As a farm animal vet I’ve often been asked, “Why is it that veterinarians don’t use natural treatments?” It’s true, very few farm animal vets use natural treatments. But why? The main reason is fairly simple: because modern day veterinarians are not trained in such methods.
Veterinary students are only trained in the latest cutting-edge scientific knowledge. This means learning about the most recent products which are brought forth to veterinary schools (often by the pharmaceutical industry) to be tested and validated. The testing is done by the researchers who are also the students’ professors. And veterinary students are a truly captive audience for professors professing their latest, greatest achievements in the name of science. Thus a “closed loop” begins to form in the minds of budding veterinarians about the catalog of drugs available to them. It is not their fault per se. It’s just the way the system is.
So the main reason that veterinarians don’t use natural treatments is simply because they are not taught about them. If they were, they’d be using them. While the same research and teaching process has held true for many decades, factual information of former medicines has been layered over by time’s passage and the scientific fascination of new discoveries. Yet… older, scientifically documented information on pharmacy products is still just as valid and true as when it was first discovered and studied. It’s just not being taught anymore because of the new information is glitzier — and backed by a lot of money from the companies standing to benefit from an ideology that purports that single-molecule medicine is “scientific” and complex plant medicine is “anecdotal.”
A little bit of history…
And what “older” pharmacy facts have been quietly set aside due to the constant onslaught of new information? It’s mainly medicine derived from plants (also known as botanical medicine or phytotherapy). Here are two facts about veterinary botanical medicine: (1) Veterinarians were previously trained in all aspects of plant medicine — the identification of plants, their preparation into usable medicines, their indications, dosages, physiology, toxicology and antidotes. (2) Botanical medicine has a scientific basis and was officially taught for decades at veterinary schools.
But in the early to mid-1900’s pharmaceutical companies such as Parke-Davis, Eli Lilly, Wyethe, (Merck) Sharp & Dohme — companies founded on making drugs from plants (see photos) — were “freed” from the need to inspect raw plant material to identify and grade for quality. Chemists suddenly could identify the active ingredient of a plant and synthesize it in the laboratory. That is how most pharmaceutical companies got their start. All the “latest, greatest” discoveries have simply layered over medicines originally derived from plants.
Complex plants gave way to single-molecule, patentable drugs
With breathtaking precision, single-ingredient synthetic products generated from giant factory laboratories can more easily be evaluated by scientific review teams at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to meet the requirements to get a New Animal Drug Approval (NADA) to legally market a medicine than their plant-based predecessors.
Over the years, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act has evolved for both human and veterinary products. The requirements have become such that there need to be about a dozen different review teams for a new potential product. There are teams that evaluate the prospective medicine’s manufacturing process and chemistry to ensure consistent product, toxicology reviews and animal studies if needed, environmental impact assessments of the product’s manufacture and disposal in real-world conditions, metabolic breakdown trials of the drug in the animal (and for food animals the withholding times for milk and meat), field trials to show efficacy of the product for the intended purpose, and side effects measured. Ironically, all of these layers were necessary because single-molecule medicine is inherently more risky than botanical-based medicine.
Plant’s actions are less pointed and oftentimes better tolerated than their chemical cousins. So the same layers that were created to protect the public from the toxicology of single-molecule medicine now protect the manufacturers of single-molecule medicine to the detriment of natural medicines.
Veterinarians don’t use natural treatments because they look for approved drugs, and approval costs $20+ million
A full blown review of a new drug coming out of the laboratory costs approximately $20-60 million dollars and can take a number of years for review — and even then some products don’t make it through to the finish line. The problem for natural medicines is that they are subject to the same review process as pharmacologically derived substances. This is even the case for formulations made entirely of plants and ingredients Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). The entire structure of the FDA review process is set up to analyze single molecules. The agency, as of yet, still doesn’t have a defined process to look at complex medicines that all plants are.
So the same things that make plant pharmacology less toxic — overlapping actions of many different agents within the plant — also make less likely easy review of those substances by the FDA. These are agency biases inherent in the agency’s charter and governing regulations, and they could be changed by statute and/or re-interpreting implementing regulations. The FDA structure works very well for drug companies in part because it effectively limits competition from natural products companies.
Perhaps it is now easier to understand why plant medicine, once the bedrock of veterinary medicine, has slipped out of the everyday comprehension of busy, practicing veterinarians. Veterinarians don’t use natural treatments because they have been trained almost exclusively about pharmaceutically sponsored drugs that have the official blessing of the FDA. This is a fact and not my opinion. And with veterinary education packed to the hilt for four years, even some pharmaceutical approaches are being layered over by the new, hot realm of gene therapy.
