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A handy guide to alternative medicine for your pets

Alternative medicine and therapies, like homeopathy, acupuncture, and Bach Flower Therapy, are becoming big in pet health — but are they safe?

By far, acupuncture is the most well-known of these complementary or alternative approaches for pets.(iStockphoto)

By Dr Nameeta Nadkarni

LAST PUBLISHED 09.02.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

Recently, Charlie, a 10-year-old golden retriever patient of mine, had trouble getting up and was frequently seen limping. We had to come up with a long-term solution for him given the agony he was in since being diagnosing with age-related spondylosis and arthritis, both of which are progressive and terrible degenerative illnesses. To this end, I had referred him to Dr. Akshay Shah, a veterinarian in Mumbai who has focused on alternative treatments for animals. After a couple of acupuncture sessions with Dr. Shah, Charlie’s humans happily reported to me that he was able to run again, just like he used to before.

Along with acupuncture, Dr. Shah also uses homoeopathy and Bach Flower Therapy on animals as additions to traditional allopathic medicine. "As more and more pet parents become aware of [the] many benefits, the demand for such alternative therapies in pets is rising," he claims.

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By far, acupuncture is the most well-known of these complementary or alternative approaches. To reduce pain and encourage healing, very tiny needles are inserted into specific points on the body. It is a non-invasive therapeutic method with no pain associated with the needle insertions. An average session is 20 minutes long. It can be used to treat a number of ailments, such as arthritis, spondylosis, various neurological problems, post-operative pain, and even convulsions. Along with treating dogs and cats, Dr. Shah has also provided acupuncture services for the treatment of horses, birds, turtles, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys, and an elderly hyena at the Mumbai Zoo.

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Among humans in India, Homoeopathy is a popular alternative medicine practice. Although there is very little scientific research to support its effect on animals, clinical evidence has demonstrated that it benefits our four-legged friends. This system of medicine is based on the principle that “like cures like," which means that a substance that causes symptoms in a healthy person can be used in a highly diluted form to treat similar symptoms in an ill person. "In homeopathy, remedies are chosen based on the individual symptoms and characteristics of the pet. and are customised to each pet," explains Dr. Shah. From simple skin irritations to chronic illnesses, homoeopathic remedies can be used in concert with allopathy to treat a number of problems.

Bach Flower Therapy is a newly popular alternative therapy method for animals. This type of therapy makes use of mineral-containing plant- or flower-based essences. Each floral essence has distinctive qualities of its own, and the mixture of essences is selected based on the particular requirements of the pet. It is iespecially used to treat behavioural issues in pets, including phobias and anxiety. "Bach Flower Therapy is a secure and considerate method of dealing with these issues. Since animals are unable to communicate verbally, it is a skill to ascertain what they might be feeling using information taken from the pet owner," says Dr. Shah. He gives out this therapy to stray animals during the festive season, in the hopes that it will help them relax and lessen the frequency of their panic attacks brought on by loud noises. He has also used Bach Flower Therapy to treat separation anxiety in pandemic pets.

Herbal remedies, too, have been used in veterinary medicine for centuries, and their use is becoming increasingly popular in India. Just like with humans, numerous ailments in pets can be treated using a variety of herbs. For instance, neem is used as an insect repellent and anti-inflammatory, while turmeric is frequently used as an anti-inflammatory to treat joint pain and arthritis. While licorice is used to relax the digestive system, tulsi is used to strengthen immunity and treat respiratory issues. Pet owners who see herbal products as a safer alternative are big fans of herbal supplements and shampoos, which are widely available.

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All of these alternative therapies have one thing in common: they don't have the same potential adverse effects that long-term usage of allopathic medications might. After observing senior pets being required to take allopathic painkillers for a prolonged period of time, Dr. Shah resorted to these alternative therapies in order to be able to offer safer alternatives. Allopathic anxiolytics may have a sedative effect, which flower essences do not, when used to treat behavioural issues. While that is true, it is also important to remember that there is limited scientific evidence to support the use of Bach Flower Therapy in pets. Additionally, it is important to consider the underlying cause of the behavioural issue and to address it through a comprehensive approach. Herbal medicines shouldn't ever be used without consulting your veterinarian first because they might become toxic if not administered for the right condition.

At the end of the day, it must be kept in mind that, though potentially safer, none of these complementary therapies can be used to completely replace traditional allopathic therapy to treat an illness; they have their own limitations and can thus only be considered for use in conjunction with conventional medical therapy.

Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai.