When Sherman came to live with me, he was already a very old shambling wreck of an Old Yeller dog. Just to look at him was to know he wasn’t going to finish out the year. I set about to make his last days more comfortable. Of the many items added to Sherman’s food bowl every day — coconut oil, cinnamon, turmeric, Omega 3s, and milk thistle — there’s one I couldn’t leave out: hawthorn.
Hawthorn (Crataegus species), is a tonic herb that has been used for centuries to improve cardiac function and output. Hawthorn does not initiate any immediate changes in heart function, but does so very gently over time, without adding stress or interfering with other body functions. Hawthorn helps support the heart and cardiovascular system in ways that no food or drug can.
Hundreds of scientific studies have validated hawthorn’s usefulness as a heart tonic well known for dilating both coronary vessels and vessels of the brain and helping to increase circulation and the transport of nutrients and oxygen throughout the body. It does this in a very clever fashion: while it acts to dilate major vessels, it also increases blood flow from the heart to compensate for any reduction of arterial blood volume. In other words, it helps the body push more blood around by increasing cardiac output and decreasing blood flow resistance in the arteries, i.e., more blood flow at less pressure. This has been shown in studies performed with dogs, especially when used in small doses over an extended period.
Hawthorn also serves as a blood pressure regulator. Although the mechanisms of this activity baffle herbalists and scientists alike, the herb tends to gently elevate low blood pressure, and decrease high blood pressure. A neat trick, especially when we consider the fact that hawthorn does this while increasing cardiac output. By helping with dilation of coronary arteries and strengthening heartbeat, hawthorn improves blood circulation without adversely effecting blood pressure.
Another well-documented benefit of hawthorn is its ability to steady and strengthen a weak or erratic heartbeat — such as that of elderly or energetically challenged dogs. In human applications hawthorn has been used as an alternative to anti-arrhythmia drugs like digitalis, and to improve the effects of that and other cardiac drugs. For my dog friends I recommend hawthorn in virtually any case where damage to the heart muscle has resulted from heartworm infestation, bacterial or viral infections, or protracted chemotherapy.
You may lucky enough to have a hawthorn tree near your home and luckier, too, to have a dog that likes red fruit, so you can pick the ripe berries and feed them as “tonic treats.” If you’re not sure what your red berry tree is, be sure to check it out with a gardener friend or the Clemson extension.
When the berries become fully ripe and bright red, they can be picked, dried on a clean sheet of paper, and ground with a mortar or pestle (be forewarned that they kill small coffee grinders!) into a coarse powder. The powder can then be added to your Best Friend’s diet at a rate of one teaspoon per pound of food fed each day. You can also make a tea with about one teaspoon of dried berries and a cup of hot water and pour it over his food.
When combined with a good natural diet and other tonic herbs, hawthorn will act exactly as an herbal heart tonic should — to fill the special cardiac needs in the golden years of an animal’s life.