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The use of zootherapeutics in folk veterinary medicine in the district of Cubati, Paraíba State, Brazil



The present work addresses the use of zootherapy in folk veterinary medicine (ethnoveterinary) by the residents of the municipal district of Cubati, microregion of Seridó, Paraíba State, Brazil. It sought to identify the principal animals used as medicinal sources for zootherapeutics and to contribute to the preservation and sustainability of this traditional knowledge.


Field research was undertaken on a weekly or biweekly basis during the period November, 2006, to January, 2007. Free, semi-structured, and open interviews were made with local residents of the municipal district of Cubati (in both urban and rural settings) as well as with venders in public markets. A total of 25 individuals of both sexes were interviewed (with ages varying from 26 to 78 years) although only 16 were finally chosen as informants as these people demonstrated the greatest degree of knowledge concerning zootherapeutics. Graphs and percentages were generated using Microsoft© Excel 2007 software, and the species were identified by photographic registration and subsequent bibliographical surveys.


Mammals constitute the main medicinal zootherapeutic source for folk veterinary medicines in the studied area, both in terms of the total number of species used and the frequency of their citation. Sheep (Ovis aries), pigs (Sus scrofa), cattle (Bos taurus), and foxes (Cerdocyon thous) were mentioned by 62.5, 43.75, 37.5, and 31.25% of the informants, respectively, as being used in folk veterinary medicine. Additionally, chameleons (Iguana iguana), chickens (Gallus domesticus), and rattlesnakes (Crotalus durissus) were mentioned by 75, 43.75, and 31.25% of the informants, respectively. Relatively simple animal illnesses, such as furuncles, or injuries resulting from embedded thorns or skin eruptions are responsible for the largest number of zootherapeutic treatment, while, diseases of greater complexity, such as rabies and brucellosis, were not even mentioned. Fat from various animals constituted the most frequently cited resource used for its medicinal-veterinary properties.


The examination of folk knowledge and health practices allows a better understanding of human interactions with their local environment, and aids in the formulation of appropriate strategies for natural resource conservation.


"Formerly we had to get our medicines from nature. There were neither doctors nor veterinarians or nothing" (a 74 year old man)

Humans have utilized animals to produce drugs for treating illnesses and injuries since ancient times [1, 2]. However, it can be assumed that concern about animal health only originated after the domestication of formerly wild species for use in transportation, agriculture, or as direct food sources. Traditional folk knowledge concerning the use of natural medicines is now present in every known culture.

In the last few years, folk knowledge of traditional populations has been recognized as being of significant importance in several areas of the natural sciences – as the study of ethnoscience – with the prefix "ethno" referring to the knowledge systems of traditional cultures [3]. The study of ethnosciences began to expand beginning in the middle of the last century, and workers in several areas began to incorporate the term "ethno" into their scientific repertoire, such as in ethnobotany [4, 5]; ethnozoology [5], and ethnoveterinary [6, 7]. Ethnoscientific knowledge is transmitted almost exclusively through an oral tradition in essentially all societies examined [1, 2, 79].

The present work examines the ethnoscientific knowledge linked to the use of animals (zootherapeutics) as sources of medicines in folk veterinary medicine (ethnoveterinary). This term was firstly used by McCorkle in the mid 1980's to designate the "people's knowledge, abilities, methods, practices and beliefs concerning animal health care". Mathias [6] emphasized that this knowledge is acquired by communities over many years on the basis of exhaustive trial and error. This same author affirms that the current scenario of rapid cultural changes in communities throughout the world [mainly due to globalization] is putting acquired ethnoveterinary knowledge at risk, and in many places there now exists a mix of traditional knowledge and modern veterinary medicine. In truth, both of these medicinal practices have their limitations and can complement each other; for in certain circumstances traditional knowledge can be perfectly applied, while in other situations modern medicinal practices are more effective [6]. It should be pointed out that folk veterinary medicine has been the starting point for the discovery of many drugs now used in modern animal medicine [2].

