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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


John Hoare, BVSC, VetMFHom, MRCVS.
Presented to the Northern Symposium at Chester on 6th October 2001.

I would like to start with a little history to place homeopathy in context with the medical profession, then give a little theory, and end up with the 'how to use it' section.

The basic principle of homeopathy is 'Similia Similibus Curentur' - Let like be cured by like. Two great early medical writers, Hippocrates, of the Medical Oath fame (460-357BC) and Galen (130-200 AD) both mentioned Similia Similibus Curentur in their writings but both worked mainly on the Contraria Contrariis Curentur principle. That is they preferred to use a drug that had the opposite effect to the symptoms shown by the patient. Or to put it another way, they would give two of sand and one of cement to a patient with diarrhoea.

Paracelsus, 1493-1541, was the first recorded medical practitioner to suggest that the Similia principle was the most effective method of medicine, but he never developed it into a complete system of medicine. That honour was left to Dr Samuel Hahnemann (1755- 1843). He had qualified as a doctor in 1779 but retired from practice some 4 years later because he thought that he was doing more harm than good to his patients. He was a very good chemist and also a linguist. He had paid his way through medical school by acting as a translator. He was said to have been fluent in 7 languages- his native German, French, English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. He was earning a living as a Chemist/translator when in 1790 he was asked to translate Professor Cullen’s Materia Medica. Cullen was Professor of Medicine at the Edinburgh Medical School, and a Materia Medica is a book listing the medicinal properties of the drugs then in use.

Professor Cullen had claimed that the new drug of that time, Peruvian Bark - the bark of the Cinchona Tree from which we now extract quinine - was effective against the Marsh Ague (or malaria) because it was a stomachic; i.e. a drug which ‘toned’ the stomach. From his own experiences in Saxony with Marsh Ague and Peruvian Bark he knew that Peruvian Bark was effective but that the other drugs then classified as stomachics were of no use at all. In an attempt to find what it actually did Dr Hahnemann took some himself. He took 4 drams twice daily with the effect that he developed all the symptoms associated with malaria, but that these symptoms left him when he stopped taking it. He took a little more with the same effect and then asked a few of his friends to take some and record what happened to them. They all experienced the same phenomenon. They developed malaria-like symptoms while taking it and recovered when they stopped dosing themselves. Again to put things into historical perspective, 1790 was the year Spallanzani first 'saw' bacteria under a microscope, but he did not associate them with disease.

This result led Hahnemann to try taking material doses of other drugs of his day, such as White Arsenic, Phosphorus, Mercury, Belladonna, Aconite etc. He was also fortunate to have enough friends who were prepared to take these drugs and record their symptoms. He then tried giving these medicines to other people and found that they were able to cure symptoms that were similar to those that they caused. He did this for 6 years and in 1796 he wrote an essay on "A New Principle for Ascertaining the Curative Properties of Drugs". This new principle was that the only way to determine the curative powers of a drug was to give it to fit, healthy people and see what changes it brought about in the volunteers. He rationalised that if you tested it on sick people then the results would be skewed because their sickness would mask the drug’s actions. It is interesting to note that this year, 1796, was the year that Jenner was working on the use of Cow Pox to treat and prevent Small Pox. This is in itself a case of using like against like - he used a mild disease (Cow Pox) to prevent a serious disease (Small Pox).

Hahnemann continued to test, or in the language of his time ‘to prove’ (as in 100% proof spirit) more medicines. He found that if he gave a material dose of a drug to a person who was ill and whose symptoms were similar to the proving picture of the drug used, it could intensify their symptoms before they improved - the so-called homeopathic aggravation. In an attempt to avoid this, he tried giving smaller and smaller doses, but found that straight dilution reduced the healing effect as well as the aggravations. We do not know how, but somehow he stumbled on the fact that if a liquid form of the medicine was shaken violently, or succussed, each time it was diluted, then not only was the potential for an aggravation reduced but also the medicinal effect was increased.

By 1810 he had enough experience with his new method of healing to publish the first edition of "The Organon of Rational Medicine" in which he described the theory and practice of his system. He continued to attempt to improve his methods, and as they became more sophisticated he updated the book. The Organon actually went through 5 editions during Hahnemann’s lifetime. A sixth edition which he finished just before he died in 1843 was not published until 1927 due to many, mainly political, reasons.

Again to bring things into perspective, it was not until 1835 that Bassi suggested that microbes might be implicated in some diseases (he was working with turkeys), and it not until 1864 that Pasteur’s Germ Theory of Disease was proposed. To show how far in advance of the rest of the medical profession he was he wrote in the Organon in 1810 "The highest ideal of cure is the rapid, gentle and permanent restoration of health; or the removal and annihilation of the disease in its whole extent, in the shortest, most reliable, and most harmless way on easily comprehensible principles".

