The Appeal of “Alternative” Therapies for Horses
Dr. David Ramey
Holistic medicine is a very controversial subject. There are passionate opinions on both sides. Opponents claim that if "alternative" treatments really worked, they would be more widely accepted and many illnesses and ailments would have been cured long ago. This side of the debate feels that herbs and medications are often used inappropriately without adequate training and understanding of the potential side effects or dangers and without scientific evidence that they actually work. These treatments have not been thoroughly investigated nor tested for efficacy or safety and in some cases may actually be harmful.
Proponents feel that holistic treatments provide a more "natural" way to heal the body in a world full of chemicals, preservatives and synthetics. Many times, "alternative" treatments are used to augment more traditional treatments and are not commonly used as the only treatment.
This article is intended to show some of the negative aspects of holistic medicine. The final decision to add these treatments to your pet's current regime should be decided between you and your veterinarian.
In the past few decades, a number of therapies have been growing in popularity. These unproven therapies are quite diverse and go by different names, such as "alternative," "complementary," and "integrative."
At first glance, it seems a little odd that these therapies should grow more popular when scientific medical advances (including veterinary science) are occurring at an amazing pace. But some people are curious about these therapies, and it is helpful to look at them as a whole, to see what they have in common.
First of all, there is the terminology. The words used to describe this group of therapies, which were first proposed in the 1960s and 70s, tend to be misleading. In fact, they obscure what's actually being proposed. There aren't two kinds of medicine – medicine either works or it doesn't work. Consider this: you don't find "alternative" groups in fields such as airplane engineering or bridge building. That's because violating well-established principles in such fields is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. There is no legitimate alternative to effective medicine.
Still, terms such as "alternative," "integrative" and "complementary" are soothing and sound good. They also tend to put the most positive spin possible on therapeutic claims that are generally either unproven and/or are highly unlikely to be true. If you think about it, such therapies really can't be thought of as genuine "alternatives," at least if you think of an "alternative" as one that is likely to be equal or superior to a proven therapy.
Such therapies can't really be thought of as genuinely "complementary" unless they can be shown to offer increased effectiveness, improved safety, lessened signs of disease, or fewer deaths when they are added to a proven treatment regimen. Moreover, there is no reason to "integrate" a therapy that doesn't do anything useful. It's a fact that in animals, at least so far, these treatments have not been shown to be a true "alternative" or "complement" to anything.
Most of what is considered "alternative" medicine was pulled out of the dustbin of medical history and dressed up for popular consumption. Bleeding, for instance, was once the most commonly prescribed therapies in human and animal medicine. Its use waned as scientists learned to explore its supposed effects.
Acupuncture may have been around for 2,000 years (at least in people – for a much, much shorter period of time in horses); herbs have been proposed as medications for millennia; homeopathy is a couple of hundred years old.
There are hundreds of herbal recipes and homeopathic approaches to any number of conditions of animals. But if they didn't work then, they aren't going to work now. If a cure or treatment to a condition had been found, everyone would still be doing them.
Practitioners promote alternative therapies as being "natural" somehow. As such, "natural" is being used as a synonym for "good." They are not the same thing. Such "natural" substances as poison hemlock or locoweed can hardly be considered beneficial; not to mention "natural" disasters, such as hurricanes or floods. In fact, some of the things promoted as "alternative" are anything but natural. For example, the ingredients used to prepare some common homeopathic preparations – crushed honeybees, dog's milk or duck liver, to name a few – can't really be recognized as desirable therapeutic agents, even if they do occur in nature.
Not only are some "natural" traditional medications unnatural, some of them are having a profoundly negative impact on the natural environment. Tigers are facing extinction because their bones are an old Chinese "cure" for rheumatism. Rhinoceros populations are being decimated because a powder made from their horns is a traditional Chinese aphrodisiac. Grizzly bears are in peril because their gall bladders are a cure for who-knows-what. The popularity of unproven and untested herbal supplements threatens the survival of some of the most valuable wild plants, according to scientists and conservationists at a recent United Nations gathering.
And there's more. While the alleged successes of "Traditional Chinese Medicine" are widely celebrated, more sobering messages are often overlooked. In 1998, the Washington Post published an account about public health in rural China, where traditional Chinese medicine would be expected to be the most available.
In spite of the availability of such therapy, various forms of parasitism afflict 70 percent of the population there, resulting in malnutrition, decreased intelligence and general weakening of the workforce. As for acupuncture, the Chinese tried to ban it twice in the past 100 years, and homeopathic schools disappeared around the turn of the 20th century.