Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 19, Issue 6, pp 1513–1522 | Cite as

A Global overview of canids used in traditional medicines

  • Rômulo Romeu Nóbrega Alves
  • Raynner Rilke Duarte Barboza
  • Wedson Medeiros Silva Souto
Review Article


Canids are among the mammal species most frequently used in traditional folk medicine around the world. In this context, this paper assesses the global use of canids in traditional folk medicine and their implications. Our review indicated that 19 species of canid are used in traditional medicine worldwide, representing 54.2% of described canid species. Of the species in medicinal use, two are listed as Endangered and three as near threatened on the IUCN Red List. For some species medicinal use represents an additional direct pressure that may have contributed to declines of natural populations. In addition, use of medicinal animals may have indirect impacts on the conservation of other species through the spread of disease. To minimize both harvest impacts and disease spread, guidance on use of medicinal species may be useful. This could include an exploration of the use of alternatives and implementation of sanitary measures.


Canidae Traditional medicine Animal conservation 


Throughout human history, people have used various materials from nature to cure their illnesses and improve their health. Substances have been derived from flora, fauna, and mineral sources located both in people’s immediate surroundings and in more remote areas (Lev and Amar 2002). Nature has been the source of medicinal agents for thousands of years, and an impressive number of modern drugs have been isolated from natural sources, many based on their use in traditional medicine. In many parts of the world, traditional medicine is the preferred form of health care (WHO 2002–2005), and remains the most available and affordable form of therapy in low income countries. Many animal and plant species are used in traditional medical practices, and therefore discussions on the links between traditional medicine and biodiversity are imperative (Anyinam 1995; Alves and Rosa 2007a).

Wild animals and their products constitute essential ingredients in the preparation of traditional medicine (e.g., Adeola 1992; Gaski and Johnson 1994; Alves et al. 2007a, b; Alves 2008). In fact, various authors pointed out that the phenomenon of zootherapy (the use of animal products in healing) is marked both by a broad geographical distribution and by deep historical origins. In modern societies, zootherapy constitutes an important alternative to many other known therapies practiced worldwide (Alves and Rosa 2005). Currently, examples of animal-derived remedies can be found in many urban, semi-urban, and more remote localities throughout the world (e.g., Sodeinde and Soewu 1999; Almeida and Albuquerque 2002; Pieroni et al. 2002; Apaza et al. 2003; Silva et al. 2004; Alves and Rosa 2005, 2006, 2007a, b, c; Vázquez et al. 2006; Alves and Pereira-Filho 2007; Alves and Rosa 2008a, b; Alves and Santana 2008; Alves 2009). Nevertheless, while the use of floristic resources has been widely researched, utilization of faunistic resources in traditional medicine is less well studied (Alves and Rosa 2005; Dedeke et al. 2006; Alves et al. 2007a, 2009a).

It is well known that the use of some animal species for medicinal purposes is a cause for concern for particular species (e.g., Lee et al. 1998). A large number of mammals are used in traditional folk medicine and many of these are of conservation concern (IUCN 2009). Several carnivores are popular for their supposed medicinal properties, or at least they were in the past (Kruuk 2002). The case of large carnivores threatened by trade for traditional medicine, especially traditional Chinese medicine, is well-known (Lee et al. 1998). Both tigers and most species of bear have suffered population declines associated with the demand for their parts in traditional medicines (Brautigam et al. 1994; Servheen et al. 1999). All of the world’s eight species of bears, except the Giant Panda, have suffered population declines as a result of this Traditional Medicine trade (Knights 1996).

Canidae are among the carnivore families most frequently reported as being used in traditional medical systems around the world (Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004). The number of canids used in medicine is still unknown. In this context, this work assesses the global use of canids in traditional folk medicine around the world. We provide a review of the literature in order to assess how many and which canid species are used as medicine globally. We identify those that are endangered and discuss the implications of the use of zootherapics for canid conservation and for public health.


