Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Pets

Should your pet try acupuncture, homeopathy, or herbal medicines?

Medically Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on June 10, 2010
5 min read

Holistic veterinarians say they believe in what they do, despite a lack of scientific evidence that the tools of their trade -- acupuncture, herbal medicines, homeopathy, and other complementary/alternative therapies -- prevent or cure illness in pets.

For them, the proof is in the way an arthritic dog bounds out of the office after a round of acupuncture, or how a dog's dangerous fungal infection clears up completely with homeopathic treatment.

But holistic veterinarians also understand the limits of such therapies and say they use them alongside more conventional ones.

"We talk about 'complementary' rather than 'alternative,' because each type has something good that contributes to the whole," veterinarian Nancy Scanlan, DVM, CVA, MSFP, tells WebMD. Scanlan uses acupuncture, massage, and herbal remedies in her practice at Shasta Lake Veterinary Clinic in Shasta Lake, Calif.

With scant funding for clinical studies to test the effectiveness of such therapies, holistic veterinarians say they will continue to go with their gut, using less invasive and more natural approaches to boost the health of their furry patients.

WebMD asked practitioners how they use complementary/alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM) and what works. Here are their answers.

Scanlan, who works closely with the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, says acupuncture has overtaken herbal and homeopathic medicine in popularity among vets.

Used most often to treat pain, acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapeutic technique in which small-gauge needles are applied to various points on the body to stimulate nerves, improve appetite, increase circulation, relieve muscle spasms, and reduce nausea. The needles can be used with or without an electric current.

The results from research into veterinary acupuncture ranges from inconclusive to somewhat promising. One recently published report found significant improvement in the mobility and spinal posture in a cat with intervertebral disc disease that did not improve with high doses of cortisone.

Cornell University veterinarian Andrea Looney, DVM, DACVA, became a certified acupuncturist in 1994. She uses acupuncture mainly to control pain in animals, especially if it is arthritis-related. Used with physical rehabilitation and a good diet, she considers acupuncture as effective as nonsteroidal pain relievers "without all the ill effects."

Although her colleagues might consider it "crap," Looney says, acupuncture is relatively inexpensive and appears to be harmless.

In the short term, Looney says, she can tell acupuncture helps an animal feel better immediately by an increase in appetite and the way a dog wags its tail and carries its ears.

"We get animals through a rough time and maybe occasionally they need a realignment. We have a lot of big dogs that feel better after their treatment," she says.

Herbalists believe certain herbs and plants are of therapeutic value because of their unique combination of ingredients.

Veterinarian Susan Wynn, DVM, of Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Sandy Springs, Ga., has been in practice for 23 years and says she uses herbal remedies to treat various pet maladies. She uses plants like devil's claw, and turmeric, all of which come in various ingestible forms and can be used to reduce inflammation or manage bowel disorders like colitis.

"Herbs can be considered in any situation," Wynn says, but "I don't use them much if there's a safe and well-proven conventional drug." If an arthritic dog, for example, doesn't respond to a conventional treatment, she might try an herbal formula.

Unlike nutraceuticals, which are isolated compounds of a natural substance, herbs offer a more natural complex of chemicals and have a broader physiological effect, says Wynn, who devotes most of her practice to complementary/alternative therapies and nutrition.

Randomized, controlled trials of selected herbal remedies have been published, and some positive effects have been reported. But because herbs are not regulated in the same way as approved drugs, practitioners must be sure that suppliers adhere to stringent standards of authenticity and preparation.

Homeopathy is a complementary/alternative therapy developed more than 200 years ago for use in people.

The theory behind the practice is that "like cures like" -- that symptoms of disease can be treated with preparations, in low concentrations, that cause the same symptoms. The preparations are codified according to the malady.

Veterinarian Shelley Epstein, VMD, CVH, of Wilmington Animal Hospital in Wilmington, Del., is a certified homeopath who uses homeopathic remedies for acute and chronic conditions ranging from ear infection to epilepsy to asthma to cystitis. She works alongside more conventional practitioners and understands that homeopathy won't treat advanced cancer, for example.

But Epstein says she believes homeopathy has a place in acute situations. For instance, she says that if a dog that's been hit by a car is brought to her office, she might give him aconite as a calming agent and arnica for bruising and contusions.

Epstein routinely treats ear and skin infections with homeopathic therapies, as well as epilepsy. She says she weaned a dog off his seizure medication with arsenicum, a homeopathic remedy.

At the North American Veterinary Conference next January, Epstein will present findings of a study of homeopathic remedies for nasal aspergillosis, a painful canine fungal infection that is typically treated with an anti-fungal medication infused into the sinuses. This conventional therapy is expensive and may need to be repeated in order to resolve symptoms.

Epstein says she treated a dog with aurum metallicum, a gold derivative, and within two weeks the dog had improved. In six months, she says, the dog no longer shows symptoms of the fungal infection.

Why did the treatment work? Epstein doesn't know.

"We don't care how it works. To know all these details may help resolve some of the controversies in homeopathy, like what dilution do you use. But the bottom line is, you can be a successful homeopath without knowing how it works," she says.

The scientific literature on veterinary homeopathy is limited, although one study concluded that arsenic, a commonly used preparation, was highly toxic in three separate cases because of improper use.

Complementary/alternative therapies are generally regarded as benign, if administered by an experienced practitioner.

But the use of nutriceuticals or herbs can be risky. Supplements aren't approved by the FDA. There is also a risk of overdosing or creating a bad reaction between drugs.

"We worry about herbal remedies interacting with conventional medications or chemotherapy agents, which can be life-threatening. But that's not to say they're wrong. We don't have enough evidence to condone their use, but more and more I think we'll get that," Looney says.

Wynn cautions pet owners to make sure their veterinarian uses herbal medicines and supplements that come from reputable labs that have good quality controls in place.

"Don't try things without a veterinarian involved," she says. "Get a diagnosis before treating with nutraceuticals or herbs."

Licensure is not required to perform complementary/alternative therapies, but certification is offered in acupuncture, herbal medicine, homeopathy, and chiropractic. Look for the certification when seeking the help of a vet; the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association maintains an online database.