Ethnoveterinary is a valuable tool with great potential, if used in a sustainable manner [10]. In poorly developed areas, agricultural activities are responsible for a large percentage of the local income (as in the microregion of Seridó, Paraíba State, Brazil, examined here) [11] and folk veterinary medicine constitutes an important alternative to modern veterinary medicine, especially in terms of its cost.

However, very little ethnoveterinary knowledge has been documented in Brazil in spite of its great local importance. In many areas (such as the interior of Paraíba) this folk knowledge is rapidly disappearing – with traditional medicine being set aside in favor of modern medical practices, and veterinary drugstores are now frequently found in formerly isolated areas.

The decline of popular veterinary medicine in different parts of the world has been described by authors such as Jacob et al. [12] and Mathias [6]. The objective of this work, therefore, was to identify the animal sources of ethnoveterinary medicines in the municipal district of Cubati, Paraíba State, and the main diseases treated using these zootherapeutics, as well as to contribute to the preservation of folk knowledge that is rapidly being lost.


Profile of the Community Examined

The State of Paraíba occupies 56,341 km2 [13] and has a population of approximately 3,443,825 inhabitants, of which 1,937,738 are black, 1,467,260 are white, while 38,827 belong to other ethnicities [13].

The municipal district of Cubati covers an area of 161.3 km2 and is located in the eastern microregion of Seridó, Paraíba [13, 14], at the approximate geographical coordinates 06° 52 ' 06 " S and 36° 22 ' 31 " W [15] (see Figure 1). The local vegetation is composed of semideciduous and deciduous forests characteristic of this semi-arid region. Average annual rainfall totals 500 mm, with an annual average temperature of 26°C [11, 16], and the region is within the "drought polygon" of Brazil (an area that extents from northern Minas Gerais State to almost the entire northeastern part of that country) [17]. The total population of the municipal district is estimated to be 6,456 [18], with a Human Development Index (IDH) of 0.591 (medium level development) [13]. Approximately 4,030 inhabitants live in the urban zone, with the remaining population occupying rural areas; the average monthly per capita income in R$ 87.22 (approximately US$45.00) [13]. Subsistence agriculture (especially cassava, corn, beans) and livestock husbandry, especially of goats (1,500 animals), sheep (1,000), and cattle (1,500), constitute the main economical activities in the municipal district [1921]. The traditional veterinarian knowledge of the inhabitants of Cubati is almost exclusively held by individuals linked to agricultural activities, and this information is generally transmitted orally from generation to generation.

Figure 1
figure 1

Map of the Localization of Cubati Town. Adapted of Rodriguez et al. [11]


Field research was undertaken during weekly or biweekly excursions during the period from November, 2006, to January, 2007. Free, semi-structured, and open interviews were conducted with local residents of the municipal district of Cubati (in both urban and rural zones) in the communities of Portal, Praia Nova, and Lajedo do Angico, as well as with vendors in public markets at these localities. Informants were selected starting from a wide pool of individuals casually encountered in the communities, as well as based on the criterion of "local specialists" – people recognized within the community itself as having exceptional knowledge about zootherapeutics [22].

A total of 25 individuals of both sexes with ages varying from 26 to 78 years were interviewed, although only 16 were finally chosen as informants based on their specialized knowledge. Using the principals outlined by Andrade and Costa Neto [23], the interviewees were provided with an initial explanation of the objectives of the research, and once their approval of the project was obtained, they were asked to answer questions on the following subjects: which animals (zootherapeutics) were used for the production of medicines; what are the purposes of those medicines; and how are they used. We always attempted to establish a greater rapport with the local residents by using local terminology and expressions during the interviews. The names of the zootherapeutic animals, and the symptoms and/or treated diseases were recording according to the terminology used by the interviewees. We adopted the use of written questionnaires in which the interviewers noted the information provided by the informants, taking the precaution of repeating and confirming the information provided more than once during the interview, as recommended by Barboza [24] and Costa Neto [25]. The interviews lasted from 20 minutes to a little more than an hour. The transcribed interviews are stored at the Laboratory of Zoology of the State University of Paraíba. Graphs and percentages were produced using Microsoft© Excel 2007 software.