There are many misconceptions about homeopathy. It is not a form of Folk Medicine, nor is it a perversion of Herbalism although many of its medicines are produced from plants and minerals used by both these branches of medicine. It certainly does not work by the placebo effect. Its effects can be long lasting, and the patient will not respond to any homeopathic medicine: they react only to well chosen ones.

Homeopathy is a complete system of rational, systematic medicine with its own unique philosophy and method of preparing its medicines. This philosophy can be stated simply, "Take a hair of the dog that bit you". As Shakespeare said "In poison there is physic"; or in other words the only difference between a poison and a medicine is the amount that you take. You are all aware that if you cut yourself, provided that the cut is not too big and it does not get infected, then it will heal. Similarly if you take a sub-lethal dose of a poison you will recover. The healing force lies within you. While conventional medicine tries to suppress the physical symptoms, homeopathy tries to stimulate the natural inherent healing force of the patient. Hahnemann discovered that a very small dose of poison could help the body eliminate (or cure) any symptoms that were present in the body which were similar to those that a toxic dose of that poison could produce. (Although we are talking here about substances that are generally toxic if they are ingested, even in small quantities, it is important to appreciate that many homeopathic remedies are also made from naturally occurring, relatively benign materials such as inorganic salts and edible plants, for example).

The method of curing by homeopathy is a 4-stage procedure, that was laid down in the first edition of the Organon and which has remained the same for the last 200 years. The only thing that has changed over the years is that more medicines have been proved. The method is: -

Firstly – the physician has to 'appreciate' all that needs to be cured in the patient,

Secondly – to 'appreciate' what it is in the medicine that heals,

Thirdly – to apply the above rules so that the correct medicine is given in the right amount i.e. the smallest amount that will do the job, and repeat the dose exactly when required,

And finally – to know and remove the obstacles to cure.

The first three of these steps are obvious. The fourth one looks a little strange to us today. What exactly is an obstacle to cure? In Hahnemann’s terms obstacles to cure were all those life style factors that impinge on the health status of the patient, such as a poor diet, over indulgence in alcohol, drugs and fast living, poor ventilation, poor sanitation and poor hygiene, and damp housing. It must be remembered that he was giving this advice in 1810, i.e. before the cause of infectious disease was allocated to bacteria and viruses, and before the cholera epidemics of the 19th century had forced the Victorians to embark upon an efficient sewerage system for the cities.

If we now look at the need for the physician to 'appreciate' all that needs to be cured in the patient, homeopaths divide symptoms into 3 groups: Mental, General and Local. To the homeopath the Mental State of the patient in disease is of the utmost importance, especially if it is different from the patient’s natural state. All of you who have children will recognise the phrase " Little Jimmy must be going down with Measles, he has been very ratty for the past two days". And sure enough, when the spots come out, his behaviour returns to normal. The homeopath will therefore want to know if the patient is angry, irritable, mild or gentle; wants to be comforted or to be left alone to get on with it on his own, or any other mental state that he has. The mental state is very important because the mind leads the body into and out of a disease state.

The Generals relate to how the patient relates to the world in general. Does he prefer to be hot or cold? Does wet weather affect him and if so how? Does he have a good time of day, or is there any particular time of day that he feels at his worst? What does he like to eat, what would he not eat if he could help it, and does any foodstuff make his symptoms worse?

Local symptoms are those that doctors normally understand as symptoms, i.e. spots, wounds, coughs, colds, pains, rheumatism, arthritis etc. But these factors are looked at more intently by homeopaths than they are by doctors. Not only, for example, would a homeopath want to know where the pain was, he would also want to know how it felt - was it throbbing, aching or did it feel as if a knife had been stuck in; was it worse at any special time - before or after meals, at night, running up or down steps etc; and did anything ease the symptom e.g. rubbing the sore area, or a hot water bottle held to the site; did the patient think that anything had brought it on like being chilled or eating too much rich food? By looking at all these (and many more) factors the homeopath can get a much more precise idea of the problem than a conventional doctor is satisfied with. Those little details that are usually ignored in a GP’s surgery are of vital importance to a homeopath.

There is one more group of symptoms that delight a homeopath – those that are ‘Rare, strange and peculiar’. These are often paradoxical in nature. For example, patients with a high fever that want to smothered in blankets because they are so cold; aching joints that feel better for movement; painful areas that are better for being pressed on are all delightful pointers to a homeopath and of no concern at all in modern medicine.

After a detailed and somewhat idiosyncratic sounding history-taking session, the homeopath would combine the most relevant observations from each of these 3 groups of symptoms to create a "snapshot" or "thumbnail" of the disease process in the patient at that time. This would then be compared to the "portraits" of all the available remedies in the homeopathic materia medica to find the one that matched this "sketch" as closely as possible. This medicine – the "simillimum" (most similar) would then be given to the patient.

