Dare you grasp the nettle?

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Nettles can be dangerous to dogs, but don’t sting when they are very young

We are now firmly en route to summer, and one of the more annoying aspects of the increase in plant growth is that stinging nettles are starting to shoot up and, as I am often walking dogs on countryside paths, they can be a bit of a nuisance.

I was out with a little Shorkie (a Yorkshire terrier crossed with a shitszu), and she kept stopping to lick her paw. So I picked her up to see what was wrong, and couldn’t find anything. No nails were split, and there were no thorns embedded in the pad. However, I did notice that there were some nettles just beginning to peep through the undergrowth and came to the conclusion that they must be the culprits.

I have since found out that indeed, over-exposure to stinging nettles can have very serious consequences for dogs. If they run back and forth through a patch, not only can they get stung, but they can also ingest poisonous chemicals thrown into the air by the disturbance.

Dogs with thick skins, lots of hair and tough paw pads and noses are unlikely to suffer much, but thinner-haired and thinner-skinned breeds can be prone to nettle poisonings, so it pays to be aware of the symptoms. These include furious licking of the affected area, and high agitation after just emerging from the nettle patch. There can also be swelling and redness around the stings, shaking, drooling, vomiting, diarrhoea and even breathing problems.

If your dog displays any of these symptoms, take them to the vet immediately. Deaths from nettle poisonings are very rare, but the vet will advise you on how to make your pet more comfortable until the irritation subsides. There are lots of suggestions for at-home remedies online, but I’m not in a position to know how well they work, if they work at all.

Although nasty little blighters, nettles are very clever pieces of engineering by Mother Nature. Their leaves and stems are covered in tiny hollow hairs called trichomes which contain poisonous chemicals in their very brittle tips. The slightest touch causes the tips to break off, and they act like medical syringes, attaching themselves to the invaders and injecting toxins into the skin. We all know how that feels, that the pain intensifies in the first moments after the incident, and can be felt for many hours afterwards.

Usually, where you find nettles, you also find dock leaves, and growing up, I was told that if you get stung by a nettle, rub the area with a dock leave and spittle. I do believe it works, in that it offers some relief, although I can’t say if it would work on a dog and would only try it on milder incidents of stinging. In the old days, you were supposed to recite a charm as you rubbed the affected area to guarantee that it worked:

‘Nettle in, dock out. Dock in, nettle out.
Nettle in, dock out. Dock rub nettle out.’

Some believed that if you placed a some nettles under a sick person’s pillow, that would predict if that person would live or die. Stay green, and the patient would recover. Go brown, and the Grim Reaper was waiting in the wings. Others believed it was bad luck to speak aloud of the medicinal qualities of nettles. To ensure their healing powers would work, they had to venture out to gather them only at midnight.

In my dad’s archive, I found a piece where he tells us that some people believed it was the Romans who introduced nettles into this country, although that is not actually true. What is true is that they brought plants with them on invasions as it was very useful and easy to grow. It was woven into clothing and a highly nutritious source of food, packed with vitamins and minerals, that could be quickly cooked in a similar way to spinach.

So it has been with us for many, many centuries, and judging by how many I see on my walks, I don’t think it is yet under any environmental threat.

In my dad’s article, he quotes this poem about nettles:
‘Tender-handed stroke the nettle, and it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains.’

So who among you will dare to grasp the nettle?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 8th April and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 6th April 2022.