Pet owners occasionally tell veterinarians they are reluctant to use prescription medicine, spot-on flea products, heartworm preventatives, etc, because they would rather use something that is “natural.” They are afraid of chemicals, and would rather use something that is organic or natural. But what is natural? By definition, natural products are those that come from nature. But not all items that come from nature are safe or harmless. Arsenic and cyanide are natural. Arsenic is mined from the earth along with other metals. Cyanide is found in a number of plants. Cocaine and heroin come from nature, but they are certainly not good for you.
In contrast, many of our prescription medicines originated from plants. It has been estimated that anywhere from 25% to 70% of our medicines contain at least some compounds obtained from plants. Aspirin, quinine, syrup of Ipecac, morphine, and theophylline (a prescription medicine used as a bronchodilator for respiratory diseases) all come from plants. The potent and life saving cancer drugs, vincristine and vinblastine, were derived from plants. Taxol, which was derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree, is a chemotherapy drug that has saved many breast, ovarian, and lung cancer patients.
Many people assume that herbal medicines are safe because they come from plants and are over-the-counter. Unfortunately, this is not true, in fact, some can cause life threatening reactions. An example is ma huang, which contains ephedra and has been used as a weight loss product in people. In people it can cause a rapid heart rate, dilated eyes, tremors, seizures, and increased blood pressure. Symptoms in dogs are the same; death can occur from cardiovascular collapse. People who are afraid of chemicals should realize that everything in life is a chemical. Water is a chemical: H-2-O. Our own bodies are a collection of a large number of chemicals. Herbal or “natural” products are chemicals. From this we can deduce that the “natural versus chemical” argument is not valid. Everything in nature is a chemical. What is behind the desire to use natural products and the fear of chemicals? It is the wish to use the SAFEST product.
Now we know that herbal and natural products are not necessarily safe. In fact, their industry got Congress to pass the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act in 1994 which states that supplement manufacturers are NOT required to prove efficacy or safety, and there is no requirement for quality control.
What is the safest product? Medical professionals would argue it is a product that has been scientifically studied. All prescription drugs go through rigorous testing before they are approved. This testing is to both prove that it does the job and that it is safe. There are non-prescription drugs that have been tested and proved effective. An example is glucosamine which has helped many people and dogs with arthritis.
Now when you see a product labeled ” natural” you will know it is just a marketing strategy. The question to ask is “What kind of research studies have been done?”