The modern world seems to be highly dependent on chemicals. Too dependent many would say.
So it is hardly surprising that we look for more natural remedies for dogs and puppies.
Especially when it comes to common and minor ailments.
Or ways to get rid of common parasites.
What are natural remedies?
One of the problems when discussing alternative, or natural remedies, is that they are difficult to define.
A remedy is something that changes things for the better, that much is clear.
So anything which doesn’t actually work, isn’t a remedy at all. Some ‘natural remedies’ fall into this ‘ineffective’ category, whilst others have been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect.
There is no doubt however, that both effective and ineffective treatments are often lumped together under the heading ‘natural remedy’.
And this can be quite confusing for those searching for alternative treatments for their dog.
What about the ‘natural’ part?
We tend to think of natural remedies as ones that fall outside the remit of mainstream medicine. Substances that would not be prescribed by your doctor or vet for example.
But we also tend to think of them as coming from plants, animals, or even the minerals that are found in our environment.
This isn’t a great definition because of course, many common mainstream medicines are completely natural in the sense that they are directly obtained from plant or animal materials.
Perhaps then, the key to the ‘natural’ part, lies in the lack of processing to which these products have been subjected
Does processing make medicines unnatural?
If I chew on a piece of willow bark when I have a headache, you’ll probably agree that I am using a natural remedy.
But what about if I boil the willow bark and drink the liquid it was boiled in? (Don’t do this by the way!!) Is that natural too? Or is it now processed? Most would say still natural I think.
What about if took the willow bark into the laboratory in my shed, and extracted the salicylic acid that is inside it. And what if I mix that up with a little sugar and swallow it? Is that natural?
Because that is of course, basically what an aspirin is.
So if we consume the whole plant or part of a plant, instead of removing parts of it or subjecting it to heat, or water for example, is that what defines natural? And at what point during the processing system does natural become unnatural.
It is difficult isn’t it, to define the natural remedy once you start looking in detail at the processes involved in creating medicines.
Not mass produced?
Mainstream medicines are mass produced. I am sure we can agree on that. So perhaps this is one of our defining features. Perhaps natural remedies are those that are not mass produced?
Actually, that doesn’t help us either. Because herbal and homeopathic products are big business now too.
And many are produced in factories in huge volumes.
So we cannot define natural remedies as those that are not mass produced by big companies.
The danger of looking for natural remedies
One of the dangers in looking for natural remedies is that as you can see, ‘natural remedy’ is a broad term which lumps together a whole swathe of unrelated products.
Some of which work, and many of which, do not.
Many mainstream medicines are natural too, in that they are prepared directly from plants, which adds yet another dimension to the debate.
Perhaps the term ‘alternative’ is a better one. Referring as it does, to anything outside of mainstream medicine.
Again, I’m sure you would agree that even an alternative solution, is only a ‘remedy’ if it actually works.
So once again, we have a problem in that many alternative remedies do not work.
Of course, some alternative remedies DO work, and in time, it is likely that many of these remedies will be properly trialled and tested, and part of mainstream medicine.
So how can you take advantage of these alternative remedies, the ones that work, but have not yet been discovered by the big pharmaceutical companies?
Your first step is to find out whether or not the remedy you have heard about does actually work. And that is not an entirely straightforward process
How do I know if it works?
Many people read the labels on health related products in order to find out what they are for. Sadly, some health products don’t yet seem to be covered by the advertising standards laws.
For example, you can still find homeopathic products on the shelves in major stores, despite the fact that homeopathy has been proven to be no more effective than a placebo.
So reading the label is not necessarily going to help you.
It worked for my friend
Unfortunately the fact that a substance helps one dog without causing any harm, does not mean it will do the same for all dogs.
Added to which is the problem that most people are not well versed in making objective observations and assessments of themselves or their dogs.
Many people will assume that a dog who recovered after eating a blue pill, did so because he ate the blue pill. Whereas we know that just because two events are related in time, does not mean that one caused the other.
My son reminded me of an episode of the Simpsons. Lisa is trying to explain cause and effect to Homer. She asks him to observe a rock and invites him to notice the absence of tigers.
She hopes he will understand that the rock doesn’t keep away tigers, but instead he offers to buy her rock.
It isn’t just Homer Simpson who makes the assumption that two things happening together must be influencing each other, people everywhere do the same.
Only decent people make natural stuff
Then there is the assumption that ‘natural products’ and the people that make them somehow hold the moral high ground.
Unfortunately, the fact that someone has secured a position involving the production of alternative remedies, is no guarantee of integrity.
Where there is money to be made, there are charlatans to be found. And nowhere is this more evident than in health related products.
So if you genuinely want to know if the product you are interested in actually works, you may need to do some detective work
We tend to think of clinical trials as only being used on mainstream medical or veterinary remedies. But that is not the case at all.
There have been lots of studies carried out on interesting natural remedies from honey to herbs, and even natural minerals found in the ground.
If you run a google search on the product you are interested in, and include the term ‘clinical trial’ in your search box, you are likely to throw up any helpful studies that have been done.
You’ll get a similar result by searching using the latin name of the active ingredient
When you look at a clinical study online, what you usually get is an ‘abstract’ or summary of the experiment, and if you look at the end of the abstract, you will find the conclusion.
In other words, the researchers conclusion (based on the statistical significance of their results ) on whether or not the substance had any effect.
Looking for proof
It should be underlined that a single study is evidence, but it is not proof.
Scientists draw on hundreds of studies before they can draw conclusions on the efficacy of a remedy, or a remedy system.
However, if you are going to spend your hard earned cash on an alternative solution (and they can be very expensive) it is a good idea to find at least some evidence that the substance you are putting in or on, your dog, may be helpful and at the very least, that it is not harmful.