To examine the global use of canids used in traditional medicine, all available references or reports about folk remedies that include canid parts were reviewed. Only taxa that could be identified to species level were included in the database. Scientific names provided in publications were updated according to the ITIS (2008)—Catalogue of Life: 2008 Annual Checklist and Wilson and Reeder (2005). The conservation status of the Canidae species follows IUCN (2009) and information on international trade regulation was extracted from CITES (2008). The sources analyzed were: Ginsberg and Macdonald (1990); Figueiredo (1994); Marques (1995); Costa-Neto (1996); Morales Mávil and Villa Cañedo (1998); Simelane and Kerley (1998); Costa-Neto (1999); Rasmussen (1999); Costa-Neto and Oliveira (2000); El-Kamali (2000); Souto et al. (2000); The Chinese Materia Medica Dictionary (2000); Breuer (2002); CITES (2002); Lev and Amar (2002); Moura (2002); Winter (2002); Lev (2003); Vázquez et al. (2006); Asa and Cossíos (2004); Barbarán (2004); Durbin et al. (2004); Johnsingh and Jhala (2004); Loveridge and Nel (2004); Lucherini et al. (2004); Rodden et al. (2004); Sillero-Zubiri et al. (2004); Woodroffe et al. (2004a, b); Alves and Rosa (2006); Mahawar and Jaroli (2006); Schmidt et al. (2006); Alves and Rosa (2007b, c); Alves et al. (2007a); Khalid et al. (2007); Negi and Palyal (2007); Valle (2007); Alves et al. (2008b,c); Asa et al. (2008); Durbin et al. (2008); Johnsingh and Jhala (2008);Loveridge and Nel (2008); Mahawar and Jaroli (2008); Monroy-Vilchis et al. (2008); Moura and Marques (2008); Rodden et al. (2008); Van and Tap (2008); Alves (2009); Alves et al. (2009b, c), and Ferreira et al. (2009a, b). A database was created containing information on canid species, family names, parts of the animal used and country where use was recorded.


Our review indicated that at least 19 species of canid from 10 genera are used in traditional medicine worldwide (see Table 1). This represents 54% of the extant species of canid. The genus with the largest numbers of medicinal species were: Canis (with five species), followed by Vulpes (4) and Lycalopex (3) (Table 1). Considering that there are 35 known species of canids in the world today, 54.2% are therefore used in traditional folk medicines.
Table 1

Canidae used in the wordwide traditional folk medicine


IUCN Red List


Country (-ies)



Canis adustus Sundevall 1847



Not mentioned

Epilepsy, to ward off evil spirits


Canis aureus Linnaeus 1758


III (only the populations of India)

India, Vietnam

Asthma, arthritis, paralysis

1, 2, 3

Canis latrans Say 1823




To bring good luck

4, 5, 6

Canis lupus (Linnaeus 1758)



Brazil, Israel, India, Kingdom of Jordan, Mongolia and Sudan

Chicken pox, mumps, smallpox, asthma, varicella, measles, menstrual cramps, warts

3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 53

Canis mesomelas Schreber 1775



Angola, Botswana, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe


22, 23, 24

Cerdocyon thous (Linnaeus 1766)




Earache, sore throat, rheumatism, flu, hemorrhoids, disorders after parturition (to accelerate recovery after parturition), bronchitis, cracks in the sole of the feet, back ache, osteoporosis, eczema, arthritis, womb inflammation

10, 11, 12, 21, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54

Chrysocyon brachyurus (Illiger 1815)



Brazil, Bolívia

Bronchitis, kidney disease, snake bites, and to bring good luck, epilepsy

21, 30, 31, 32, 33

Cuon alpinus (Pallas 1811)




Not mentioned

34, 35

Lycalopex culpaeus (Molina 1782)



Argentina, Bolívia

susto” (fright)


Lycalopex gymnocercus (G. Fischer 1814)



Argentina, Bolívia

susto” (fright)

36, 37

Lycalopex sechurae Thomas 1900




Used in traditional magic-religious rituals, bronchial illness, and stomach disorders, amulets, to attract “good spirits” or “positive energies”

38, 39

Lycaon pictus (Temminck 1820)



Parts of West, East and Southern Africa, Zimbabwe, Cameroon

It is considered to have medicinal and magical powers for African traditional cultures

17, 40, 41, 42

Nyctereutes procyonoides (Gray 1834)



Not mentioned

Not mentioned

17, 43

Otocyon megalotis (Desmarest 1822)



South Africa

Not mentioned


Speothos venaticus (Lund 1842)




Not mentioned

12, 45

Vulpes bengalensis (Shaw 1800)




Not mentioned

32, 46

Vulpes chama (A. Smith 1833)



Not mentioned

Not mentioned


Vulpes pallida (Cretzschmar 1826)






Vulpes vulpes (Linnaeus 1758)




