Humans have long depended on the natural world as the source of our most powerful treatments, from the use of sheep-gut thread to sew wounds up in ancient times, to the bacteria-killing properties of penicillin discovered in the first half of the 20th century. Yet, whether everyday or downright disgusting, some of these remedies can be pretty surprising to Western eyes. In Cambodia, for instance, cattle are sacred animals, and itÕs apparently considered quite healthy to drink cow urine. And, unbelievably enough, the techniques used for modern heart and lung transplants were partly inspired by Soviet experiments in creating two-headed dogs during the 1950s. We list our top ten strangest medical treatments involving animals.
10. Fish Psoriasis Treatments
Originating in Turkey, fish therapy is a relatively common treatment for the symptoms of skin conditions like psoriasis. The patient immerses their affected locations in mineral water containing the fish, which proceed to slough off dead skin with their mouths in their quest for food Ð a bit like a more beneficial school of piranhas! Doctor fish (Garra rufa obtusas), the species used, is believed to nibble away the dead and unhealthy skin while leaving healthy skin untouched. This practice has been banned in some of the US provinces due sanitary concerns but is still legal in the UK and other countries.
9. Bee Venom Arthritis Treatment
Bee stings may be painful, but apparently they can also soothe the joints of those affected by rheumatoid arthritis. A number of alternative medicine systems, including Chinese traditional medicine, use live bee stings to treat the condition Ð as well as shingles and eczema. Amazingly enough, a study by the University of San Paulo in 2010 found that bee venom produces higher levels of inflammation-preventing hormones, supporting claims that practitioners have been making for centuries. Their findings showed that bee stings may not only alleviate the symptoms of arthritis, but may also even prevent it from taking hold in the first place!
8. Snake Massage
Anyone interested in a really unconventional massage should check out Ms. Ada BarakÕs snake salon in Israel, which offers clients a sensual back rub from up to six serpents at once. Various species are used, including California and Florida king snakes, corn snakes, and milk snakes, with the larger species being used to treat deep muscle cramps and pain and their smaller counterparts to create a ÒflutteringÓ effect. Ms. Barak said that she got the idea from observing that her friends tended to become more relaxed after holding her collection of snakes for an extended period of time. At $70 a session, itÕs also a bit cheaper than some of the other therapies on this list!
7. Maggot Debridement Therapy
In maggot debridement therapy, fly larvae are placed in a wound, where they secrete digestive juices that break down dead flesh while leaving healthy tissues intact. Throughout history, many cultures have used this treatment, from ancient Aboriginal tribes, to surgeons of the Napoleonic era and American Civil War period. As disgusting as it may look, this form of therapy is gaining ground again amongst physicians, thanks to its efficiency in cleaning wounds. A study carried out in Caen, France in 2012 found that patients’ wounds treated with maggots were cleansed significantly faster and had less dead tissue than those treated with more conventional methods, and with no increase in pain. Anecdotal reports that maggots provide significant healing or antibacterial benefits have yet to be supported by scientific evidence, however.
6. Dolphin Therapy
Dolphins are symbols of peace and serenity in many cultures. Small wonder, then, that the act of bonding with them is now used as a treatment for some forms of mental illness. A study by the University of Leicester in 2005 showed that playing in the water with ÒFlipperÓ and his buddies in short sessions over a period of two weeks can provide significant benefits for patients with depression. The treatment has also been used for autistic children who have problems with verbal communication. Interacting with animals can help to alter the dysfunctional social patterns of people with depression, so itÕs not surprising that spending time with one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet can help to raise someoneÕs mood.
5. Ant Mandible Sutures
The heads of African driver ants boast mandibles that act as seriously strong natural pincers. Presumably for hundreds of years, traditional medicine has been taking advantage of this fact to close open wounds. To put the sutures in place, the healer holds the edges of the gash together and then places the antÕs head lengthwise against the wound. The insectÕs natural instinct is to bite down, which closes the gash, and the healer then twists and breaks off the rest of the body. This very efficient, if primitive, form of emergency medicine is still practiced even today.
Bloodletting with leeches was a very common treatment in medieval and early modern medicine. It was used to prevent inflammation of wounds, relieve fevers, and to treat practically every other kind of ailment. Sessions of bloodletting were often continued until the sufferer had fainted or was on the verge of falling unconscious. Famously, as a cure it was spectacularly harmful, generally causing as many problems to patients as the original condition. However, leeching has now been reintroduced in certain circumstances; for example, as a way of removing congested blood from a finger that has been reattached. It is more effective than many other forms of medical treatment because the leech secretes chemicals with anti-clotting agents, which prevent blood vessels from closing up and atrophying.
3. Fish Swallowing for Asthma
Another fish-related cure is practiced by the Bathini Goud brothers in India, who every year treat thousands of visitors with their patented asthma medication Ð administered in the mouth of a live murrel fish. The herbal medicine is a family secret that (so the legend claims) was originally given to the brothersÕ grandfather by a Hindu holy man more than 160 years ago. The movements of the small fish are meant to help alleviate phlegm in the nose and throat and help ease congestion. Three successive cycles of the medicine are prescribed normally, and they are administered 15 days apart. Traditional, maybe, but we still find it pretty hard to swallow!
2. Terrapin Healing
As previously mentioned, animals such as cows are associated with healing in Cambodia and are used in a number of different traditional forms of medicine. Terrapins also feature prominently in many Cambodian treatments, both as the ingredients for remedies and in more mystical ways. Why? Because they are believed to be able to cure rheumatism and other bodily ailments by touch. In this picture, a turtle is held to the mouth of a villager in the Kandal province. It is estimated that more than a third of CambodiaÕs native species are used in remedies, but many of the animals are threatened or high priorities for conservation. ItÕs a shame so many traditional cures involve killing the creatures for medicine that may have little more than a placebo effect.
1. Diabetes-Attack Preventing Dogs
One well-known fact about dogs is that some of their senses are significantly more acute than those of their human companions. But did you know that manÕs best friend can also detect the symptoms of a diabetic attack? Diabetes Alert Dogs (DADs) can tell from their ownerÕs odor whether their blood sugar is too low or too high, and are trained to warn them either by fetching a special stick or fetching the diabetes kit and bringing it to their owner. This is especially useful for the care of young children who might not wake up if they enter hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia during the night. What’s more, it saves mom and dad from having to set the alarm clock to check on them every couple of hours.