There’s no incentive for a natural medicine company to spend $20+ million for a product that isn’t patentable…
And while the FDA has started to develop processes by which botanical medicines can be reviewed — each plant having sometimes hundreds of compounds along with its active ingredient — the simple fact that most botanical medicines cannot be patented hinders even the best-intentioned botanical manufacturers from getting FDA approval.
And the way governing statutes and regulations currently are drafted, if anyone makes a “claim” — that a product cures a disease or even intimates that it may be helpful for a certain disease picture — pharmaceutical companies with patents on drugs to treat that disease can and do seek regulatory crackdown on manufactures of plant-based medicines. So while your great-grandpa may have known that plantain is really good for getting out splinters and against bug bites and burns, an herbal products manufacture cannot say very much about that on the label. Which means if the tradition of herbalism has been lost within families and communities, no one is there to tell you that there is something other than a steroid that may relieve inflammatory symptoms.
Vets use unapproved, “grandfathered” drugs all the time
Now let’s talk about an area that I’m intimately familiar with: inspectors who periodically visit dairy farms that use plant-based medicines. Kind of like veterinarians who don’t use natural treatments, inspectors also generally don’t know how to evaluate products that they see for the first time if they don’t have full FDA approval (with a NADA #). Even if the farmer or package says it’s “natural” and claim to be safe (because they are natural) — if there no NADA # on the package, then a 7-point debit can occur. Dairy farms inspections start at 100 points and cannot end below 90 to pass.
The Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) item 15r spells out for inspectors what can and cannot be stored on the shelves of dairy farms. Item 15r is often adjusted slightly at the biennial meetings of the Interstate Milk Shippers (IMS). These meetings are attended by processors, inspectors and also FDA personnel. It’s not a simple matter to know exactly who to talk with to get something officially changed in item 15r (such as botanical medicines to be permitted during inspection). As you can imagine, FDA-approved (NADA) products are generally allowed, with some needing veterinary prescription.
Practicing dairy vets are highly aware of the issues of resistance and public perception surrounding antibiotic use in farm animals and their proper labeling and usage. Interestingly, the same veterinarians who don’t use natural treatments use and dispense many products that do not have an NADA — products like aspirin and 23% calcium (“grandfathered” products). Yet, those same veterinarians cast a leery eye upon botanical medicines (certainly “grandfathered”) simply because they do not have an NADA. I have heard it said directly to me many times: “I cannot recommend a product that is not FDA approved.” And yet they use many unapproved products daily. The reason is that the products they carry in their truck that are unapproved were used and taught by their professors during their veterinary school training, while botanical medicines were not taught (yet just as logical to use). That is how a veterinarian’s mind becomes trained. Others might call it brainwashed.
“Evidence-based” or hypocrisy? Why veterinarians don’t use natural treatments isn’t always why they think…
Oddly, farm veterinarians often quickly state their support of “evidence-based medicine” and “the scientific method” to defend their views of items they dispense. That’s the stated reason why veterinarians don’t use natural treatments. But botanical medicine was the original backbone of the pharmaceutical companies!! These are the same companies which veterinarians continue to buy products from without hardly any questions asked. Indeed, some current protocols using synthetic medicine are simply based on theoretical reasoning and understanding some basic mechanism of action.
For example, it is still not understood how aspirin exerts its anti-fever effects. But the same courtesy of scientific understanding and knowledge of mechanisms of action is not extended towards botanical medicine. That’s called a double standard. Others might call it hypocrisy.
Thankfully, there are an increasing number of veterinarians interested in medicines and techniques other than only the latest, greatest pharmaceutical products. Some vets become genuinely interested in alternative modes of treatment because of …. scientific curiosity! Others aren’t seeing the same effects with “regular” medicine as they once did. A few, myself included, saw alternative approaches work prior to veterinary school and wanted to learn both alternative and conventional modes of treatment to best help each patient.
Most of the alternative-minded vets work with small animals (pets). Most large animal alternative minded vets work with horses. Only a handful of vets gladly and willingly work primarily with farm animals, sifting through “old” veterinary textbooks (which were written primarily for farm animals) for botanical approaches to common problems.
Welcome to a place where alternative approaches to farm animal health are described, promoted and celebrated.