting up with a very sick dog. Gracie has been my companion since just before my husband came into the picture—almost 13 years.

by Dawn Combs
Caring for Aging Animal Companions - Photo courtesy Rachael Brugger (
Photo courtesy Rachael Brugger

A couple nights ago, I found myself sitting up with a very sick dog. Gracie has been my companion since just before my husband came into the picture—almost 13 years. I sat with her, watching her struggle, cautioning myself that she may be preparing to end her time with us.

Sitting up in the wee hours of the night reminded me that when you live close to the land, you don’t garden merely for the health and well-being of your human family. On a farm, even a small one, you’re never far away from birth or death. You become very aware of the cycle of life, your part in taking some lives to perpetuate your own, and the eventual return of your body and those of your companion animals to the earth to perpetuate the lives of others.

We don’t call for a vet here on our land, just as we don’t tend to call for a doctor unless it is absolutely necessary. After midnight on a Sunday, a very old dog must be cared for out of our own skill and with supplies from our medicine chest. Luckily, when you grow medicine for your family you are also growing it for your animals. Many of the same preparations will apply, with altered dosages for differing body sizes.

When we found Gracie out on the sidewalk, she was disoriented and in obvious pain. We brought her in and covered her in blankets to get her warm. An animal doesn’t understand why they’re in pain, so constant attention is needed. While I sat and talked to her, I sent my husband for my pain-relief tincture, containing wild lettuce (Lactuca verosa), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) infused in vodka. Wild lettuce, in particular, is a weed that tends to grow just about anywhere in the Midwest. Both of the other plants are able to grow where I live in Ohio, as well. I tend to start large batches of this tincture in late summer to supply my customers and our family for the coming year.

Gracie’s eyes were not focused and she wasn’t showing interest in any food or water I was offering her. I asked my husband to put about half a dropper of the tincture into a couple spoonfuls of honey added to a small bowl. Gracie is a medium-sized dog, about half the weight of a typical adult. Because of her size, I chose half the dose I would normally give an adult human. If I were giving this dose to my husband, I would just ask him to open up and swallow the tincture. Unfortunately, because of Gracie’s condition, I couldn’t do this, which is why I added the tincture to honey. After stirring it in, I dipped my fingers into the honey and then spread it directly onto her gums.

That night, Gracie’s breathing eventually slowed and relaxed into a light sleep, and today she is better than she’s been for quite a while. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we suspect she might have been poisoned. We really thought she would die in the night, but now she’s standing in the kitchen begging for food like a puppy.

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There is sometimes little else we can do for our old friends than provide them our attention and care. When animals have been steady companions, it is inevitable that there will be nights like we experienced. In return for their faithful service, we owe it to them to wipe their mouths, stroke their heads and sleep on the floor next to them. Assuring them of our love and company in the face of illness or eventual passing from this world is often the hardest and most important thing to be done.

Disclaimer: blogs are intended for educational purposes only. They are not meant to replace the expertise and experience of a professional veterinarian, holistic, natural or otherwise. Do not use the information presented here to make decisions about your dog’s ailment. If you notice changes in your dog’s health or behavior, consult with a veterinarian or an emergency pet clinic as soon as possible. Dawn Combs, “The Prescription Gardener,” has a B.A. in Botany and has apprenticed with reknowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. Dawn is a homesteading herbalist and co-owner of a medicinal herb and honey farm, which is deemed a United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary, and operates the Herbal Learning Center.

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