One cannot play charades forever.

European veterinary groups have long been more skeptical about “alternative” veterinary practices than their American counterparts. For example, the European Board of Veterinary Specialties refuses to grant continuing education credits for non-scientific endeavors attempting to masquerade as a way to improve one’s clinical knowledge, and the practice of veterinary homeopathy is forbidden in Sweden.

Now comes good news (for pets, and pet owners), out of the UK. In an effort to improve animal health and welfare, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s (VMD) has targeted “alternative” remedies, which, of course, pose both real and potential dangers to pets. The VMD is the body responsible for the authorization of veterinary medicinal products in the United Kingdom.

Specifically, the VMD is targeting a number of unauthorized products that lack scientific proof of effectiveness, including:

  • homeopathic “nosodes” (substances that are the homeopathic equivalent of vaccination, with the notable exception being that they don’t work)
  • various herbal products
  • “neutraceuticals,” the cleverly coined combination of “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical,” which really aren’t either, a fact which, of course, hasn’t dented their popularity, nor dampened their claims (including improved mental ability in pets)
  • Herbal deworming products, which may claim to irritate the bowel and make it less inviting for parasites (an absurd claim)

Giving a pet an ineffective remedy invites direct harm, if a sick animal is treated with an ineffective remedy, as well as indirect harm, if an effective therapy is avoided in favor of the heavily advertised ineffective one.

Director of Operations of the VMD, John FitzGerald, said, “Animal owners have a right to know if a product does what it claims. The products claim to treat diseases which can cause serious welfare problems and in some circumstances kill animals if not properly treated. So in some cases owners are giving remedies to their pets which don’t treat the problem.” British Veterinary Association President Harvey Locke, in support of the VMD, noted, “As veterinary surgeons we rely on the use of safe, effective and quality medicines for the health and welfare of animals under our care – and there must always be sound scientific evidence to back up medicinal claims made by the manufacturer of any product.”

The VMD intends to contact manufacturers of “alternative” products to make sure that they are safe, and provide the claimed benefits. If they don’t (which they won’t), the VMD will make the manufacturers rebrand the products so that consumers will know that the products are not medicinal.

Now one might legitimately ask, “Why don’t the US veterinary authorities and organizations take some action such as this?” Well, in my opinion, veterinary authorities are more interested in getting animals to be treated by veterinarians than they are in the particular remedies that are being used. So far, in the US, it’s been a triumph of economics over science. How long that stance holds up, particularly in light of the legitimate strides at curbing non-scientific practices in other countries, remains to be seen.

Posted by David Ramey

David Ramey, DVM, is a 1983 graduate of Colorado State University.  After completing an internship in equine medicine and surgery at Iowa State University, he entered private equine practice in southern California.  Dr. Ramey is an author of numerous books on equine health care, and a prominent voice for the application of evidence-based standards to veterinary medicine.  He was a member of the task for on "Therapeutic Options" of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, as well as a member of the task force that wrote the current guidelines for the use of "Complementary and Alternative" veterinary medicine for the American Veterinary Association.  He has published numerous articles and books pertaining to "alternative" approaches to veterinary medicine, including the 2004 "Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine Considered," co-authored with world renowned veterinary ethicist Dr. Bernard Rollin.