Wild thistles are nutritional, medicinal and can even help protect your rabbits from potentially fatal endotoxins. When you think thistles, you may think of the common bull thistle, a spiny sort of wild plant with a large purple flower – the national flower of Scotland. Milk thistle and sow thistle are similar in appearance to the bull thistle, with the biggest difference being their flowers.
Sow thistle is also called hare thistle – so named because hares love to eat it! Sow thistle has multiple small, yellow flowers that bloom from spring to fall while milk thistle has small purplish pink flowers. Milk thistle is so named because it has a milky white sap. These plants can be easily found and harvested from now until the first hard freeze. All thistle types are high in fiber, B vitamins, vitamins A and C, and contain calcium, phosphorus and iron.
Much research has been conducted on the medicinal effects of milk thistle, which contains a powerful antioxidant (‘silymarin’) which protects the liver, reduces inflammation, and blocks toxins; milk thistle also contains omega-6 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and promote skin, hair and bone health.
Thistle can also help protect your bunnies from potentially fatal endotoxins. A diet low in fiber is associated with increased levels of the type of gut bacteria that produce endotoxins; endotoxins contribute to gassiness of the bowel, and gassiness helps set bunnies up for potentially fatal GI stasis. One of the liver’s jobs is to filter out the bacterial endotoxins; if the liver has already been compromised in some way, it can be overwhelmed and unable to perform its filtration task. The silymarin in milk thistle was shown to protect against liver damage from a variety of toxins, in a variety of animals; silymarin even stimulated the liver to make new liver cells to replace the damaged old cells.
Milk thistle may act as a mild laxative for the first few days, so do be sure to start with smaller quantities until your bunny or other small pet gets used to the addition to their diet.
Many bunny owners will give their bunnies the thistle leaves without trimming but those spines on the leaves can get awfully large during the summer. One option is to cut the thistle (wear heavy gardening gloves) and stuff it into a large plastic bag; while watching television or listening to music you can sit and quickly trim the spines off the edges of the leaves with a pair of scissors. You can then feed the thistle leaves to your bunnies or dry the leaves on paper towels or in the food dehydrator.
Random fact about milk thistle and deathcap mushrooms: milk thistle has proven to be 100% effective in preventing the toxicity of this mushroom, a fungus which causes death in roughly a third of those who ingest it. If given within ten minutes of mushroom ingestion, the toxic effects were completely reversed, and if given within 24 hours, the thistle prevented death and greatly reduced the amount of liver damage, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Note: if you simply cannot find fresh, untreated thistle or if it is winter time where you live, you can generally find thistle extract at the health food store or you can order it from Rose Mountain Herbs. The liquid extract can be added to your pet’s water or dropped onto their greens, and the powdered form can be mushed into a banana slice.
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Thistle can be grown in the garden or relegated to flower pots if you are concerned about it spreading to areas where it is not wanted. The two tall thistle plants in this photo take up little room.
Thistle is extremely healthful for your bunnies. Thistle can be served fresh, or it can be dried for later use. Thistle contains silymarin, which is a potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory.
Bull thistle has fairly sharp spikes, so wear your gloves when harvesting. You can easily trim the spikes off with a pair of scissors before serving or drying the thistle leaves.