Friday, October 14, 2011

Teaching sheep to "self-medicate"

Dr. Juan Villalba is an associate research professor who studies foraging behavior at Utah State University. In one of the first studies of its kind, he is experimenting with using pastures as a natural pharmacy, whereby farm animals treat their own illness by eating certain plants with medicinal compounds.

Researchers at USU have identified several plants which contain tannins, saponins and other natural compounds that can kill internal parasites

Villalba is training sick sheep to associate eating medicinal plants — which often taste bitter — with feeling better. When the animals are placed in a pasture that contains those plants, the sheep have been observed seeking out those plants when they don't feel well.

"By offering animals choices, we allow them to build their diet as a function of their own needs," he said. As the animals recover, they stop eating the medicinal plants. Other studies have shown that wild animals have learned to treat their illness by eating certain medicinal plants.

"The drugs that we use to treat worm infections aren't working anymore," said James Miller, a parasitologist and professor at Louisiana State University. Miller said Villalba's research could help farmers find a natural alternative to using drugs. While medicinal plants won't fully cure parasites, they can reduce infections to manageable levels.

Read full article at Science @
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