Homeopathy: An Alternative Theory of Medicine

Homeopathy: A radically different (and controversial) system of medicine.


In the late 1700s, a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann discovered that China, a precursor for the quinine that was being used to treat malaria, actually caused symptoms of malaria when administered to a healthy person. Hahnemann made this discovery while translating a medical text on various drugs. He suspected that the source of China’s curative power had been misunderstood and he decided to give himself small doses of the substance to test his theory.

Hahnemann discovered that small doses of China produced in his healthy body malaria-like symptoms that abated after two or three hours. In thus observing that a drug will cause in a healthy person the same symptoms it cures in a sick one, Hahnemann gained the key insight that drugs cure diseases to which they bear marked similarities. Hahnemann called this new principle Similia similibus curentur – “Let likes be cured with likes,” or, more simply, “Like cures like.” Homeopathic physicians refer to this as the Law of Similars.

Hahnemann eventually tested this principle with about 100 different substances. The tests, called provings, consistently bore out the truth of his theory. Today there are 1,350 recognized homeopathic medicines or remedies, as they are commonly called.

How it works
The term homeopathy, which means “similar suffering,” points to the key difference between this system of healing and allopathy (“opposite suffering”) – what we think of as conventional Western medicine. Allopathy seeks to eliminate health problems by overpowering and negating them. Thus, infections are treated with antibiotics, allergies with antihistamines, and so forth.

But instead of trying to thwart the expression of disease the body is experiencing, homeopathy seeks to assist the body in working out the illness. “Homeopathy’s beauty,” writes Dr. Richard Pitcairn, one of the earliest proponents of veterinary homeopathy in this country, “is that the treatment provided goes with rather than against the body’s own efforts to regain health.”

And while Western medicine treats each symptom separately, homeopathy looks at the whole picture – at the individual as a whole being. “Do not say that the patient is sick because he has a white swelling,” wrote James Tyler Kent, one of the giants of homeopathy, “but that the white swelling is there because the patient is sick.”

A Western veterinarian, faced with a dog with three separate symptoms, will typically prescribe two or three drugs. A homeopath will say, “This dog has one illness being manifested in these three ways; now let us find the one homeopathic remedy that will help the dog make himself well.”

Symptoms are not the disease
If Western medicine succeeds in eliminating the symptoms, the patient is said to be cured. Homeopathy, by contrast, says that symptoms simply represent the disease, or, more precisely, the body’s effort to rid itself of the disease. Eliminating the symptoms alone will not eliminate the disease.

Since homeopathy views each individual as unique, a veterinary homeopath will look for what sets your dog apart from others with similar symptoms. The physician will then know how to treat your dog, not just to alleviate his symptoms, but to restore the health of the whole animal.

Homeopathy draws a clear distinction between acute and chronic disease. Acute disease, says veterinary homeopath and educator Christina Chambreau, DVM, is disease “that ends in either death or recovery.” Acute diseases can range from an upset stomach caused by a raid on the garbage to parvovirus. Chronic disease, Chambreau says, is “any disease that the vital force is not able to eliminate by itself.” Skin problems are classic cases of chronic disease. Minor acute illnesses can often be treated at home. Chronic problems always require the assistance of a trained homeopath.

Another central tenet of homeopathy is that disease moves, from less vital to more vital organs. Untreated or suppressed skin problems, for instance, can reliably be expected to migrate inward, to the liver, for example, or the kidneys, or eventually the brain. Homeopaths believe conventional veterinary medicine actually endangers the health of our animals through its many treatments that suppress signs of illness; the classic example is the administration of immuno-suppressive corticosteroids that make an itchy, allergic dog stop scratching himself. The corticosteroids don’t actually get rid of the allergy, just the dog’s response.

What does all this mean for you and your dog? First, that for non-life-threatening, acute illnesses – bumps and bruises and the like – homeopathy offers a safe, effective means of treatment at home. Second, for chronic illnesses, homeopathy can often cure the problem and will not drive it into the body. Third, according to homeopaths, chronic, nagging problems like skin disorders may well be suggestive of deep-seated illness that needs to be addressed.

Homeopathy and “vital force”
Sounds great so far, right? But here’s where we start to lose people. Because unlike conventional drugs, homeopathic remedies work at the level of energy, not matter. Hahnemann discovered that substances given in unaltered form were often too harsh, so he experimented with diluting and agitating them. He found that the more the substances were diluted and agitated, the more powerful they became.

This apparent paradox goes to the heart of homeopathy. Homeopaths believe each individual has an enlivening, animating force, called the vital force. Illnesses signify a disruption – a “dis-ease” – in this vital force. The theory goes that homeopathy helps the vital force reestablish itself. “It works in the same direction as the vital force and not against it,” writes human homeopath George Vithoulkas.

