Much of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is offered either as an addition to conventional, science-based treatment or in situations in which conventional therapies are unavailable or ineffective. This doesn’t excuse offering treatments that haven’t been properly tested, and it doesn’t mean such therapies can’t do harm. However, such an approach at least avoids the harm that can come from delaying or rejecting effective treatment.
However, sometimes CAM providers actually believe their practices are an appropriate and effective substitute for conventional medicine, even in the case of serious disease. This attitude is truly inexcusable when, as is usually the case, there is no sound evidence to support the belief and when irrational and inaccurate denigration of conventional treatments is used to scare people away from medicine that could really help their pets. One of the most egregious examples of this kind of irresponsible medicine is the promotion of “natural” or “holistic” methods for preventing and treating heartworm disease in dogs.
Heartworm disease is a parasitic infestation transmitted from infected dogs (or other animals) to uninfected individuals by specific kinds of mosquitos. It is, of course, most common in areas that have both a reservoir of infected hosts and a population of the right kind of mosquitos. In the U.S., heartworm disease is quite common in warm, humid regions, and transmission often varies seasonally with the mosquito population. Heartworms can cause devastating, often fatal disease.
Fortunately, there are safe and effective medicines to prevent heartworm infestation. While all medications have risks as well as benefits, the risks of these preventatives are well understood and very, very small. Certainly, in areas where heartworm disease is endemic, the risk of preventatives pales in comparison to the risk of the disease. So despite the often hysterical nonsense about these “chemicals” and “insecticides,” the real facts are clear: heartworm prevention is safe and effective and far better for your pet than getting heartworm disease.
If your dog is unfortunate enough to become infected with heartworms, there are effective treatments. The risk of treatment is, however, significantly higher than the risk of prevention, though in most cases still far less than the risk of leaving the disease untreated. The American Heartworm Society (AHS) has a thorough discussion of the pros and cons of different treatment options, and working with your veterinarian you can almost certainly cure this disease and minimize the risks of treatment.
The AHS is also very clear about alternative therapies for this disease: “No “natural” or herbal therapies have been shown to be safe and effective prevention or treatment for heartworm disease.” And fortunately, many proponents of alternative therapies also recognize that no CAM therapies have been shown safe and effective for preventing or treating this disease. The most popular veterinary herbal medicine textbook states, “The authors do not recommend substituting an unproven herbal formula for effective conventional therapy.” Even as radical a proponent of alternative therapies as Dr. Karen Becker at mercola.com grudgingly agrees that,“treatment for heartworm infection is one area where conventional veterinary medicine offers valuable options [and] is preferable to leaving the dog untreated, or using unproven, alternative methods that may have no effect or even be harmful.”
Unfortunately, there are still plenty of unscrupulous companies, and sadly even veterinarians, willing to exaggerate the risks of conventional prevention and treatment and claim that unproven alternatives are safe and effective. Below is a long list of sites promoting unproven methods of preventing or treating heartworm disease. None of these have been demonstrated to be legitimate or reliable, and trusting your dog’s life to any of them is a dangerous mistake.