Pet Owners Likely to Use Alternative and Complementary Medicine on Their Pets, According to Colorado State University

More than half of pet owners surveyed by Colorado State University veterinarians use complementary and alternative medical approaches to help their cats and dogs.

Complementary therapies such as herbs, nutritional supplements, chiropractic care and acupuncture were used by 65 percent of pet owners whose dogs and cats were being treated for cancer at the university’s Animal Cancer Center, which attracts patients from around the world. The pet owners were part of a survey of 254 clients at the center.

While the survey showed that a high number of animals receive complementary and alternative treatments from their owners, the study also shows that many owners don’t tell their veterinarians that their pets receive these treatments and don’t seek out veterinary experts for reliable information. This means that owners may be putting their pets at risk of interactions with drugs or other complications of alternative and complementary approaches that aren’t administered or, if given, adjusted correctly for pets.

"Although alternative and complementary medicine are considered to be helpful in improving the health and well-being of both animals and humans, their use without proper information can be dangerous," said Dr. Narda Robinson, the Shipley Complementary and Alternative Medicine professor at Colorado State’s College of Veterinary Medicine who was involved in the study. "In addition, some of these practices might interfere with conventional treatments an animal may be receiving, and the study results showed that most owners aren’t telling their veterinarians that they are giving alternative medicine to their pets."

Herbal products may alter how enzymes metabolize drugs, for example, or interfere with the amount of drug levels available in the pet’s body.

Animals may react to herbs and supplements in different and sometimes unpredictable ways, compared to humans.

"Only scientific research and rigorous examination concerning the safety and effectiveness of these products in animals will provide veterinarians the information they need to prescribe these products with confidence," Robinson said. "Colorado State is looking toward pursuing funding to support this type of research."

"It is important to know if these therapies are being used concurrently with traditional therapies so that unwanted side affects can be avoided," said Dr. Susan Lana, a veterinary oncologist at Colorado State who also participated in the study.

The most common reasons why survey participants used complementary therapies was to improve the general well-being of their pets, improve the animal’s immune function and, with chiropractic procedures, to reduce pain.

While 64 percent of those surveyed believe that their veterinarian supports their use of complementary and alternative therapies, only 35 percent said they had actually talked to their veterinarian about the use of such practices.

Most pet owners who participated in the survey who used alternative and complementary medicine used nutritional supplements, herbs and vitamins. About 5 percent of those surveyed had their pets undergo acupuncture and chiropractic procedures.

"Simply providing pet owners with sources of reliable information would likely be beneficial," said Robinson. "In addition to revealing that few pet owners tell their veterinarians about the alternative and complementary medicine their pet may receive, this study is consistent with reports that physicians underestimate the rate of use by their patients."

Alternative and complementary medicine is often sought by animal owners to address musculoskeletal, neurological, cardiovascular, dermatological, endocrine, metabolic and behavioral disorders in numerous species including dogs, cats and horses.

According to studies, about half of the human population uses complementary and alternative medicines at some point in their lives. About 65 percent of human cancer patients in one study reported using these approaches. People with cancer who use complementary medicine follow similar trends as pet owners when it comes to communicating with their health care provider; in a study of women with breast or gynecological cancers, 48 percent used some type of herbal or vitamin supplement. Of that number, only about half told their physician they used these supplements.