The UK’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) has taken the long-overdue step of requiring people selling alternative therapy products for prevention and treatment of diseases in animals to actually show that the products are safe and do what they claim. The effort includes products like homeopathic nosodes, nutraceuticals and herbal preparations.

Historically, alternative medicines have received little regulatory scrutiny, and manufacturers have blatantly disregarded rules about what they can and can’t say about their products. As a result, many products have claims of safety and effectiveness that are not based on any evidence whatsoever. While this may simply result in people wasting money in many situations, there are concerns that the products could actually do harm in some cases, and that some people may use untested "alternative" treatments instead of proven traditional therapeutics. In these situations, using poor quality ineffective products can obviously also harm an animal’s health.  Since the alternative medicine industry has shown an obvious lack willingness to self-regulate, the government is required to step in.

It’s hard to say how aggressive the VMD will be, and it’s likely that it will take some time to straighten out the false advertising. To start, the VMD will be contacting manufacturers to request proof of safety and evidence supporting any health claims that they make.

This doesn’t mean that these products will be banned. While there are basically no studies supporting the effectiveness of close to all of these products, they are not being taken away from consumers. Rather, the key is making sure the label claims are accurate so consumers can make a better informed choice. If a product hasn’t been shown to cure disease X, it shouldn’t say on the label that it does. If manufacturers don’t want to do the studies to show effectiveness, they can still sell the product, they just can’t make these claims on the label. Assessing safety is tougher, since these products typically lack any safety trials, and it’s unclear what degree of safety testing/evidence the VMD will require.

This is a welcome change. Alternative therapies are still therapies. It doesn’t matter if they are herbal, otherwise "natural" or manufactured. They can be (or contain) powerful substances and it should be the legal (and ethical) duty of manufacturers to properly test and advertise their products. Only with good quality control and proper research will we be able to understand the role of alternative therapies in patient care.

In the interim (to bring this back to an infectious disease-focused post), it is critical that unproven therapies not be used in place of standard approaches when dealing with the treatment or prevention of infectious diseases. Using these products as supplemental therapies is usually fine. Just don’t risk a pet’s health using unproven treatments alone when better-investigated options are available.