Mr. Green came in with Itchy, his new dog. It seems that overnight Itchy had developed a large red rash an was licking and chewing at it constantly. The rash was caused by a superficial skin infection that normally disappears in a day or two when the patient is given simple oral antibiotics. When I suggested this course of action to Mr. Green, however he gave me a look of suspicion and said that he would much rather pursue a course of “natural” treatment rather than use antibiotics. He had some tea tree oil at home and was going to treat the hot spot with that instead.
Three weeks later Itchy was back in with a much larger area affected by the rash and blistered skin. Mr. Green reported that the dog screamed and tried to hide under the couch every time she saw him coming with the bottle of tea tree oil, so he was having trouble treating her. Mr. Green reluctantly agreed to try some antibiotics and in 3 days the rash was nearly completely resolved. It did take a few weeks for the skin to recover completely from the chemical burns caused by the tea tree oil, however.
Unfortunately for Itchy she suffered from the consequences of a fairly common attitude that anything dubbed “natural” is somehow far safer and more effective than any medication produced by the evil pharmaceutical industry that is only out to steal our money and make us sick with their drugs. In the case of tea tree oil, it kills bacteria the same way that dousing a rose bush with gasoline and lighting it on fire kills aphids. The fire is technically “natural”, and the aphids are most assuredly dead after the treatment, but it is difficult to say that procedure is in the best interest of the rose bush.
This is not to say that “natural” treatments are all harmful or ineffective. For instance, I find that chamomile tea reliably soothes my stomach when it is mildly upset. The major issue with most natural products is that there is little to no scientific understanding of what the compounds in the product are doing physically, and no regulation that requires that the product be proven safe or effective. The actual dosage of the active ingredients in a package can vary from 0% to 100% , and there is no way to tell what amount you may actually be taking or giving to your pet. You probably wouldn’t reach your hand into a bottle containing ibuprofen and a few other pills you can‘t identify, pull out “some” and take that amount, but that is in effect what you are doing when you take medications that are not FDA approved and therefore do not have to conform to any quality standards. Sometimes you get lucky and get the effect you were hoping for, but it can be a roll of the dice as to whether you get effective treatment, no treatment, or toxicity.
Many of the drugs we use are purified and standardized compounds derived from herbal and natural medications. Ursodiol is a medication that enhances liver function. It is a compound that was isolated from the gallbladder of bears, but now instead of having to slay a bear on a daily basis in order to drink the contents of its gallbladder, we can take a measured amount of the beneficial compound in the gallbladder which will have a predictable effect that has been shown by scientific studies to help liver function, without having to ingest all the other disgusting and possibly harmful components that also reside in the bear’s gallbladder.
Of course even well researched and carefully controlled drugs can still have negative effects. Any individual can have a bad reaction to almost any substance, but the common negative side effects of most drugs are usually well documented, so when they happen at least we know where the problem is coming from. It is a myth that anything deemed natural will be free from harmful side effects, it is more true that the side effects are just not well described.
There are many ways to approach treatment to most conditions, and choosing “natural” treatment doesn‘t mean it won‘t work or will cause harm, but remember that the drugs available today have passed a course of rigorous testing that has shown them to be safe, effective and predictable. Don’t buy into the hype that pharmaceutical companies are just out to kill us all.