Cleo was only 4 years old when an accident damaged her spine. Veterinarians predicted that infections would soon torture the little dachshund, filling her lungs. "It was awful," remembers Joan Caruso, the Connecticut business consultant who owned Cleo. "One veterinarian after another said there was nothing they could do for her, and that the kindest thing would be to put her to sleep."
But Cleo lived, and Caruso credits alternative medicine for keeping her dog's immune system vital and her lungs clear.
Thousands of pet lovers are turning to alternative approaches for their four-footed friends. New professional associations for veterinary acupuncturists and chiropractors have been created. But do the alternative treatments they promote really work?
Advocates and Skeptics Square Off
In 1996, the largest organization of veterinarians in the United States -- the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) -- all but gave its seal of approval to alternative remedies for pets. In new guidelines, the AVMA stated that "sufficient clinical and anecdotal evidence exists" to suggest real benefits from a number of unconventional approaches -- including chiropractic and homeopathy. As for acupuncture, the guidelines called the use of needles "an integral part of veterinary medicine."
The statement sparked a furor. "The only way to know if any therapy works is to test it in scientifically controlled studies," says Seattle veterinarian Robert Imrie. "Convincing evidence that these techniques work just doesn't exist." He drafted a letter protesting the AVMA's guidelines and collected the signatures of more than a dozen leading veterinary experts.
In part because of protests like this one, the AVMA reviewed its guidelines. The new statement says all veterinary medicine, including complementary and alternative veterinary medicine, should be held to the same standards.
Weighing the Evidence
Advocates and skeptics agree on one thing: Few carefully controlled studies have been done on animals. Even in humans, these approaches remain "alternative" because their benefits are unproven.
Still, a few studies hint at real benefits. The most widely studied technique is acupuncture. Writing in the journal Acupuncture and Electrotherapy Research in 1997, experts in complementary therapies at the National University in Venezuela found that dogs with ear infections who were given both antibiotics and acupuncture fared better than animals given the drugs alone. Acupuncture seemed to speed the recovery time and ease the symptoms of pain.
In 1987, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that acupuncture significantly reduced chronic back pain in horses. In that study -- reported in the January 1987 issue of Veterinary Surgery -- 14 horses with back problems were given weekly acupuncture treatments. Ten of the horses showed signs of significant improvement. Among them, four went on to win ribbons.
So far, most studies haven't included control groups for comparison, making their findings difficult to interpret. And several well-designed studies have found no benefits at all. In research published in the Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research in April 1989, for instance, scientists at the University of Georgia tested electroacupuncture's ability to help horses with chronic lameness. The alternative approach was no more effective than no treatment at all, the study found.
And despite its popularity, there's no good evidence that magnetic therapy helps animals with pain or injury, says David Ramey, author of the Consumer's Guide to Alternative Therapies in the Horse.
What If Your Four-Footed Friend Gets Sick?
Should you consider alternative therapies for your pet? Here's what most experts recommend:
- Talk to your veterinarian first. Only a trained vet -- with a DVM degree -- can properly diagnose your pet's ailments. Even many advocates of alternative approaches say it's wise to try proven conventional treatments first.
- Find a qualified practitioner. Spurred by booming popular interest, pet doctors with little experience or training are hanging up shingles as alternative medicine specialists. Beware: In the wrong hands, techniques such as chiropractic -- which involves manipulating the spine -- could be dangerous.
- Finally, don't expect miracles. If they work at all, the benefits of many alternative approaches may be fairly modest.
Originally published Dec. 22, 1999.
Medically updated December 2003.