Have you ever heard of snake oil? It’s an expression generally reserved for unproven remedies for various ailments or maladies, but is also often used to describe any product with questionable or unverifiable benefit.
Chinese workers, building the First Transcontinental Railroad in the mid-19th century, used snake oil to treat the painful inflammatory joint conditions resulting from their labors.
The workers began sharing the tonic with their American counterparts, who marveled at the positive effects it had on ailments such as arthritis and bursitis. Rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that are now known to possess anti-inflammatory properties, Chinese snake oil likely provided some comfort for workers experiencing job-related soreness and swelling.
Looking to capitalize on the financial gain, American “healers” gave their Chinese counterparts a bad name when they developed their own “snake oil” concoctions, which they claimed provided equal benefits to the Chinese remedies, yet lacked the necessary ingredients.
Over time, the term “snake oil” has become synonymous with substances whose ingredients are considered proprietary and marketed to provide a miraculous cure-all for a variety of maladies. Unfortunately, I can’t help but think about the phrase when pet owners ask me about complementary or alternative medicine treatment options for pets with cancer.
Many owners discover information which suggests the beneficial effects of various herbs, anti-oxidants, “immune boosting treatments,” and dietary supplements via searching the internet.
The more common products owners will inquire about include Tumexal, Apocaps, K9 Immunity, K9 Transfer factor, coconut oil, turmeric, essiac tea, and wormwood products (Artemisinin). A primary appeal is these substances are touted as “natural” and “non-toxic,” making their usage relatively inarguable.
What most owners fail to recognize is that supplements and herbal products are not subject to the same regulations by the FDA that prescription drugs are. Owners are also unaware that carefully worded claims to efficacy are not backed up by scientific research in the vast majority of cases, despite the plethora of supportive testimonials listed on product inserts or on websites.
One of the most popular products I’m asked about is K9 Immunity, a dietary supplement manufactured by Aloha Medicinals, reportedly “the industry’s leading company in the cultivation of medicinal mushroom species.” The product’s website includes several impressive logos: USDA organic, Quality Assurance International Certified Organic, and even one for the Food and Drug Association (FDA) as well as sweeping statements related to an ability to “strengthen and balance your dog’s immune system so the body recognizes and destroys damaged cells” and an assurance that the product “has no known side effects.”
This latter statement is my biggest concern with the animal supplement industry; the lure of alternative and complementary options centering on the ideology that these options are benign. Countless times, owners mistakenly assume these products have undergone testing to determine purity, safety, and efficacy. Despite the lack of specific data proving these products are bioavailable, safe, and/or effective in pets (other than what is put forth on their respective websites), owners elect such treatments.
With minimal probing, I discovered a warning letter from the FDA addressed to Aloha Medicinal dated 4/6/10 outlining numerous violations the company made regarding potential beneficial claims related to several of their manufactured products. Yes, this example is out dated; however smart owners have to consider what it means.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is the organization tasked with protecting, promoting, and advancing a strong, unified veterinary profession that meets the needs of society. Within their code of ethics you will find the following statement:
“It is unethical for veterinarians to promote, sell, prescribe, dispense, or use secret remedies or any other product for which they do not know the ingredients.”
This simple sentence provides me with the entire pause I need when it comes to the owner asking whether or not a particular supplement would help their pet. I cannot, and I will not, promote such a thing until the data tells me to do so.
My concern is that “alternative” products are marketed as panaceas. We cannot accurately report efficacy because the substances were never scrutinized in any sort of clinical trials (despite the hundreds to thousands of animals they are stated to be helpful for); it’s all anecdotes and testimonials.
I believe many of the companies marketing these supplements are preying on the emotions of owners who are desperate for a shred of hope. This isn’t a new concept, the internet just makes it easier for them to do so.
What is often most difficult for owners to understand is that words like “miraculous” play no role in medicine. I’m not arguing against the existence of outliers—there will always be patients who live longer than we expect. Conversely, there will be many who succumb to disease before their time. However, products should refrain from including unrealistic claims and using words such as “cure” or “prevent.” Likewise, they shouldn’t only report testimonials and should offer scientific data supporting their assertions.
Complementary treatments work alongside conventional ones, whereas alternative treatments act as a substitute for them. I adhere to the ideology that there is no alternative medicine. “Alternative medicine” that works is called medicine, period.