The ‘Bute’ debate and herbal alternatives to phenylbutazone

From the book by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
White Willow – from the book by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

Rheumatism, arthritis and pain resulting from accident, injury or over exertion have been around as long as man and animals have walked upon the earth, writes herbalist Robert McDowell.

Primitive man and animals instinctively sought out plant substances which provided relief from pain and assisted healing of these conditions. Instincts also led them to lick or to bind or even to chew away at proud flesh around a wound and those who have been around stock horses and other farm animals will know how often, even a severe open wound, will heal cleanly and with surprisingly little scarring.

The anti-inflammatory herbs were “discovered” not by scientists in a laboratory but from initiates who passed down through the generations the accumulated knowledge of the herbal medicine available in a particular environment. And from animal herders watching their stock self medicate from amongst the herbs at their disposal.

The anti-inflammatory properties of the bark of the White Willow have been fully understood for all of mankind’s recorded history. Other herbs commonly referred to in the herbal writings of the middle ages (like Culpepper writing in Britain in the 1650’s) were Burdock, Guiacum, and Devils Claw all of which were recommended for the relief of Rheumatism, Arthritis and Sciatica and all of which are used by herbalists for exactly the same complaints today.

The modern Aspirin was “discovered” simply by analyzing the white willow bark and separating out one of the many medicinal ingredients. This ingredient was then synthesized, patented, and promoted as the “active ingredient” and modern pharmaceutical companies were born. Aspirin is now being “rediscovered” as a low dose preventative maintenance medicine said to be useful in preventing heart disease and improving circulation.

With the age of the “active ingredient” came the age of the “side effect”. While White Willow Bark extract even in quite high dose levels and prolonged use has almost no effect on the gastro-intestinal tract. Aspirin, on the other hand, in even moderate doses and for relatively short periods, can cause ulceration and worse in the stomach and the gut. Even in the low doses (100mg) currently being prescribed in preventative medicine there are emerging signs, particularly in many elderly people, that even these tiny doses are still too strong and cause digestive system irritation and blood vessel fragility.

The fact that Aspirin use carries serious risks from side effects and that White Willow Bark does not, is simply because the package of complex chemical substances (dozens of them) which are included within the whole plant extract and excluded from the drug, mesh in a balanced and harmonious way with the complex chemistry of our bodily processes. The principal of the “active ingredient” is the problem. All ingredients in plant substances are “active” and our bodies, which evolved on this earth with the plants, relate well to the packages and mostly not very well with the separate ingredients.

Of course there are other drugs and herbs for that matter, which are out-and-out poisons which have side effects that produce “desirable” medical results. Take for example Curare, Atropine and Digitalis (all derived from plants and used by the medical profession and not by herbalists who consider them far too dangerous).

Routine usage of chemical medicines is almost always detrimental to long-term health prospects. This applies even to so-called “safe” medications like aspirin and it applies much more to stronger ones like Phenylbutazone. This drug, while very widely used, can in some cases and even in small doses, cause ulceration of the digestive tract and severe scouring which mostly results in death.

Inflammation and pain are both part of the natural healing process. Inflammation and swelling bring fluids to cushion a damaged area and aid in the healing process and, pain will stop us causing further damage by continued use. When we are in pain we are meant to rest, not to continue with the activity which resulted in pain.


This brings us to the argument as to whether bute is dangerous to health and/or can mask pain sufficiently to allow your horse to continue work to the detriment of its long-term well being. This obviously varies in individual cases, sensitivities and dose levels. In turn this suggests that professional veterinarians be those best equipped to make these decisions and control administration. Unfortunately despite manufacturer recommendations to the contrary, mostly individual owners administer their own bute whether prescribed or obtained outside of the prescription system. Most but not all phenylbutazone toxicity deaths and injury come as a complete surprise and do not result from massive overdoses but just ignorance, careless dosing or individual sensitivity.

Happily, as a herbalist, I can prescribe combinations of anti-inflammatory herbs which reduce inflammation and pain, have no side effects, don’t swab test and don’t mask pain to the extent that the horse will continue with any level of work which will cause long term damage to the injured area. In fact I can go further, and include ingredients which reduce shock, promote healing and clear the blood of toxic residues resulting from or involved in the pain process.

A typical herbal treatment might include for example, the following herbs:

White Willow Bark and Devils Claw as anti-inflammatory agents; Guiacum as a lubricant and Burdock as a blood cleanser for rheumatoid processes. All these herbs not only reduce inflammation and pain but assist in the healing process which will help to reverse the underlying condition completely. In addition to the specifics I may include homeopathic Arnica, Rescue Remedy and other Bach Flowers for Shock; Rosehips and Nettle for Kidney, Adrenal and Blood Oxygen level support; and maybe Equisetum and Comfrey for bone healing support.

Don’t attempt to mix these up yourself as there are some cautions with Devils Claw, Comfrey and Guiacum for example, but in the proper proportions you have a safe, healing, anti-inflammatory treatment which will support your horse’s healing, while making him more comfortable, and may even allow you to safely continue to work him.

This sort of approach should always be the first choice for preventative treatment, management and first aid. Bute should be reserved for emergencies where pain and inflammation must be reduced as a matter of urgency and the risks associated with its use can therefore be justified. As with the herbs, the decisions as to treatment programmes and dose levels in emergencies should be left to the professionals. With this approach the question of allowable levels of bute in competition horses would not arise.

Other more exotic and dangerous procedures like administering chemotherapy agents, pin-firing or injecting Gold, steroids or shark cartilage into joints should never be inflicted upon animals. This sort of practice should be left to the charlatans in human medicine (alternate and orthodox) where at least the patient is involved in the choice.

Robert McDowell herbal treatments

Article first published on in 2001.


This article has been written by a contributor to

3 thoughts on “The ‘Bute’ debate and herbal alternatives to phenylbutazone

  • January 6, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    My horse has inflammation and pain in her legs after riding on hard surfaces, she always has shoes on.
    I would like to know where I could order the herbal remedy with the following

    White Willow Bark and Devils Claw as anti-inflammatory agents; Guiacum as a lubricant and Burdock.
    I live in the United States on the west coast.
    Hope to hear back from you
    Kind regards Bobbi Jo Heller

    • January 21, 2015 at 9:12 am

      I suggest you email herbalist Robert McDowell directly. A Google search will give you his email address in Australia. I have ordered my herbs from him for years and I live on the west coast of US. Also Jill Spencer distributes his herbs in the US. She is in the mid-west. Herbal Horsekeeping (Robert McDowell) can give you her email address. Good luck. 1/20/15

  • August 22, 2015 at 5:43 am

    These remedies have been around for decades. I have catalogs from as far back as the 1970s selling them for this purpose of replacing bute. The FDA could Not approve them and wouk d not allow in Food animals. The long term effects and details of efficacy are largely debated. In part some horses had adverse reactions which resulted in further damage and symptoms from the plants and lack of study for interaction with other herbal sups and prescribed meds. This is a side path using these. I have experimented in the 80s in our herd and honestly did not have the response we needed medicinally. As well the dewormer we used was affected adversely confirmed by the University of Illinois at that time. The U of I also advised proceeding with caution even though we had a trained herbalist assisting us. An animal herbalist is different from human and so are the indications and uses of each plant. Veterinarians have No training in using these. Word of caution.


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