Species identification

Specimens of the wild animals cited were digitally photographed for more precise identification, and the animals were then subsequently released to their natural habitats. Species identification was accomplished using bibliographic information, including Albuquerque et al. [26], Alves et al. [27], IBAMA [28], Brazil [29], Brazilian Ornithological Committee Registrations (CBRO) [30], Rodrigues [31], Rodrigues [32], Oliveira et al. [33], Silva et al. [34], Silveira [35], and Sousa and Gonçalves [36].

Results and Discussion

Interviews with key-informants in the municipal district of Cubati revealed that popular medicinal-veterinarian knowledge was transmitted from generation to generation:

"I got it from my father, and my father got it from my grandfather" (a 66 year old man).

"It works like this: the oldest [parents, grandparents among others] tried different things and what they learned they passed on to us" (woman, 70).

Experiences transmitted through generations are known by memes – recognizable fragments of cultural information that are transferred from person to person within a culture [37]. Cognitive inheritance is mentioned in several works (whether directly, in the sense of a "meme", or indirectly), such as Araújo et al. [38], Costa Neto [25], Costa Neto and Oliveira [1], Jacob et al. [12], Lima and Vasconcelos [39], and Mourão et al. [40]. It should be point out that none of the zootherapeutics mentioned in the interviews were derived from animals threatened with extinction as listed by the Brazilian Environmental Ministry [41].

Brazilian laws prohibit hunting wild animals, such as the rattlesnakes (Crotalus durissus) and foxes (Cerdocyon thous) reported as used here, and it will be important to make the local residents aware of the necessity of preserving the animals that inhabit the caatinga biome and to avoid over-exploiting these otherwise renewable natural resources beyond their recovery capacities.

"We cannot capture armadillos or foxes because the agents from IBAMA prohibit it. The fines are too high (...). Formerly we had a lot of armadillos to eat and to make medicine. Today only a few remain. (a 66 year old man replying to an informal question regarding the possibility of capturing a fox for photographic registration).

This does not imply that natural resources should not be used, however, for with well-managed conservation efforts these animals could continue to be viable sources of low-cost veterinary pharmaceutical substances for the local population within the concept of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

"Sustainable use (whether extractive or non-extractive) is a dynamic process in which an effort is made to maintain biodiversity and to reinforce ecological and socio-ecological services, recognizing that the larger the patrimony and the more the government participates, the greater will be the probability of reaching these objectives for present and future generations" [42].

The animal model of disease allows the comparison of human and animal illnesses [43] and relies on pharmaceuticals or treatments being tested in animals before their use by humans. Currently, a animal model is being used with guinea-pigs in the development of a vaccine against human rheumatic fever caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes [44]. Interestingly, the local inhabitants that still practice ethnoveterinary medicine are empirically using a mirror-image model, which could be called the "human model for diseases in animals". Starting from the principle of similarity, many of the zootherapeutics used by the residents of the Cubati community for treating human diseases are also used as treatments for animal diseases:

"If it works for men, it works for animals also" (a 74 year old man).

"For treating puncture wounds in animals it is the same way as for us . Just place the chameleon skin powder mixed with food oil on top of the wound, and after 2 days it is already better" (a 38 year old man).

"The fat from a teju (a large lizard)or a peba (armadillo) is a good medicine for illnesses [wounds] for us as it is for the animals " (a 74 year old woman).

In the present work, a disease is considered any type of anatomical or physiologic alteration of an animal as compared to its normal state. Among the fifteen zootherapeutics cited (Table 1), there is a clear predominance of mammalian origin – seven species (including the man) (ca. 46%), followed by reptiles with four species, or approximately 27% (see Figure 2).