Ideally, before we can conclude that something works, we need to look at a whole range of studies, and discard those studies which are badly designed or flawed.
This kind of research is called a systematic review and it is very useful indeed. If you can find a systematic review on the remedy you are interested in, that will be very helpful to you
What is the harm in trying?
People often say, “well, I don’t mind spending the money. What is the harm in trying something natural. I can’t hurt my dog.”
Unfortunately this is not always true.
Many herbal products are extremely powerful. We get some very toxic products from plants.
One of our widely used insecticides, pyrethrum, for example is derived from daisies. Heroin comes from poppies!
Feeding dogs garlic is reputed to repel fleas, yet garlic contains chemicals that can damage red blood cells in dogs.
Some natural remedies can harm some dogs, even if others can tolerate them. So just because your neighbour’s dog was ok with a herbal remedy, it doesn’t necessarily mean your dog will be.
What counts, is what works, with minimal risk
The idea that natural or alternative remedies are intrinsically ‘good’ or free from chemicals is a myth.
Natural remedies that work are not free from chemicals, the chemicals within them are simply still bound up in the tissues of the plant or animal they were derived from.
And many common mainstream medicines are made from natural ingredients.
Even when the alternative remedy is not directly harmful, there is still great potential for harm due to the inevitable delay in seeking treatment that does actually work.
Especially in any condition where rapid treatment is the key to success.
What we need for our pets, is remedies that work, and that work with minimal risk. In other words, where the benefits of the medicine outweigh any potential side effects.
But don’t prescribed medicines have horrible side effects?
Anything that has an effect may have side effect. So yes. Any effective remedy, mainstream or alternative, may cause side effects.
That is simply because it is so difficult to target one specific organ or tissue type in the body.
Mammalian bodies are incredibly efficient at distributing substances that we swallow or inject. That’s why you can put a paracetomol tablet into your stomach and ten minutes later be free of the pain in your toe.
That efficiency makes us vulnerable to side effects, and your dog is no different.
Be very suspicious of anything that claims to have no side effects at all, if the claims are true, the substance probably has no effects either.
But big pharma is bad right?
The fact is, there are good and bad human beings in all industries.
Regardless of our views on big business, the mainstream medical industry is well regulated compared with the alternative healthcare industry.
In addition, the side effects that all effective remedies (mainstream and alternative) can trigger have been extensively studied and recorded only where those medicines are produced by pharmaceutical companies.
In other words in mainstream medicine.
The alternative health industry on the other hand is not well regulated at all, at least not in the UK.
In many cases practitioners can practice on human patients without any form of regulation. That means that remedies can be recommended with no proper recording of the outcome (or lack of it) and no central collection of data on side effects.
Over the counter
Dogs are a little better protected than we humans are, at least in the UK, because it is illegal here for anyone other than a qualified vet to diagnose or prescribe treatment for an animal.
It seems crazy, but anyone can take their child to a fake practioner, who can make recommendations and advise on treatments that have no basis whatsoever in evidence. Thankfully our dogs are protected from this potential for abusing the trust of worried people.
However, the sale of ‘alternative remedies’ for all manner of purposes, from wormers, to flea treatments, coat conditioners etc, is wide open to charlatans and to disreputable or ignorant people who want to make money out of our insecurities.
People are often drawn to these over the counter natural remedies because we fear the side effects of mainstream medicine. And because veterinary appointments are time consuming, inconvenient, and inexpensive.
It is important to be cautious here though. The fact that you can buy it over the counter in a health store, does not mean it works. It pays to put your investigator’s hat on before parting with your money.
The myth of ‘natural is always better’
A whole industry has grown up around the myth that ‘natural’ is alway best.
There are still great holes in our knowledge where mainstream medical and veterinary treatments are concerned.
Dog die because there is stuff we just don’t know yet.
This is utterly tragic, but plugging those holes by making things up will not help.
There are sharks out there just waiting to prey on those whose pets are sick. There are people cashing in by offering special types of massage that claim to awaken cellular intelligence (there is no such thing) and other phoney but scientific sounding nonsense.
There are people who want to take your money in exchange for water or sugar pills (homeopathy).
People who will offer you all manner of products and promote them purely on the basis that they are better because they are more natural. So take care.
Some natural remedies work. There is no doubt about that. That’s sometimes where we get our new medicines from. But finding them can be tricky.
My personal view is that the sale of alternative remedies should be better regulated than it is, and that the practice of selling fake remedies to people who are sick or whose dogs are sick, is wrong and should be stopped.
Of course, is entirely up to you whether or not you want to pay for or to try out such products.
If you look for evidence, especially evidence from more than one source, at least you will be protecting yourself from unnecessary expense.
And if you make your veterinary surgeon your very first port of call, whenever your dog is sick or needs relieving of parasites, you stand your best chance of an effective cure. And of ensuring that you don’t miss a more serious problem with your dog’s health.
If you are interested in the industry that is ‘alternative medicine’, you might enjoy Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s excellent book Trick or Treatment.
It looks at a whole range of alternative treatments and examines the evidence that has accumulated for each one. It is not about veterinary medicine, but there are parallels that can be drawn.
Edzard Ernst also has an excellent blog which examines and analyses a whole range of alternative therapies.
You can find a similar blog with a veterinary slant here SkeptVet.
Meanwhile, I’m going to be on the lookout for some alternative therapies that have good evidence behind them, and that you might find helpful for your dog, and I’ll report back here when I’ve done so.
And if you read of any great new studies showing that a natural remedy is effective, don’t forget to post it up in the comments box below, to help others.