Recipes for the Dogs in the Eighteenth Century

By Lisa Smith

John Glaisyer a Quaker anointing a dog with burning vitriol. By Charles Williams, 1806. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
John Glaisyer a Quaker anointing a dog with burning vitriol. By Charles Williams, 1806. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Dog-owners: ever wonder about the care of your faithful companions in times past? You’ll be glad to know that animal health recipes regularly appeared in early modern recipe books. Animal husbandry books, such as Henry Bracken’s Farriery Improved (reprinted several times from 1737 to 1792), are another useful source, as I recently discovered while on a dog blogging kick at Wonders and Marvels.* Animal health was considered to be very similar to human health: a matter of imbalanced humours, but in a coarser body. Remedies for dogs hint at the early modern understanding of dog physiology, as well as the canine ‘lived experience’ of common ailments and treatments.

Dogs were considered to have a naturally hot temperament. In the first volume of the 1789 edition, Bracken noted that dogs lack porous skins and the ability to sweat. If the weather was hot or the dog had much exercise, their “circulating fluids” would be heated by the bodily motions and come out of their mouths instead of through their skin. This had dramatic consequences, “insomuch that their very Breath appears like thick smoke”. I can’t help but wonder what manner of dogs Bracken had seen!

The canine hot temperament predisposed dogs to hot diseases. Bracken reported that dogs often contracted venereal disease through over-heating themselves carnally. Fortunately, the canine body was self-cleansing and would purge the problem through frequent urination (1789). A dog’s most useful trick…

The 1790 edition had several remedies for rabies—something seen as a form of poisoning, like venereal disease or snake-bite. Although rabies was a major concern for humans and livestock, dogs were seen as the primary source. Bracken cautioned that not all madness in dogs was caused by rabies, but might be from a worm that came out in hot weather. The white worm, found underneath the tongue, could be easily removed with a large needle.

Bracken provided remedies for other common canine complaints: mange, soft feet, bleeding, convulsions, poison, megrim [migraine], filmy eyes, ticks, lice and fleas, and sore ears (pp. 128-133). Such ailments reflect the daily life of hunting dogs. They pursued their prey through bushes, where dangers such as snakes and ticks lurked. Cuts, bleeding and wounds were common in dogs, caused when they“stake themselves by brushing through the hedges”. Greyhounds, setters and pointers tended to have paws too soft to scrabble over long distances. A simple treatment to toughen the paws entailed washing them in alum water, then an hour later, in warm beer and butter. These were working dogs; however well-treated, they had occupational hazards.

A barber-surgeon for dogs in Paris. Drawing by L. Choquet.19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A barber-surgeon for dogs in Paris. Drawing by L. Choquet.19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Not all ailments came from work, such as convulsions, megrims or cloudy eyes. The presence of remedies for these problems suggests the emotional and financial value of dogs. Inconvenient chronic problems were tolerated and treated. During a convulsion, the intervention was a matter of common-sense: cool off the dog by dipping its snout into cold water, then give it lots to drink. Other remedies were similar to human ones. For example, the solution for megrims (identifiable by the dog staggering) was to bleed the dog at the base of the tail. In humans, bleeding at the foot would serve to draw the blood away from the head. The eye remedy revealed the care that might be taken with elderly animals. Five or six times, the carer was to dip a fine linen cloth into vitriol and spring water, squeeze it, and “gently” wash the dog’s eyes. This should be done twice a day.

The recipes suggest some of the physical effects of the treatments. The remedy for mange included washing the dog in a liquour of boiled urine and tobacco stalks, followed by a daily breakfast of fresh butter and flour of brimstone. Bracken stressed that the dog would die if it licked itself. A treatment for “deep holes” reveals how carers kept dogs from worrying at wounds before the invention of the head cone. First, the wound needed to be tented with linen dipped in fresh, warmed butter. This should be changed daily and washed with milk. In between changes, it was important to tightly bandage the tent over the wound to keep the dog from pulling it off.

Other remedies were just painful. For bruised joints, the dog needed to be muzzled, presumably to prevent biting, during the application of oil of spike and oil of swallows. When putting oil of turpentine on a fresh wound, the dog’s mouth should be secured as the oil would give a “violent smart” for a moment. Treatments for humans were also often painful, but those patients were less likely to bite.

Small wonder modern dogs dread going to the vet. They’ve probably evolved to avoid our medical care.

* For my other posts on the history of dogs, science and medicine, please see: The Art of Beagling in the Eighteenth Century , Buffon and the Beagle and The Sex Life of Dogs in the Eighteenth Century.


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