“The goal of homeopathic treatment is to touch disease at its deepest level, that of the vital force, thereby [causing] change in the fundamental health of the sick individual,” explains homeopathic veterinarian Don Hamilton in his recent book, Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs: Small Doses for Small Animals. Homeopathic remedies are produced by a method of dilution and succussion called potentization. The process begins by taking one part of the material substance – which can be anything from tree barks to snake venoms, metals; practically anything on earth – and diluting it in alcohol.

Not a “dose-response” relationship
There are two types of potencies, or strengths: decimal potencies, in which the initial solution consists of one part substance to nine parts alcohol (“1X”), and centesimal potencies, which have one part substance to 99 parts alcohol (“1C”). The beginning solution is shaken vigorously (succussed). One part of the resulting dilution can be diluted and succussed again; the result this time is 2X or 2C. The process can be repeated any number of times.

This is where credulity is often strained among those new to homeopathy, as it certainly is among conventional medical practitioners. How can there be any healing matter left in something that’s been diluted so many times? First, homeopaths would explain that though none of the original substance is present in the remedy, what remains is the energy from the original substance, an energy that’s been enhanced rather than diminished by the process of potentization. The practical demonstration of this truth lies in the fact that high-potency remedies are available only by prescription.

The fact that no material part of the original substance remains violates one of the most widely known principles of modern pharmacology, the “dose-response relationship,” which predicts that the larger the dose, the more pronounced the response to it will be. But, according to Dr. Pitcairn, “The dose-response relationship doesn’t explain all drug interactions. There are substances that have very different and sometimes opposite effects when given to patients in various dosages; when you understand that, homeopathy becomes easier to understand.”

Pitcairn explains a lesser-known principle, something called “Arndtz Law,” which describes a phenomenon whereby weak stimuli excites a strong physiological response and very strong stimuli arrests it. “In homeopathy, this principle has far more importance than it would in conventional pharmacology, where they look for what they call ‘the therapeutic dose,’ the largest (beneficial) dose the body can tolerate.”

Taking the gentle way
“The highest ideal of cure,” Hahnemann said, “is the rapid, gentle and permanent restoration of health, or removal and annihilation of the disease in its whole extent, in the shortest, most reliable, and most harmless way . . .” In fact, gentleness is a central aspect of homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies can even be given to very weak or young animals.

“The goal of treatment,” explains homeopathic veterinarian Christine Crosley, “is to increase the overall well-being of the animal.” Sometimes a single remedy, administered once, will effect a cure. Partial cures – where a remedy improves some but not all of the symptoms – can also occur. A second remedy can then be chosen to continue the cure.

Suppressions, by contrast, are dangerous, since they knock out the apparent symptoms but drive the disease into more vital areas of the body. Strong (not homeopathic) drugs and surgery are the most common causes of suppression, Hamilton says.

Today’s homeopathic veterinarians say, generally, that any type of disease can be cured with homeopathy, so long as it’s possible to assess the patient’s condition correctly and determine the proper remedy. It’s very difficult, though, to achieve cure once critical pathological damage to organs has taken place. It can also be difficult and time-consuming to cure conditions that have been complicated by years of intensive conventional treatment.

Your dog’s first visit
A homeopathic veterinarian will ask unusual questions, and lots of them. Remember, he or she is looking for what makes your dog’s condition unique. The more information you can provide, the better.

What is your dog’s personality? Is he sensitive to noises or changes in the weather? Are his symptoms different at different times of the day or year? Is one side of his body worse than the other? With his physical complaints, what makes them better or worse? Does he seek heat or cold to relieve his pain? Does he feel better when still or when moving around? Does he prefer to be comforted or to be left alone? All of these signs will be taken into account by the practitioner when choosing a remedy.

If your dog has a stomach complaint, you’ll need to describe it in detail. Not just that he has diarrhea, but what is the color and consistency? Is it accompanied with gas? If he’s been vomiting, when? What does it look like? How much does he drink – a little or a lot? If he gets cut (for instance, when you clip his nails), is there much bleeding? You’ll need to describe any skin problems he’s had, including tumors, warts, odors, even dandruff. Your veterinarian will also want to know, if your dog has been treated conventionally for this problem, what his symptoms were like before that treatment began.

When your veterinarian has finished asking questions, she’ll synthesize the information and look in a large set of books (or, possibly, a computer program) called a homeopathic repertory to see which of the hundreds of remedies best fits your dog. The repertory, which is simply an exhaustive listing of symptoms (“rubrics”) by category, will name many remedies that may fit the general picture of your dog’s illness.

Each of the remedies has its own description. These are found in the homeopathic Materia Medica (Latin for “materials of medicine”). This multi-volume work is a listing of all the homeopathic remedies and detailed descriptions of the symptoms they have induced in provings on healthy individuals. This tells the homeopath what symptoms they will cure in a sick one.