Not mentioned


Legends: IUCN Red List of threatened species categories—EN endangered, NT near threatened, LC least concern, DD data deficient. CITES Appendices—I, II or III

1. Van and Tap (2008), 2. Negi and Palyal (2007), 3. Mahawar and Jaroli (2008), 4. Monroy-Vilchis et al. (2008), 5. Vázquez et al. (2006), 6. Morales Mávil and Villa Cañedo (1998), 7. Costa-Neto and Oliveira (2000), 8. Costa-Neto (1999), 9. Marques (1995), 10. Alves and Rosa (2006), 11. Alves and Rosa (2007b), 12. Alves et al. (2007a), 13. Moura and Marques (2008), 14. Souto et al. (2000), 15. Lev (2003), 16. Schmidt et al. (2006), 17. CITES (2002), 18. Lev and Amar (2002), 19. El-Kamali (2000), 20. Mahawar and Jaroli (2006), 21. Alves (2009), 22. Loveridge and Nel (2004), 23. Khalid et al. (2007), 24. Loveridge and Nel (2008), 25. Alves and Rosa (2007c), 26. Alves et al. (2008b), 27. Moura (2002), 28. Valle (2007), 29. Alves et al. (2009a), 30. Rodden et al. (2004), 31. Winter (2002), 32. Costa-Neto (1996), 33. Rodden et al. (2008), 34. Durbin et al. (2004), 35. Durbin et al. (2008), 36. Barbarán (2004), 37. Lucherini et al. (2004), 38. Asa and Cossíos (2004), 39. Asa et al. (2008), 40. Woodroffe et al. (2004), 41. Rasmussen (1999), 42. Breuer (2002), 43. The Chinese Materia Medica Dictionary (2000), 44. Simelane and Kerley (1998), 45. Figueiredo (1994), 46. Johnsingh and Jhala (2008), 47. Johnsingh and Jhala (2004), 48. Ginsberg and Macdonald (1990), 49. Ferreira et al. (2009a), 50. Alves et al. (2008c), 51. Ferreira et al. (2009b), 52. Confessor et al. (2009), 53. Alves et al. (2009d), 54. Alves et al. (2009e)

The use of canids in traditional folk medicine is widespread, being recorded in 27 countries, mainly in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Some species are used in more than once country, although not necessarily for the same disease. Various Canids parts and products are used in the preparation of folk medicines, including heart, fur, fat, eyes, bile, blood, viscera, bone, and meat.

Canids are used to treat approximately 28 conditions: asthma, arthritis, back ache, bronchial illness, bronchitis, chicken pox, cracks in the sole of the feet, disorders after parturition, earache, eczema, epilepsy, flu, hemorrhoids, kidney diseases, measles, menstrual cramps, mumps, osteoporosis, paralysis, small pox, rheumatism, snake bites, sore threat, stomach disorders, varicella, warts, inflammation of the womb and “susto” (fright). Some species were recorded as having magic religious uses, for example to bring good luck and in magic and religious rituals.

The zootherapeutical products of canids are used to prepare clinical remedies as well as to make amulets or charms used in magical/religious diagnoses. For instance, in Brazil body parts of C. brachyurus are believed to bring good luck. In Bolivia, cowboys believe that sitting on the pelt of a maned wolf will protect them from bad luck. Wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) are valued in some areas, not only because their kills provide a source of meat, but also due to the medicinal and magical powers that their various body parts are thought to have.


Canid exploitation and trade forms an integral part of human cultural heritage. In some cases, canids have traditionally been viewed as adversaries to be avoided or killed (Kruuk 2002; Johnson 2004; Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004; Alves et al. 2009a). On the other hand, several canids’ species have been a resource for humans, exploited for subsistence, commercial profit, or hunting for sport (Macdonald and Sillero-Zubiri 2004).

Among the several forms of canid usage by humans, their use in folk practices related to the healing and/or prevention of illnesses has been recorded in different social-cultural contexts throughout the world (e.g., Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004; Mahawar and Jaroli 2006; Alves and Rosa 2007b, c). Canids have been used in traditional medicines since ancient times. For example, a historical revision of the therapeutic uses of animals described in medieval manuscripts from Azerbaijan, revealed the medicinal use of animals such wolves, foxes, and jackals during the Middle Ages. Various parts (meat, skin, fur, etc.) of these animals were used in the medieval Azerbaijan medicine (Alakbarli 2006). In Brazil, animal species (including canids) were used medicinally in the first half of the eighteenth century (Souza 2008). Lev (2003, 2006) emphasizes that the fox (Vulpes sp.) was used for the treatment of ear diseases in Levant between the tenth and eighteenth century.

