The Appeal of “Alternative” Therapies for Horses
Dr. David Ramey
Some people assert that acupuncture is a good treatment for back pain in horses, but the fact is that a reliable way to diagnose back pain in the horse has yet to be determined. Under such circumstances, it's easy to imagine that there's been some benefit to treatment when none has actually been provided, especially when the intentions of both the provider and the consumer of the therapy are so good. The bottom line is that overeager concern about "wellness" care, or a tendency to attribute vague and undefined perceptions of an animal feeling "unwell" to some poorly defined health condition, simply opens the door to almost unlimited opportunities for any number of devices and treatments to get incorporated into your pet's care (and your pocketbook). Acupuncture has failed to demonstrate its usefulness in virtually every condition in human medicine in which it has been examined.
There is a large and ever-increasing body of work that shows that most "alternatives" are not effective.
Chiropractic-type treatments appear to have some mild effect when applied to humans with acute low back pain, but they haven't been shown to be superior to other types of manual therapies (such as massage) and the certainly haven't been shown to cure any disease condition.
Homeopathy has never been shown to be effective for anything.
And herbs, some of which may occasionally contain active pharmacologic ingredients, still pose tremendous problems in terms of purity, safety, content and effectiveness.
One quick test for the usefulness of an alternative therapy is to ask what would happen if tomorrow it were no longer available? How much would acupuncture or homeopathy or Bach's flower remedies be missed? If you had never heard of them, would your pet's health suffer one bit? Are there any real medical conditions for which a therapeutic "alternative" would be a good first choice? Could you say the same thing about antibiotics, colic surgery or a tetanus vaccination?
Another way of looking at the questions posed by alternative therapies is to turn a question around. People talk about how long acupuncture has been in existence, as if it's longevity somehow equals effectiveness (astrology has been around a long time, too). But if you can conclude that acupuncture is effective because it's been around for so long, why, if it's truly effective, are there still so many questions about its real usefulness after all this time?
Still, if you're treating a self-limiting or chronic condition with a therapy that's unlikely to do much harm, there's likely to be little danger of direct harm to your animal. That being said, side effects from "alternative" therapies are real – animals have been injured by "adjustments," poisoned by "natural" plants and have reacted aggressively to the placement of acupuncture needles. Real danger also comes when "alternative" treatments are proposed for conditions that can be cured. Under such circumstances, things can go rapidly downhill.
Your pet's wound may get better whether you use an herbal dressing or an antibiotic dressing. However, if the wound becomes infected and the infection goes unrecognized or the herbal dressing isn't effective, the result could be devastating. Even when there's no danger of direct harm, adding an unproven "complementary" therapy to one that is already effective is not necessarily a good thing. Indeed, if you add as many therapies as possible to the treatment plan for a single condition, the only thing that you will do for sure is drive up the cost of care.
There has always been a fringe of "healers" willing to supply unproven and/or untested methods that are rejected by scientific biomedicine. Today, mostly as a result of vigorous promotion by proponents of such methods and their uncritical acceptance, a minority of the public now has firm belief in the "power" of supplements, antioxidants, magnets and in the idea that medicine is somehow harmful. Fortunately, in most cases, such beliefs cause little harm, but the potential for harm is there. The current times are really no different from any other time in history. Products with debatable or no effects have always been made, given and sold by earnest and eager "healers." Sometimes those products compete with effective products – sometimes they're merely "complementary." Still, without good evidence of effectiveness, there's really no reason to use any of them. However, there has always been good grazing along the fringes of the pastures of medicine.