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The Ruff Report: Dogs and Health

Beware of these alternative pet medical treatments

Alternative health care approaches - such as herbal medicine, acupuncture and using a dog's tongue to help diagnose disease - are unproven and could lead to dire consequences for the health of pets, researchers say.

These Chinese medical techniques can sometimes be helpful, but those who use them exclusively and disregard traditional medicine are putting their pets at risk, a Colorado State University study concludes.

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"While complementary medicine can often benefit animals when approached rationally and judiciously, this study emphasizes that relying as heavily as some do on folkloric methods such as Chinese tongue diagnosis and probably other methods as well, such as pulse diagnosis, is not in the animal's best interest," Narda G. Robinson, a veterinarian and professor at Colorado State University, states in a media release.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the appearance of the tongue is a critical part of a dog's examination.

No evidence has been found that supports the reliability of using "folkloric" Chinese tongue diagnosis to identify cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal pain or other health problems, Dr. Robinson said. "Without scientific evidence attesting to its reliability in pointing to internal disease states, tongue diagnosis may lead veterinarians to erroneous conclusions and improper treatment."

For the study, researchers photographed the tongues of 100 randomly selected, spontaneously panting dogs. They compared the photographs with the dogs' medical histories, specifically looking for evidence of cardiovascular disease. According to Chinese medicine, a relationship exists between abnormalities of the tongue tip, such as a curled or split tip, and a history of cardiovascular disease.

"People should not begin to assume that if a dog has a split in the tip of the tongue that the dog also has heart problems, because what we found is that if a dog had an abnormal tongue tip, the odds of him or her having cardiovascular disease were no better than a coin toss, at 50 percent," Dr. Robinson said.

"Tongue diagnosis for cardiovascular disease may be used as an initial assessment tool, but should not be relied upon for an accurate diagnosis. A diagnosis based solely on examination of the tongue tips is an insufficient method," she said.

Researchers also looked at the tongues of 99 dogs for a correlation to a Chinese medical diagnosis called "painful obstruction syndrome," or "bony bi." The syndrome is a chronic condition from prolonged obstruction in the joints, often causing pain and bone deformities. Dogs with osteoarthritis, intervertebral disk disease, dysplasia, spondylosis, discospondylitis, chronic stiffness, pain and muscle weakness or atrophy fall into the bony bi category.

Chinese medicine relies on an evaluation of the color, cracks and spirit - or the vitality and suppleness - of tongues to diagnose bony bi. Thin and flaccid tongues and diffuse cracks in the tongues were more prevalent in dogs with bony bi.

However, researchers say, cracks may merely indicate changes in the tongue muscle that occur as a dog ages; as muscle bulk and tone decline elsewhere in the body.

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"Although the study found some correlations between cracks and low spirit with dogs with bony bi, tongue appearance varied widely among dogs affected with bony bi," Dr. Robinson said. "That indicates that using the tongue to diagnose bony bi syndrome is somewhat subjective. A much more definitive approach in this day and age would include a palpation examination and gait analysis, as well as radiographs when indicated."

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