The Law Governing Veterinary Herbal Medicines
Only a qualified veterinary surgeon can legally diagnose, treat or prescribe anything for an animal. Even a fully qualified human homoeopath is not allowed in law to treat animals unless he or she is also a qualified vet. It is, however, perfectly legal for any individual to give herbal and homoeopathic products to their own animals and vets can make dietary recommendations for herbivorous pets which includes reference to commonly fed natural dietary elements such as forage, fruit and vegetables and including common herbs and wild plants.
The sale of herbal and homoeopathic veterinary medicines and claims made for such products, active or implied, are covered by strict rules governed by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) an executive agency of DEFRA. Persons making medicinal claims for unlicenced herbal products can be fined and made to remove all such claims from their literature, electronic media and web sites.
If you are looking for companies who’s range includes Licensed Veterinary Herbal Medicines, such as Denes or Dorwest, you can go straight to their sites by clicking on the company names in this text. These companies sell products which already had a history of safe use before the legislation controlling veterinary herbal medicines came into effect and therefore did not have to be tested the way they would today. (Last time I checked a few years ago the cost of licensing a veterinary herbal product was £20,000 per product, per species, per claim plus laboratory testing fees including LD50 testing plus a % of turnover to the VMD each year.)
Your veterinary surgeon is in turn bound by a law known as the Drugs Cascade. By law your vet must use a veterinary drug licensed for that animal and that condition if one exists. If no drug is licensed for that animal and that condition your vet may prescribe a drug licensed for that condition for another species or for that species for another condition. If no such drug exists then the vet may use a drug licensed for humans for that condition and only then a drug licensed for humans for another condition.
No veterinary surgeon is legally allowed to treat an animal using herbal or homoeopathic medicine unless they are qualified to do so. Please understand your vet’s position when asking them to recommend or prescribe herbal or homoeopathic products if they are not qualified herbalists or homoeopaths. Your vet may be able to advise against using a particular herb known to interact adversely with a veterinary medication or known to adversely influence a particular condition, if they have the knowledge, but it is certainly not their job to. Be fair to your vet and do not expect them to compromise their legal position.
Using words such as ‘feed’, ‘amount of food’ and ‘supplement’ rather than medicinal words reserved for licensed medicines by the VMD such as ‘dosage’, ‘herbal medicine’ and ‘treatment’ will allow your vet to advise you within the law. For example you can feed the fresh wild plant called Shepherd’s Purse, which has astringent properties, to guinea pigs, but they will normally only eat the plant if they have diarrhoea, finding it otherwise unpalatable. Just as they would in the wild, they seek out the plants that they need. If, however, you were to ask your (non herbal trained) vet, or anyone selling herbal products, how many drops of Shepherd’s Purse tincture you should give your guinea pig for diarrhoea, you are effectively inviting them to break the law by ‘prescribing’ a ‘dosage’ for a ‘medical condition’ even without using those actual words, simply because that understanding is deemed to be ‘implied’. Ask how many drops you should ‘supplement their feed with because you want to know what the rough equivalent to two sprigs of fresh herb is..’ and you’re back within the law again…..
Medicines versus Supplements
The main regulations are spelled out in VMD literature, ‘a product must not be medical by claim, implication or design’ but the interpretation of what those terms mean, forms part of a second set of internal rules used to arbitrate cases and which is subject to change. I tell you what I put in my products and I tell you what herbal literature says regarding the properties of each herb, its traditional ethnobotanical usage and any drug/herb interactions or known toxicity. There may come a time when I am not allowed to do even that and you will have to do your own research into how I concoct my various supplement recipes.
Whilst it seems reasonable that the public should be protected against false claims made by manufacturers and from dangerous products or ingredients, it does seem that the nanny state over-legislates against natural products. Perhaps I am cynical when the organisation that licences products is headed by high-ranking people in drugs companies, or because natural products cannot be patented. I do think companies have the right to protect their heavy investment in research and if they have a novel product that is difficult to produce yet proven efficacious and safe they should benefit more than those who attempt to ride on their slipstream. However, to use such legislation to restrict information that is available on-line, and can be found in any library, simply because it refers to an ingredient in a product is very heavy handed.
I feel people should be free to cultivate, forage for, and make use of the wild plants around them that are classed as weeds. I am not talking rare orchids or endangered species, just common or garden cleavers, chickweed, golden rod, clover, nettles etc. We should know how to feed them to our animals and know which ones to give them if they are unwell so they can bring themselves back into balance. Many human and veterinary medicines originated from plants. Aspirin, salicylic acid, came originally from meadowsweet or white willow bark. When these form a natural part of a rabbit’s diet, to me it makes sense to feed them to a rabbit that has pain or inflammation if a vet agrees the case can be managed with these herbs.
Alfalfa, a medicinal herb in human herbal medicine and a forage liberally included in many manufactured rabbit and guinea pigs foods contains allopurinol and coumarin which can interact with medicinal drugs, especially anticoagulants. So should we ban it because of its medicinal properties?
Sadly, from the information I have received, it seems the time may come when a product is deemed ‘medicinal’ simply because it has (been designed to have) a beneficial effect, regardless of any claims made for it. If it works, it will be damned. While we are being encouraged to eat 5 pieces of fruit and vegetables per day and the Small Animal Veterinary Association is urging pet owners to feed more grass, hay and forage, it seems that feeding our animals artificially coloured extruded biscuits, urea treated straw and fish protein, which would never form part of their natural diet, is being actively encouraged by manufacturers, pet shops and even some vets.
I could just say to people “Go out and pick these plants and feed them to your animal” Unfortunately many people do not have a safe, unpolluted, natural source of these plants. I could just say to them “Well order this that and the other from a regular herbal supplier.” But buying several bottles or packets of various herbs seems a little OTT for one guinea pig that only needs a pinch or a few mls of that mixture per day for a week. As a human being I feel I have a duty and responsibility to share what I know that may be of benefit to others. Going one step further and making these plants available in various combinations in small quantities shouldn’t be a crime.
The products on sale at Galen’s are either health foods, functional foods (like fish oil in milk or Benecol in yoghurt) or topical products made from readily available natural ingredients. They are designed to complement conventional veterinary treatment, not as a substitute for it. So please, just don’t refer to them as medicines, cures or anything like that, however much you like the products and whatever you hear from others singing their praises – I could get into trouble for it and I don’t need the hassle.
The information on this site is not designed as a substitute for veterinary advice or attention and is provided on an ‘as is’ basis.