Phytochemicals in Animal Health: Diet Selection and Trade-Offs Between Costs and Benefits

Juan J. Villalba, Utah State University
Morgane Costes-Thiré
Cécile Ginane


Many plant tissues contain plant secondary compounds (PSC), which have long been recognised as defensive chemicals that deter herbivory via their toxic effects. However, herbivores may also benefit from including PSC into their diets. Plant-derived phenolics, terpenes and alkaloids have antiparasitic properties and sesquiterpene lactones have antibacterial, antifungal and antiparasitic properties. These actions are inpart a consequence of the negative actions that PSC exert across several trophic levels, including the bacteria, parasites and fungi that inhabit herbivores’ bodies. Given the dual action, toxin and medicine, it is possible to hypothesise that self-selection of PSC by herbivores should occur when the benefits outweigh the costs of PSC ingestion. Recent research suggests that sheep and goats self-medicate against parasitic infections. They increase preference for condensed tannin-containing foods when experiencing a parasitic burden. This behaviour improves health; it is triggered by parasitism and weakens when parasitism subsides. However, the causes underlying these responses are not straightforward when viewed under a unidimensional cost–benefit analysis. This is because the intensity of antinutritional/toxic and medicinal effects of PSC is not static or just dependent upon the isolated post-ingestive effects of single PSC. Nutrient–PSC and PSC–PSC interactions, social models, as well as feeding patterns, all influence the perceived net benefit of incorporating medicines into a diet. A better understanding of the net benefit of self-medication in complex feeding environments will allow for the development of innovative managing strategies aimed at providing the food alternatives and conditions for improving the nutrition, health and welfare of grazing animals. Copyright © The Authors 2016