Table 1 Animals used in the Popular Veterinary Medicine in Cubati – PB
Figure 2
figure 2

Percentage of the groups used with zootherapics in the veterinary medicine in Cubati in relation of the mentioned species type. Probably mammals and reptiles stand out due the characteristics of the local fauna and the agricultural activity.

In a sense, these results could be expected due to the agricultural vocation of the region and its local fauna. For example, pigs (Sus scrofa), cows (Bos taurus), and sheep (Ovis aries) are commonly raised in the area, while rattlesnakes (Crotalus durissus), chameleons (Iguana iguana), and the teju lizards (Tupinambis merianae) are reptiles frequently encountered in the local caatinga vegetation. Mammalian species were mentioned 36 times (48% of the total number of citations), while reptiles were cited 24 times (32%) (see Figure 3).

Figure 3
figure 3

Groups representation in relation to the species citation frequency. For instance, the 7 found zootherapics mammals species are mentioned 36 times, or 48% of the total zootherapics citations. Reptiles and Mammals represents 80% of the citations.

As can be seen in Table 1, a large number of folk veterinarian medicines are produced from animal fats, and these are usually applied on wounds, furuncles, sores, or embedded thorns. Furuncles represent infections of the hair follicles or obstructions of the oil glands, mainly caused by Staphylococcus sp., and involve subcutaneous cellular tissues [45]; while sores have other origins, especially those related to allergic reactions or insect bites and stings. Chameleons (Iguana iguana), mentioned by 75% of the interviewees (N = 12), produces a type of body fat that aids in wound healing and is used to promote the natural expulsion of foreign bodies from cows, horses, and chickens.

"When there is a thorn embedded in a cow just put chameleon fat on top of it. After about 3 days it pulls the thorn out" (a 70 year old woman).

"Chameleon fat is a very good medicine. I use it for removing thorns from cows and donkeys" (a 66 year old man).

Mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary glands, is the most common and expensive disease of dairy cows in most of the world [46] (affecting other types of animals as well). According to the interviewees, this disease is treating in cows by using butter, or fat derived from pigs and chickens (see Table 1 and Table 2). The suet from castrated sheep (Ovis aries) was mentioned by 62.5% of the interviewees (N = 10), who cited its use for treating several health problems in animals, including problems with their horns, wounds, embedded thorns, and furuncles, among others. Table 3 lists the popular vernacular names for diseases or animal illnesses, with their respective technical terms.

Table 2 Preparation and application manners of the cited zootherapics in the text
Table 3 Animals' diseases or illnesses popular names comparison, according to the inhabitants of Cubati, with the respective technical terms

The frequent use of sheep suet as therapeutic resource for treating animal diseases may be related to the regional abundance of this animal. The reason why the suet must come from a castrated animal was explained in different ways by different individuals:

"Because un-castrated sheep don't have fat, do they? But a castrated sheep does. It is thicker" (a 74 year old man).

"Because it works for medicine; because when it melts it becomes a fine oil, while the suet of a normal sheep becomes a thick oil when it melts" (man, 78 years). The use of human urine was mentioned by 18.75% (N = 3) of the interviewees as a therapeutic agent. Cattle poisoned by feeding on cassava (Manihot utilissima Pohl.) are forced to drink it. The preparation is quite simple, requiring only mixing a cup of urine in 3 liters of water. The confirmed use of this treatment indicates that humans, too, can be considered a zootherapeutic resource.

"If a cow eats cassava it has to be given people's urine to drink as quickly as possible, because it could die quickly" (a 26 year old man).

Medicines prepared by the local residents were observed to have widespread applications, often serving not just for a single species, but for many of the animals that they raise. It was noticed during the visits and interviews that certain pathologies such as rabies (Lyssavirus) [47], brucellosis (Brucella abortus) [48], and bovine babesiosis (Babesia bovis, Babesia bigemina, and Anaplasma marginale) [49] do not have treatments based on the zootherapy, and these diseases must be treated with commercial pharmaceuticals or phytotherapeutics. Concerns about disease prevention or vaccination were scarcely mentioned, except concerning bovine foot-and-mouth disease (Aphthovirus) – as there is an annual governmental vaccination program and the cattlemen are obligated to vaccinate their herds.

