Two Canadian researchers are widening the scope of veterinary medicine by putting the practice of alternative medicine for animals under scientific scrutiny.
At the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), Brenda Bonnett and Carol Poland are heading up a study that will try to assess the efficacy of veterinary herbal medicine, homeopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture.
Along with conducting their own future clinical trials, using herbal and homeopathic products for pain and cancer treatment in dogs, Dr Bonnett and Dr Poland and their team will eventually set up a web site of translated, critically appraised articles in a type of clearing house of worldwide research of holistic veterinary medicine. The two say this information will help veterinarians who want to expand their range of treatment.
"This is a hot topic right now," said Dr Bonnett who says clients of veterinarians are often asking if an alternative treatment they are taking could be used on their pet.
The popularity of alternative medicine in humans has grown in the last decade in Canada as more and more people seek out alternatives to drugs and surgery. With domestic animals ensconced in many peoples' emotional support network and the accompanying willingness to spend more money on the health of that "member of the family", the sudden interest arising in alternative treatments is a logical next step, according to the epidemiologist.
Although this study is ground-breaking, holistic medicine is increasingly being used in veterinary practices. Musculoskeletal problems, lameness, chronic pain and skin conditions are among the conditions most commonly treated through alternative veterinary methods.
Over 1,000 holistic veterinary articles already exist on the Internet, ranging from folk medicine on buffalo to arthritis remedies for cats. Much of the evidence pointing to success in alternative treatments and remedies has most often been anecdotal, says Dr Poland, a graduate student on sabbatical from her Calgary veterinarian practice.
The two researchers say they are not out to prove that certain complementary medicines are good or bad but will "try to just get scientific evidence and let the cards fall where they will".
More than 100 Canadian vets belong to the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, which organises certificate courses in veterinary chiropractic and acupuncture. A recent questionnaire by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association found that 60 per cent of vets surveyed believe they should be allowed to use alternative therapies.
The OVC study, which has been almost entirely funded by one animal owner, is also being watched by the alternative medical community. Many of these physicians will be interested in seeing how an animal reacts to remedies or treatments that had sceptics discounting as giving nothing more than a placebo effect to humans.
But the two veterinarians have made it clear that they still want to see vets and not the alternative medical practitioners, treating animals. The web site, as well as the results from the trials, should be out by next year. For now, those interested in tracking the latest holistic news for their pet can go to the newsgroup alt.med.veterinary.