Gretchen was the cat who just wouldn't lose weight. Diets didn't work, and she flatly refused to exercise. In desperation, Helen Brown turned to alternative therapy...

Every week the claims of alternative medicine are questioned in television programmes and magazine articles.The conclusions that are reached are never conclusive because, it seems, we don't want to shut the door against hope. But there is one true test of alternative medicine that could eliminate the placebo effect: trying these therapies on animals, whose ailments can't be fixed by a faith in what we can't explain to them.

A growing number of vets in the UK are practising alternative therapies. And the claims made by those outside of the mainstream have been bugging many conventional vets. So much so that some sceptics launched a website lampooning members of the "British Veterinary Voodoo Society" and comparing the complementary therapies to "sympathetic magic" and condemning the homeopathy as "made up". They objected to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' decision to publish a list of homeopathic vets, which they say undermines the credibility of conventional treatments.

In September 2005, the British Veterinary Association issued a statement attacking plans by the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to license homeopathic medicines without clinical trials. "No genuine 'provings' of homeopathic remedies have ever successfully been performed in animals," ran the release. "There is no evidence of a physiological or therapeutic effect. Instead, the homeopathic ritual of case-taking and remedy matching appears to influence the owner to perceive the animal's condition in a more favourable light, attributing coincidental recovery to the remedy and even imagining improvement where none is present."

As a sceptic, I read the reports on the schism with excitement. Here was a chance to confront the boasts of alternative therapy without upsetting any of its patients. My cat, Gretchen, doesn't read the papers or understand when I tell her that worming tablets are "for her own good". Gretchen is plump. Weigh-ins at the vets are accompanied by tutting. In fact, Gretchen subsists on the vets' own brand of "Scienceplan Light". We kick her out for most of the day to exercise, but she just squats in the garden. What more can I do? Except, perhaps, take her to a "voodoo vet".

So one morning I took Gretchen to the Potters Bar surgery of Richard Allport B. Vet. Med, Vet.M.F. Hom., MRCVS and Associates. What followed was blissful. For the first time, I was made to feel that Gretchen's devotion to me was interesting. My boyfriend's issues with her "weirdness" while I'm away from home were addressed at a professional level. Allport took her "separation anxiety" seriously. He believes that cats and dogs have been living with humans for so long that they've absorbed some of our characteristics. "You do see them behaving in human emotional ways," he says. I mention that Gret- chen doesn't groom herself while I'm on work trips, she loses weight, she becomes de-socialised. "This is all about character, personality," Allport says. "Homeopathy's all about that. If you have a cat with itchy skin, a conventional medic might treat the skin, but we might look at the personality-based issues which cause the skin condition." I suggest to Allport that my cat's weight problems might, therefore, be connected to her psychological state - she might be comfort eating and her lack of exercise could be connected with her refusal to stray far from my side. He prescribes two vials of Dr Bach Flower Remedies (Aspen and Pulsatilla) and some homeopathic tablets (passiflora and mimulus).

Allport was a conventional practitioner for 10 years. "I was prescribing pills to keep conditions at bay. I saw an ad for a seminar in veterinary homeopathy as my wife quit nursing for gestalt psychotherapy, which is all about living in the moment. Animals live in the moment. They cope better with cancer than us because they don't worry about the future."

So Allport shifted his focus towards quality of life. His practice offers homeopathy, flower remedies, physiotherapy, osteopathy, spiritual healing, Tellington touch therapy and acupuncture. I liked Allport and enjoyed his open-minded compassion. But the cynic in me still thinks this is all psychotherapy. I can't believe any of the "treatments" work, although I do think that the attention and TLC works for pet and owner. When Gretchen is tipped from her case, Allport is relieved. "She's not that fat! She's all right!"

She probably is OK but needs watching, concurs my own vet, Ben Shorten MRCVS. Shorten says I'm doing the right thing feeding her the Scienceplan.At home I look up passiflora and pulsatilla. The tablets have helped Gretchen to exercise - she runs as soon as she sees me fetch them. I continue pippetting the "aspen" (for fear of "the known") and "mimulus" (for fear of "the unknown"') on to her food although (also as Allport suspected) I don't see her personality change. "Would you go back to Potters Bar if Gretchen was dying?" asks my friend Sarah. "I don't think so," I say. But then I recall when my old cat was dying. Because he was "only an animal" I didn't feel I had the right to talk about my feelings with friends who loved people who were dying. Allport would have been the perfect cure.