When they first found her, Tigger the cat was lying in a carton on the side of the road. “Her head used to bob a lot,” remembers Ashwini Karandikar. “We thought, what a cute kitten!”
They brought her home. Karandikar, who works as a corporate trainer in Mumbai, has three dogs at her place. The dogs weren’t too happy about the new member in the family, so Karandikar put up the kitten for adoption. It didn’t work out somehow.
During this time, Karandikar noticed that the head-bobbing wouldn’t stop. She took Tigger to a veterinarian. Tigger had cerebellar hypoplasia, the doctor said, a form of muscular dystrophy. The bobs weren’t cute. The kitten couldn’t help herself.
“The doctor said we should put her down,” says Karandikar. “It has become a new trend—you find an animal out of order, you put it down.” On Karandikar’s insistence, the veterinarian prescribed Gardenal, an allopathic medicine to deal with epileptic seizures. Subsequently, on the recommendation of another doctor, she combined it with homoeopathic medicine. “It worked like a miracle. The seizures stopped.”
Five years have passed. Tigger is now fed homoeopathic pills thrice a day before meals. “I think my cat is alive because of homoeopathy,” says Karandikar.
While there’s no scientific backing to their efficacy, pet owners like Karandikar are increasingly trying to find alternatives to modern medicine. Some do it to avoid the side effects of allopathic medicines, some to avoid invasive methods like surgery, others are deterred by the high cost of treatment. Either way, it means a significant boost for the global complementary and alternative medicine market, projected at $69.2 billion in 2019 by the market research firm Grand View Research.
Today, Indian pet owners can choose from homoeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda and aromatherapy. There’s also colour therapy, hydrotherapy, herbal care and natural healing, available mostly in tier-1 cities.
“Unlike the West, alternative medicines haven’t yet gained too much ground in India,” says Mukesh Batra, chairman emeritus of Dr Batra’s Homeopathy. Dr Batra’s had entered in the pet-care sector in 2015 but shut operations in 2018 after it proved unsustainable. In those three years, says Dr Batra, they noticed “outstanding results” in homoeopathy’s effects on pets, especially for skin diseases and arthritis. “In most cases, it is used as a complementary treatment—along with allopathic medicines. Or in cases where allopathy has failed,” he adds.
Prashant Dharmadhikari, assistant commissioner in the animal husbandry department of the Maharashtra government, says alternative medicines and therapies have been used for centuries. “For example, rubbing turmeric on wounds,” he says, “or using chuna (limestone) and kaat (catechu) for diarrhoea.” These are Ayurvedic remedies. “I have even seen people using black magic to fix their distressed goats.”
Dharmadhikari is an allopathic veterinarian by training. However, he prescribes homoeopathic and Ayurvedic medicines on occasion. “I picked it up in the field, as part of the job,” he says. In 1992, he recalls, there was an epidemic of Gumboro—a viral disease that affects chicken. At the time, a number of doctors prescribed Arsenicum Album 30 as an immunity booster. In 2020, the Union Ayush (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) ministry prescribed it as an immunity booster during the covid-19 pandemic. In neither case has its efficacy been scientifically established, he agrees. “But in my experience, it did help reduce fatality.”
Alternative therapy is popular in parts of the West too. An estimated one in seven practices in the UK offer some form of alternative therapy. In July 2016, about 1,000 vets in the UK signed a petition calling on the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to stop vets from offering homoeopathy to animals. “It has been shown that homoeopathy doesn’t work, so it probably shouldn’t be offered any more even if it is offered with good intentions,” said Danny Chambers, the vet who started the petition on Change.org. However, the British veterinary regulator said “it is difficult to envisage any justification” for a ban.
At times, the therapies on offer enter the domain of the metaphysical. Take Ketaki Deshmukh, a Pune-based corporate operations specialist and “animal communicator”. For the last three years, Deshmukh has been offering cures through pranic healing. The practice, she explains, rests on the assumption that every creature’s physical body is surrounded by their “energy body”, or the pranic body. “When the illness manifests in a physical body, it first enters the pranic body.... If I am to cure someone, I have to take out dirty energy, put it in a saltwater bowl and flush it away.” She doesn’t need to know the animal, not even be in proximity to it. She can do it by sending out positive energy because “energy follows thought”.
Deshmukh claims to have “cured” 45-50 animals of diseases. So far, she hasn’t charged money for it. “But I am considering it,” she says.
“The pet industry globally is growing at 5% CAGR, capping at $3 billion by 2025 (according to market research firm Grand View Research),” says Anushka Iyer, founder of Wiggles.in, an online pet-care product store. “Alternative medicine is turning out to be very effective for treating certain chronic illnesses, but if there is an emergency, it is always better to consult a veterinarian. A serious condition cannot be treated with alternative therapy, this requires medication.” So far, she adds, there’s a dearth of dedicated research to encourage companies and consumers to trust and monetize the alternative therapies sector.
“It also boils down to the right diagnosis,” says Iyer. One needs to determine the right pattern and treatment for each pet. Without proper veterinary diagnosis, alternative medicines could do more harm than good.”