From sceptic to enthusiast in use of aloe vera - Veterinary Practice
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From sceptic to enthusiast in use of aloe vera

PETE WEDDERBURN talks to David Urch, formerly in practice in the West Country, who advocates the use of aloe vera to treat a wide range of ailments and to promote healing and good health in animals

DAVID Urch is an enthusiastic proponent of the use of aloe vera in the treatment of animals.

His definitive textbook on the subject (Aloe Vera: Nature’s Gift published by Blackdown Publications in 1999) includes an introduction by Lord Soulsby, who stressed that many of our modern medicines have had their basis in traditional herbal remedies.

Aloe vera has a long history of medicinal use, being mentioned by the ancient Egyptians and used in traditional Chinese medicine. The plant features in the coat of arms of the RCVS, a reflection of the fact that back in 1844, when the RCVS was founded, aloe vera was in widespread use in veterinary practice.

With the advent of antibiotics and other modern therapeutics, aloe vera fell out of favour. More recently, with increasing interest in complementary treatments and herbal medicine, as well as research into the active ingredients of aloe vera, the plant is making a comeback. David Urch is the vet at the hub of this resurgence.

You might imagine that David would be an unlikely supporter of alternative treatments: the son of a Somerset dairy farmer, his first degree was a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in physiology and nutrition from the University of Leeds, followed by a veterinary degree from Cambridge in 1980.

He worked in mixed practice in Somerset for two years before establishing his own practice in what he describes as “clean animals”: small animal and equine. Within a few years, David had five branches in the Bristol area.

He had competed for many years in cross country and show jumping, so he found it easy to acquire a strong equine client list. He had a farm where he based his equine operating theatre and he also bred competition horses. On top of this, his veterinary nurse wife Ginny did livery for 50 horses.

The fateful day

David’s life changed in 1991 when he was driving to a horse call: he was in a head-on collision with a truck when it skidded out of control coming down the hill towards him. His neck and back were badly damaged and he was off work for two years. When he started back, he did small animal work only.

He continued to suffer from serious back pain despite using high levels of conventional pain-relieving drugs which caused him gastrointestinal issues.

A client had been pestering him for some time to try drinking “cactus juice” to relieve his symptoms and eventually he agreed to try it, if only to make this person leave him in peace.

He drank aloe vera gel for a few weeks and noticed no improvement, so he stopped, his scepticism justified by the lack of results. However, he had not counted on the client’s persistence: she managed to convince him to drink the gel again, for a full two-month trial.

The company which supplies it offers a money-back guarantee if results are not seen by any customer after this period, so David reckoned he could not lose by carrying on.

To his surprise, after this longer period, he experienced a dramatic improvement in his quality of life: his back pain improved and he was able to return to equine work. He decided that if aloe vera worked for himself, there was a good chance that it would help some of his animal patients too.

He started by using the topical aloe vera products that have been clinically proven to help with wound healing and some types of dermatitis. He found that these seemed to work more effectively if drinking gel was given to the animals at the same time, and soon he was decanting and labelling aloe vera gel for dogs and horses under his care.

It was at this stage that the unusual retailing structure of the Forever Living Aloe Vera range became apparent to him: unlike most products, which are sold via wholesalers to retailers, and then to the public, Forever Living is marketed solely by word of mouth, using networks of individual sellers who buy directly from the company.

Developing the business

At first, David bought his supplies from the client who introduced him to it, but he discovered that if he became a distributor he could buy it at a 35% discount. And if he went on to develop his own network of individuals as another layer of distributors, he could become a manager, with a discount of 48% on the retail price.

The “try for two months or your money back” has been one of the keys to his success in marketing the products: regardless of evidence base and clinical trials, there are no other veterinary pharmaceutical products that offer this guarantee. In the mid-1990s, David started to give public talks locally on his use of aloe vera and in 1997 the Forever Living company asked him to join its advisory board, along with a medical doctor and other professionally qualified people, to give advice on how to use the company’s range of products correctly.

His textbook followed in 1999, and he completed a Diploma in Human Herbal Medicine. He is now active in clinical trials aiming to demonstrate the efficacy of aloe vera in horses, and he is knowledgeable about the pharmacological theory.

Aloe vera gel, extracted from the aloe vera leaf, contains over 70 potentially active components, including anthraquinones, saponins and lignin.

Various studies have suggested that it promotes wound healing, with suggested modes of action including inhibition of bacterial and fungal growth, anti-inflammatory effects and the dilation of capillaries to encourage blood flow. It is also thought to enhance the strength of the myofibroblasts, as well as having immunomodulating properties.

David has now sold his veterinary practice: he was finding it too difficult to continue to fit in work as a part-time vet. He is still kept busy on his 500- acre family farm, with 80 North Devon cows and a small flock of Exmoor Horn sheep, but he spends much of his time lecturing throughout the world to both the general public and veterinary professionals on the benefits of aloe vera to animals.

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