Asiatic bear

If you’re like most animal lovers, you care about animals around the globe in addition to your own. This probably extends to those kept in cages for life and exploited for their bodily fluids, or wild animals that are being hunted by poachers for their bones, horns or fur. You may seek to live sustainably and purchase locally grown products when possible. You may even pursue holistic or integrative medicine for your dog or cat, which may involve Chinese herbs, in order to reduce the synthesized drugs he or she ingests and the negative impact of some pharmaceuticals on their bodies and the planet. If so, I have some questions for you to think about.

Q: Does your holistic veterinarian sell Chinese herbs and, if so, do you realize that they may contain endangered species, worms or insects?

A: If not, you also might have missed that Chinese folkloric herbal prescribing has traditionally involved heavy metals and toxins. Even if you buy them from your veterinarian, many traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM) “herbal” products made and sold in the U.S. and abroad have violated CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) rules. These have been instituted in order to prevent threats to the survival of wild species of animals and plants.

One would think this would worry certain “holistic” veterinarians who routinely sell Chinese “herbs,” but TCVM folkloric practices have become big business in the U.S. and Europe, nonetheless. What’s worse, TCVM veterinarians are trained to sell proprietary products — that is, mixtures prepared by a traditional Chinese medicine “master” that contain secret ingredients — despite having little information about safety, mechanisms of action, interactions, side effects, manufacturing standards, ecological risks or public health concerns.

Q: Considering the Food and Drug Administration scrutiny that compounding pharmacies receive for the drugs they produce, how can anyone in the U.S. compound and sell pharmacologically active, even toxic, mixtures, not disclose their contents, and base the recipe on whatever plants, mammals, worms, insects or toxins he or she sees fit to include? How is this practice ethical or wise?1

A: Sorry, I cannot answer this, as I cannot even figure this out myself!

Likely, your veterinarian either doesn’t know or may prefer to ignore the fact that the traditional Chinese medicine “master” that he purchases products from not only often places problematic ingredients in them but also keeps the amount of them secret. This flies in the face of good medicine and ethics. If someone becomes ill as a result of the so-called herb, how should an emergency doctor or veterinarian treat that patient? How can a veterinarian anticipate interactions with medications when the contents are unknown?

You should not tolerate this. In fact, you should inform your veterinarian that these matters concern you and you will not purchase products with anything but plants that have been tested, proven safe for your animal and whose quantities appear on the label with complete disclosure of their sources.

Q: Would you approve of your dog or cat ingesting scorpions, earthworms or toxic plants such as strychnine? What about sea horses, dog penis, tiger bone and rhino horn?

A: Likely not. You would also probably be concerned if the bile in the so-called Chinese herb came from a bear that lived his entire life in a small cage with a tube in his gallbladder, in egregiously inhumane conditions. Most of these horribly treated individuals die from chronic infections or cancer of the liver.2

Q: What non-botanical ingredients appear in the pills, capsules and powders called Chinese herbs?

A: Species considered “vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered” include Asiatic black bear (used for their bile) and Saiga antelope (targeted for their horns), along with tiger, rhinoceros and sea horse, to name just a few. Some harbor parts from fur seal, musk deer, dogs, cows, goats, water buffalo and other domestic animals.

Veterinary proprietary TCVM products routinely contain bee, mantis, earthworm, turtle, scorpion, silkworm, cicada and a host of plant toxins, including herbal strychnine (yes, and in undisclosed amounts).3

Q: Is there any scientific evidence that animal and insect products used in Chinese mixtures do any good for the individual ingesting them?

A: Very little, if any.4

Q: Is there any hope that these practices can be stopped?

A: Fortunately, yes. New methods of investigation and environmental protection have come about as genetic tests become available that can detect and identify contents in traditional Chinese medicines.5 This will help expose when a mixture contains a toxic or endangered species product. However, the economic forces driving wildlife poaching and unethical farming are daunting. We have to take a stand against these practices!

Q: How can I help?

A: Consider supporting organizations such as TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, or other wildlife groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund. Don’t accept a prescription of Chinese herbs from any veterinarian without fully understanding the source, amount, safety and proof of effectiveness of the product.


Sustainability in medicine, whether human or animal, should become a guiding principle for health care providers, in addition to serving patients with the utmost ethics and informed, scientifically based health care.6 We must not forget the impact of our health care choices, even the “holistic” ones, on the planet and its sentient as well as botanical inhabitants.


1. American Veterinary Medical Association website. Principles of veterinary medical ethics of the AVMA. “It is unethical for veterinarians to promote, sell, prescribe, dispense, or use secret remedies or any other product for which they do not know the ingredients.” Accessed on 05/30/13.

2. Feng Y, Siu K, Wang N, et al. Bear bile: dilemma of traditional medicinal use and animal protection. J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2009;Jan 12;5:2. doi: 10.1186/1746-4269-5-2.

3. Xie H. Chinese Veterinary Herbal Handbook, 2nd edition. Chi Institute of Chinese Medicine, 2008. (A description of products sold by Jing Tang Herbal Company.)

4. Still J. Use of animal products in traditional Chinese medicine: environmental impact and health hazards. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2003;11:118-122.

5. Coghlan ML, Haile J, Houston J, Murray DC, White NE, et al. Deep Sequencing of Plant and Animal DNA Contained Within Traditional Chinese Medicines Reveals Legality Issues and Health Safety Concerns. PLoS Genet. 2012; 8(4): e1002657. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1002657.

6. Lin JH, Kaphle K, Wu LS, et al. Sustainable veterinary medicine for the new era. Rev Sci Tech. 2003;22(3):949-964.

You may also be interested in these Vetstreet articles about conservation and alternative medicine.