Though herbal remedies often have an aura of being somehow fundamentally different from drugs used as medicines, they are really just collections of chemical compounds. As such, they ought to be evaluated just as conventional pharmaceuticals are: identification and isolation of active compounds, in vitro experiments establishing potential beneficial and harmful effects, in vivo studies looking at absorption, metabolism, and safety, and finally well-controlled clinical trials escalating in size and complexity to determine safety and effectiveness in the target species and disease conditions. There is no reason such remedies cannot be effective therapies, but there is also no reason to assume they are safe or effective without following these steps. For a variety of practical and philosophical reasons, unfortunately, many potentially useful herbal products are not properly tested, and their use is based on much less reliable foundations, such as folk tradition and personal experience.
Therefore, I always appreciate it when I see important and necessary, though often not glamorous, preclinical research on such remedies. This kind of research can be invaluable in guiding us towards or away from specific remedies, though it is only one piece of the puzzle and cannot definitively confirm or refute the potential usefulness of specific herbal products. An abstract being presented at the upcoming American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum presents the data from just such a laboratory study.
M. Daniels; J.W. Bartges; D.M. Raditic; C.A. Kirk; A. Callens; S. Marsden; G. Galyon
Evaluation of 3 Herbal Compounds Used for Management of Lower Urinary Tract Disease in Cats
The study evaluated three herbal products to see if they increased urine volume or changed the chemical constitution of the urine in was believed to reduce the risk of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), a common and uncomfortable condition in cats. 6 healthy cats were used in the study, and they were randomly assigned to be given each of three products or a placebo in turn: San Ren Tang, Wei Ling Tang, and Alisma. A 24-hour urine sample was collected and analyzed after 2 weeks of treatment with each product for each cat. None of the products showed a significant difference from the placebo in any variable measured.
I am not familiar with the basis on which these products are recommended for FLUTD, so I cannot evaluate the plausibility of the underlying theory. However, the products are herbal remedies within the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach, and I have already discussed elsewhere the principles of TCM and why they are fundamentally inconsistent with a scientific approach to medicine. Individual herbal products undoubtedly have active chemical compounds, both from the plant ingredients and often deliberate or accidental contaminants, but without proper scientific evaluation there is no valid way to designate specific products as treatments for specific conditions or to evaluate their safety and efficacy.
This study was not intended, of course, to definitively answer the question of whether these herbal preparations are safe or beneficial for cats with FLUTD. The particular urine characteristics measured are known to play a role in the risk of developing FLUTD symptoms, but there are other risk factors, and the precise steps leading to the condition in individual cats are not clearly understood. So these products could conceivably be beneficial even if they do not influence the variables looked at in this study. However, given the apparent lack of a sound scientific rationale for using them, and the lack of a plausible mechanism or established preclinical effects, such remedies cannot be routinely recommended. And given the limited resources available for research into new veterinary therapies, it seems it would be most efficient to focus those resources on therapies that seem promising on the basis of established scientific knowledge, rather than the far less reliable criteria of traditional use. Studies on herbal remedies should, therefore, focus on developing this important preclinical knowledge before proceeding with clinical trials.