Having sped our way through the basics of homeopathy, we can now look at how it can be applied to chelonians. For a start there is the problem of a physical examination. Their carapace hides a multitude of organs. You can’t take a pulse; you can’t really hear the lungs filling and emptying; there isn’t much skin on which spots and other skin disorders can show themselves; nor can you feel individual organs in their abdomen. It is however possible to take blood samples and x-rays, to visualise organs by ultrasound, and to take swabs for bacterial culture from the nose and cloaca in suitable cases.

Then there is the problem of deciding what their mental state is. I expect some owners are capable of identifying elementary emotions, but I find it much harder in chelonians than in cats and dogs, and pet animals in general are more difficult than humans to categorise.

The final problem is the age-old vicious circle, which goes: -

  • My vet doesn't know much about chelonians,
  • So I don’t go to him all that often,
  • So he doesn't see very many of them,
  • So he doesn't bother to learn about them,
  • So he doesn't know much about them.

It is one of those unfortunate facets of human behaviour. You will find however that if you approach your vet from the right angle, you can stimulate him to take an interest in chelonians. I did see a reasonable number while I was in general practice, and talking purely from my own experience, here are a few tips on how you can use homeopathic medicines for the benefit of your animals.

Post-hibernation lethargy, i.e. general lethargy and loss of appetite on coming out of hibernation in the spring, can be helped a lot by using Camphora 30c. This comes in tablet form. The tablets are easily crushed, and the resultant powder is stirred into a warm bath. I would repeat the baths two or three times a day until the tortoise began to eat. The warm bathing will of course be useful as part of ‘removing obstacles to cure’ by getting the body temperature up. The indications in humans for Camphora are "Icy coldness of the body, but will not be covered; fluent coryza (nasal discharge) on sudden changes of weather; and limbs and skin feel cold. I used to take it myself when I was called out in the middle of the night in winter and I can vouch from my own experience that it does warm up the body very quickly.

Post hibernation anorexia, i.e. the patient is warm and moving about, but can’t be bothered to eat. Alfalfa tincture, one drop given several times a day, should stimulate the appetite. It is said in humans that it "tones up the appetite and digestion, resulting in greatly improved mental and physical vigour, with gain in weight; can be used where disorders are characterised by malnutrition; or where the appetite is impaired."

Mouth rot, i.e. when there is ulceration of the mouth and throat and there is thick necrotic yellow tissue/pus present, has been treated successfully by one of three medicines:

  • Calcarea fluorica (fluor spar) is suitable for most cases. The indication is ulceration of the mouth and throat, caries (bone and teeth decay) and necrosis (local death of tissues).
  • Calcarea Sulphurica (plaster of Paris) is more suited to suppurative processes where pus has found a way to the surface. The discharges are yellow, lumpy and thick.
  • Silicia (silica) is another medicine for septic/suppurative processes; diseases of bones such as necrosis and caries; and for boils on the gums.In all these cases I would use a 30c potency, and give it as a powder stirred vigorously into a warm bath twice daily.

Nasal discharges. I have treated these successfully using one of two medicines.

  • Arsenicum album (white arsenic) when the discharge is thin, watery, and excoriating (i.e. it tends to corrode the skin over which it flows).
  • Acid nitricum (nitric acid) where the discharge is either watery and extremely excoriating or when it is yellow, offensive and corrosive.
  • As in humans these are further differentiated by the fact that animals needing Arsenicum are very neat, fastidious creatures that like a set routine, while those which respond to Acid nitricum are rather spiteful, vindictive creatures. Again, administer in a warm bath, using 30c tablets, powdered and stirred vigorously into the water.

Non-dietary corneal ulcers. Talking of vicious, malicious creatures, I was once asked to treat a red-eared terrapin that had a well-developed ulcer on its cornea. The owner had been given a lot of good advice from a vet who was well versed in the husbandry of chelonians, including dietary advice, so I knew that it was not the usual vitamin deficiency that poorly kept terrapins suffer from. It was kept with another equally large specimen and the supposition was that they had been fighting. Another feature of Acid nitricum is that animals that need it feel chilly and want to be as warm as possible. This terrapin was reported to be sunbathing as much as it possibly could. It certainly wouldn’t let anyone put drops in its eyes, or administer any other form of medication. One 30c tablet was crushed and stirred into half a cupful of water, which was then added to the aquarium, fresh each day. After 5 days the ulcer was very much better. The ulcer went on to heal although it took longer than it would have done in a cat or dog.

Egg binding can often be helped by the administration of Sepia, again using a 30c potency in a warm bath. Sepia has a strong affinity for the female reproductive organs. It has many uses in female reproductive problems in all mammalian species. It certainly has a toning effect on the uterus, and can start normal contractions in the uterus. It can also be helpful in cases of uterine prolapse.

I hope that at least some of you will find my experience of the homeopathic treatment of chelonians useful.

Testudo Volume Five Number Four 2002