Medicinal use of canids is more prominent in countries within Africa, Asia, and South America. This is not surprising given the canid diversity is greater in these areas (Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004). Domestic commercial sale of canids for medicinal purposes has been documented in a number of countries. In India, for example, Johnsingh and Jhala (2004) noted the localized trade for the skin, tail, teeth, and claws of the Indian fox (Vulpes bengalensis (Shaw 1800)) for medicinal and charm purposes. In Mexico, the Coyote (Canis latrans Say, 1823) is commercialized for medicinal purposes in markets of the city of Chiapas (Vázquez et al. 2006). Durbin et al. (2004) pointed out the need for further research regarding the medicinal use (and commercial exploitation) of Cuon alpinus in China. The commercialization of animals for medicinal purposes is a widespread phenomenon, with significant implications for their conservation and sustainable use (Alves and Rosa 2005).

Of the 19 species of canid recorded in our review, two species are classified as endangered, three species classified as near threatened, and one classified as data deficient in the most recent IUCN Red List. Ten species are included in the CITES Appendices I or II, although the reasons for their inclusion are not necessarily related to medicinal use. The existence of records of the use and commercialization of a species for medicinal purposes does not necessarily imply that specimens of those species are traded internationally.

The medicinal use of canids is not considered a major conservation concern, as for none of those listed as endangered by the IUCN has medicinal use has been highlighted as a major threat to their population. This is contrary to what has been shown for felines and other endangered species historically used in these traditional formulations, such as primates, rhinoceroses, bears, and seahorses (IUCN 2009). Nevertheless, the medicinal use of animals creates an additional threat and must be considered in conjunction with other anthropogenic pressures. Multiple factors have contributed to a significant decline in wild populations of canids in the world.

Canids have survived in many areas where other carnivores have gone extinct. Their resilience is principally due to their relatively high reproductive rate (i.e., large litter sizes and early sexual maturity that compensates for increased human-inflicted mortality rates, and their adaptability to new environments. Canids can often quickly recover from population decreases and range contraction, and rates of re-colonization are often high due to high levels of dispersal (Gittleman 1989).

In addition to the impact of direct loss of species, use and trade in medicinal animal may spread diseases that can affect both people and wildlife (Still 2003; Aguirre 2009). As evidenced in the present review, several organs, bones, and tissues of canids are used in traditional medicine, and transmission of diseases can occur through their medicinal use. Carnivores, in particular domestic cats and dogs, are host to several hundred pathogens (Cleaveland et al. 2001; Samuel et al. 2001) and parasitic infections (Williams and Barker 2001) that may affect humans and/or livestock.

Given the potential for both conservation impacts though harvesting canids and of disease transmission in the preparation of medicinal products from canids, further action is required to ensure that harvesting is sustainable and to develop guidance on public health aspects. Direct impacts on canid populations could be mitigated through education programmes and identification of alternative medicines (see Lee 1999). The therapeutic properties of wild animals and plants and domestic or cultived species overlaps in many cases (Alves et al. 2007a). This aspect opens the possibility of replacing the use of threatened species with less threatened or domestic species in traditional medicine recipes (Alves et al. 2008a, b; Still 2003), thereby minimizing the threat to the ecosystem. Educational programs can be used to promote the use of alternatives, focusing on rural communities where inhabitants use canids in traditional medicine and religious practices. Additionally, measures that do not directly involve modifying the behavior of the local populations should be considered, such as controlling illegal wildlife trade. Implementation of sanitary measures in the use and trade of animal or their parts for medicinal purposes is also necessary.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rômulo Romeu Nóbrega Alves
    • 1
  • Raynner Rilke Duarte Barboza
    • 2
  • Wedson Medeiros Silva Souto
    • 3
  1. 1.Departamento de BiologiaUniversidade Estadual da ParaíbaCampina GrandeBrazil
  2. 2.Pós-Graduação em Ciência e Tecnologia AmbientalUniversidade Estadual da ParaíbaCampina GrandeBrazil
  3. 3.Programa Regional de Pós-Graduação em Desenvolvimento e Meio Ambiente (PRODEMA)Universidade Estadual da ParaíbaCampina GrandeBrazil

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