Search for the simillimum
All of your dog’s symptoms don’t have to fit the remedy that’s chosen, but most of them should. This is where the veterinary homeopath will attempt to match your dog’s symptoms and condition (the “symptom picture”) to those of a particular remedy (the “remedy picture”). The remedy that perfectly matches your dog’s symptoms is called the simillimum.

A couple of things will help narrow down the search. First, some symptoms have characteristics, or keynotes, that point directly to a specific remedy or group of remedies. Second, your veterinarian will look for characteristic symptoms – symptoms that set your dog apart from others with the same complaint. “Strange, rare, and peculiar symptoms” are even more telling; these are symptoms that are peculiar in the situation – for example, a dog with a chill who throws off a blanket, or a feverish dog who lies in the sun and refuses to drink.

Clearly, then, your role as guardian is tremendously important in securing proper homeopathic treatment for your dog. The dogs that are the best candidates for cures, says Crosley, are those who are cared for by people who are very observant, can be specific about their dog’s behavior and patient with the healing process, and will provide good supportive care.

“They need to be involved, they need to see details, they need to be able to talk about how the animal is different sick versus well,” Crosley says. “I can’t ask the animal, because the animal can’t tell me.”

Watching your dog heal
Just as disease proceeds along certain paths, so does cure. It has long been observed that homeopathic cures proceed in several predictable ways: first, from the inside out (internal problems heal before external ones do); second, from top to bottom, with the head healing first; and third, from most important to least important organs. Finally, symptoms tend to be cured in the reverse order from which they appeared (newer symptoms go away before older ones do). A corollary is that symptoms that have been suppressed in the past will often reappear during the process of cure.

Why is this principle of cure important? First, it gives you an easy way to track your dog’s recovery. Second, without this understanding it’s easy to misinterpret your dog’s symptoms as a negative response to homeopathic treatment. If he’s being treated for an internal ailment and suddenly develops a rash, you need to understand this as a positive development. If instead you apply a salve to make the rash go away, homeopaths believe, you will simply drive the disease back into his body.

Once your veterinarian has decided which remedy to prescribe, the second part begins. Again, much will seem unfamiliar. In classical homeopathy, only one remedy is administered at a time. Your dog may receive one dose of this remedy or several, but generally, the number of doses is far fewer than those what you would expect with a conventional drug. Be sure to follow your vet’s administration instructions exactly.

You will then be called upon to observe your dog – again, not just in general terms (“Is he getting better?”), but specifically and in detail. If he was fearful before, is he less so now? Is he eating more or less? Has the discharge from his ear changed? and so forth. It will help the doctor if you keep notes, including dates and times, when you make specific observations. Above all, don’t administer any medicines or undertake any other treatment – even other holistic treatments like herbs or acupuncture – without first consulting your homeopathic veterinarian. Since homeopathy works by nudging the vital force in the right direction and then seeing how it responds, it is crucial not to introduce anything that would interfere with the picture.

Most homeopathic veterinarians have worked with clients who didn’t understand how crucial this is. “People are not used to working with a health care provider who’s interactive,” says Karen Komisar, DVM, president of the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy. “Your homeopathic physician wants to be kept abreast of everything that’s going on with your dog.”

By noting the changes the initial remedy brings about, your vet will decide what to do next. The first remedy may spark changes that will call for a second to be administered after a time. But homeopathic healing is deep healing and does not happen overnight. One key guideline is that the timeframe for onset of the disease is usually mirrored in the timeframe for recovery.

The healing crisis
Two things may happen during treatment that could throw you off guard. The first is a healing crisis or aggravation – a temporary worsening of symptoms. Healing crises often take place during treatment of chronic conditions, but paradoxically, the animal may actually appear to feel better generally even though his symptoms seem worse. If your dog gets worse during the course of treatment, call your veterinarian.

Another possibility is the appearance or reappearance of outer illnesses such as skin problems. A dog with kidney or liver disease may have an outbreak of skin rash as the internal disease heals – especially if the internal disease was created by conventional treatment of a skin problem that pushed the illness inside. This means that Hering’s Law of Cure is in motion, and is a very good sign, though it may not seem like it at the time!

With skin problems especially, great patience is required to achieve a cure. As Hamilton explains carefully in his book, the skin represents a fairly safe way for the body to express illness. It’s a large organ, so there’s lots to work with, and it’s also fairly non-critical compared to the liver, kidneys, heart, and brain. As a result, lots of disease shows up in the skin. But if the disease is suppressed there, it will inevitably make its way elsewhere and attack a more vital region of the body.

That’s why it’s crucial to wait it out, to give homeopathy a chance to work.

Next month: Finding a qualified homeopathic practitioner (we suggest only veterinarians trained as homeopaths), and what you can and can’t treat safely at home.

-By Debbie Stover

Debbie Stover is a freelance writer from St. Loius, Missouri. This is her first contribution to WDJ.