In terms of the number of different kinds of zootherapeutics used to treat a given illness, 7 folk medicines were mentioned for treating furuncles, followed by 6 zootherapeutics used in the treatment of embedded thorns and sores (not furuncles); only single zootherapeutic uses were mentioned as treatments or cures for rheumatism, edemas, peri-ocular irritations, food intoxication, torsions and snake bites (see Figure 4).

Figure 4
figure 4

Comparison of the zootherapic number for each mentioned disease.

Some of the animals used to prepare ethnoveterinary medicines are wild native species and future studies will be needed to investigate the sustainable use and conservation of these species.


The residents of the municipal district of Cubati (especially those economically dependent on agricultural activities) demonstrated a wide knowledge of natural products used as medicinal resources for themselves as for their domestic animals, and zootherapy plays a principal role in the prevention or cure of illnesses in that region.

The inhabitants of Cubati who deal with ethnoveterinary medicine often employ zootherapeutics in treating similar ailments that affect their domestic animals that are otherwise used to treat human diseases or illnesses, following an intuitive similarity between humans and other mammals.

Mammals supply the largest number of veterinary medicines in terms of their citation frequencies, followed by reptiles, birds and, infrequently, insects. However, only relatively simple to moderately complex illnesses or diseases are treated with zootherapeutics. The simplest infirmities, such as furuncles, embedded thorns, sores, and wounds, had the largest number of zootherapeutic treatments cited (seven, six, six, and five, respectively), while moderately complex medical problems, such as uterine prolapse, arthritis, rheumatism, and bovine gangrenous coryza had few zootherapeutic treatments or cures (with two, two, one, and two treatments cited, respectively). The preservation of popular medicinal knowledge is important to enhance our understanding of the relationships between society and nature, and to elaborate more effective strategies for conserving natural resources.

Figure 5
figure 5

Ram (Ovis aries).

Figure 6
figure 6

Mele Goat (Capra hircus).

Figure 7
figure 7

Cattle (Bos taurus).

Figure 8
figure 8

Peba (Euphractus sexcinctus).

Figure 9
figure 9

Pig (Sus scrofa).

Figure 10
figure 10

Fox (Cerdocyon thous). Font: IUCN [50].

Figure 11
figure 11

Rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus).

Figure 12
figure 12

Chameleon (Iguana iguana).

Figure 13
figure 13

Turtle of water (Phrynops spp).

Figure 14
figure 14

Teju (Tupinambis merianae).

Figure 15
figure 15

Hen (Gallus domesticus).

Figure 16
figure 16

Peru (Meleagris gallopavo).

Figure 17
figure 17

Quail (Nothura maculosa cearensis).

Figure 18
figure 18

Hornet-mestizo (Polistes canadensis).


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We magnificently thanked the all residents of Cubati that collaborated for the development of this work, such in the interviews as well as in the collection of some animals that we photographed. We are thankful to the Reptilian Caatinga Conservation Center (CCRC), especially to Silvaney de Medeiros Sousa, Abraão Ribeiro Barbosa, to an employee of CCRC whose name is Edglay Amador, which supplied the pictures of the rattlesnake. We also thanked Iracema M. Silva, Gérson Alves Barboza, José Henriques and Janúncio Costa Júnior for the logistic and sentimental support. We could not forget the gentlemen's Edroaldo Cavalcanti de Araújo and José Carlos Frazão de Oliveira, veterinary doctors that gave us technical support by borrowing bibliographical references of the diseases or illnesses mentioned in this article.

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Correspondence to Raynner RD Barboza.

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Raynner RD Barboza, Wedson de MS Souto and José da S Mourão contributed equally to this work.

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Barboza, R.R., de MS Souto, W. & da S Mourão, J. The use of zootherapeutics in folk veterinary medicine in the district of Cubati, Paraíba State, Brazil. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 3, 32 (2007).

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