So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for animals is popular. A recent survey suggested that 76% of US dog and cat owners use some form of SCAM. Another survey showed that about one quarter of all US veterinary medical schools run educational programs in SCAM. Amazon currently offers more that 4000 books on the subject.
The range of SCAMs advocated for use in animals is huge and similar to that promoted for use in humans; the most commonly employed practices seem to include acupuncture, chiropractic, energy healing, homeopathy (as discussed in the previous post) and dietary supplements. In this article, I will briefly discuss the remaining 4 categories.
Acupuncture is the insertion of needles at acupuncture points on the skin for therapeutic purposes. Many acupuncturists claim that, because it is over 2 000 years old, acupuncture has ‘stood the test of time’ and its long history proves acupuncture’s efficacy and safety. However, a long history of usage proves very little and might even just demonstrate that acupuncture is based on the pre-scientific myths that dominated our ancient past.
There are many different forms of acupuncture. Acupuncture points can allegedly be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, bee-stings, injections, light, colour, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between two life-forces, ‘yin and yang’. In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological theories as to how acupuncture might work; even though some of these may appear plausible, they nevertheless are mere theories and constitute no proof for acupuncture’s validity.
The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition. According to ‘Western’ acupuncturists, acupuncture is effective mostly for chronic pain. Acupuncture has, for instance, been used to improve mobility in dogs with musculoskeletal pain, to relieve pain associated with cervical neurological disease in dogs, for respiratory resuscitation of new-born kittens, and for treatment of certain immune-mediated disorders in small animals.
While the use of acupuncture seems to gain popularity, the evidence fails to support this. Our systematic review of acupuncture (to the best of my knowledge the only one on the subject) in animals included 14 randomized controlled trials and 17 non-randomized controlled studies. The methodologic quality of these trials was variable but, on average, it was low. For cutaneous pain and diarrhoea, encouraging evidence emerged that might warrant further investigation. Single studies reported some positive inter-group differences for spinal cord injury, Cushing’s syndrome, lung function, hepatitis, and rumen acidosis. However, these trials require independent replication. We concluded that, overall, there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.
Serious complications of acupuncture are on record and have repeatedly been discussed on this blog: acupuncture needles can, for instance, injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 human fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg. Information on adverse effects of acupuncture in animals is currently not available.
Given that there is no good evidence that acupuncture works in animals, the risk/benefit balance of acupuncture cannot be positive.
Chiropractic was created by D D Palmer (1845-1913), an American magnetic healer who, in 1895, manipulated the neck of a deaf janitor, allegedly curing his deafness. Chiropractic was initially promoted as a cure-all by Palmer who claimed that 95% of diseases were due to subluxations of spinal joints. Subluxations became the cornerstone of chiropractic ‘philosophy’, and chiropractors who adhere to Palmer’s gospel diagnose subluxation in nearly 100% of the population – even in individuals who are completely disease and symptom-free. Yet subluxations, as understood by chiropractors, do not exist.
There is no good evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulation might be effective for animals. A review of the evidence for different forms of manual therapies for managing acute or chronic pain syndromes in horses concluded that further research is needed to assess the efficacy of specific manual therapy techniques and their contribution to multimodal protocols for managing specific somatic pain conditions in horses. For other animal species or other health conditions, the evidence is even less convincing.
In humans, spinal manipulation is associated with serious complications (regularly discussed in previous posts), usually caused by neck manipulation damaging the vertebral artery resulting in a stroke and even death. Several hundred such cases have been documented in the medical literature – but, as there is no system in place to monitor such events, the true figure is almost certainly much larger. To the best of my knowledge, similar events have not been reported in animals.
Since there is no good evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulations work in animals, the risk/benefit balance of chiropractic fails to be positive.
Energy healing is an umbrella term for a range of paranormal healing practices, e. g. Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Johrei healing, faith healing. Their common denominator is the belief in an ‘energy’ that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Forms of energy healing have existed in many ancient cultures. The ‘New Age’ movement has brought about a revival of these ideas, and today ‘energy’ healing systems are amongst the most popular alternative therapies in many countries.
Energy healing relies on the esoteric belief in some form of ‘energy’ which refers to some life force such as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or prana in Ayurvedic medicine. Some proponents employ terminology from quantum physics and other ‘cutting-edge’ science to give their treatments a scientific flair which, upon closer scrutiny, turns out to be little more than a veneer of pseudo-science.
Considering its implausibility, energy healing has attracted a surprisingly high level of research activity in the form of clinical trials on human patients. Generally speaking, the methodologically best trials of energy healing fail to demonstrate that it generates effects beyond placebo. There are few studies of energy healing in animals, and those that are available are frequently less than rigorous (see for instance here and here). Overall, there is no good evidence to suggest that ‘energy’ healing is effective in animals.
Even though energy healing is per se harmless, it can do untold damage, not least because it can lead to neglect of effective treatments and it undermines rationality in our societies. Its risk/benefit balance therefore fails to be positive.
Dietary supplements for veterinary use form a category of remedies that, in most countries, is a regulatory grey area. Supplements can contain all sorts of ingredients, from minerals and vitamins to plants and synthetic substances. Therefore, generalisations across all types of supplements are impossible. The therapeutic claims that are being made for supplements are numerous and often unsubstantiated. Although they are usually promoted as natural and safe, dietary supplements do not have necessarily either of these qualities. For example, in the following situations, supplements can be harmful:
- Combining one supplement with another supplement or with prescribed medicines
- Substituting supplements for prescription medicines
- Overdosing some supplements, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, or iron
Examples of currently most popular supplements for use in animals include chondroitin, glucosamine, probiotics, vitamins, minerals, lutein, L-carnitine, taurine, amino acids, enzymes, St John’s wort, evening primrose oil, garlic and many other herbal remedies. For many supplements taken orally, the bioavailability might be low. There is a paucity of studies testing the efficacy of dietary supplements in animals. Three recent exceptions (all of which require independent replication) are:
- A trial showing that the dietary supplementation with Maca increased sperm production in stallions.
- A study demonstrating that curcumin supplementation appeared to reduce arthritis pain in dogs.
- An investigation suggesting that royal jelly supplementation can improve the egg quality of hens.
Dietary supplements are promoted as being free of direct risks. On closer inspection, this notion turns out to be little more than an advertising slogan. As discussed repeatedly on this blog, some supplements contain toxic materials, contaminants or adulterants and thus have the potential to do harm. A report rightly concluded that many challenges stand in the way of determining whether or not animal dietary supplements are safe and at what dosage. Supplements considered safe in humans and other cross-species are not always safe in horses, dogs, and cats. An adverse event reporting system is badly needed. And finally, regulations dealing with animal dietary supplements are in disarray. Clear and precise regulations are needed to allow only safe dietary supplements on the market.
It is impossible to generalise about the risk/benefit balance of dietary supplements; however, caution is advisable.
SCAM for animals is an important subject, not least because of the current popularity of many treatments that fall under this umbrella. For most therapies, the evidence is woefully incomplete. This means that most SCAMs are unproven. Arguably, it is unethical to use unproven medicines in routine veterinary care.
I was invited several months ago to write this article for VETERINARY RECORD. It was submitted to peer review and subsequently I withdrew my submission. The above post is a slightly revised version of the original (in which I used the term ‘alternative medicine’ rather than ‘SCAM’) which also included a section on homeopathy (see my previous post). The reason for the decision to withdraw this article was the following comment by the managing editor of VETERINARY RECORD: A good number of vets use these therapies and a more balanced view that still sets out their efficacy (or otherwise) would be more useful for the readership.