Alternative medicine: it works in animals and children...
So it can't be a placebo. An examination of this common claim.
On this site we have discussed homeopathy, how ineffective treatments can appear to work (especially placebo effects), and why people turn to alternative remedies. The conclusion is that most alternative remedies have little or no curative effect; but due to people not being aware of how remedies can appear to work, and the important practitioner/patient relationship, they often get a perceived benefit from treatments such as homeopathy.
It’s catering to humans’ emotional aspects of treatment that makes (medically) ineffective treatments useful for many people.
How does this impact on animals?
“Homeopathy works on animals” is a very common claim that is used to support the idea that homeopathy works better than placebo; in fact that it must therefore work per se. It’s a false claim though. There are no quality studies that show that homeopathy works in animals at all. This is not surprising as homeopathic remedies consist of nothing but water or sugar pills (see: homeopathy): they usually contain no active ingredients whatsoever.
What is really happening, is that the vet who is using homeopathic remedies, is using his authoritative position to convince the animal owner that the animal being treated with homeopathy is getting better.
Vets, like doctors, hold a lot of power over their clients. This can lead to a placebo effect by proxy where the animal’s owner is assured that the treatment will work, the owner de-stresses and becomes less anxious, the animal senses this and de-stresses itself and responds more positively to its owner's more positive attitude. Illusion: the treatment is working! But of course the animal remains medically untreated.
See this letter from a vet that was published in the Veterinary Times: http://www.vetpath.co.uk/voodoo/edwards1.html
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. (www.rcvs.org.uk)
Slogan: “Promoting & sustaining public confidence in veterinary medicine”.
Surprisingly, the RCVS actually allows homeopathic vets to be listed in its register. Currently, there are around 50 out of 20,000 vets (0.25%). Why the RCVS sees fit to allow this may be to do with the internal politics of the organisation; but whatever the reason, it seems to be at odds with putting animal welfare first.
It is disconcerting to see a professional body, responsible for the scientific practise of veterinary medicine, actively embracing homeopathy – a system of “care” that actually denies animals real treatment.
Interestingly, in April 2005 the European Board of Veterinary Specialisation adopted the policy that "The veterinary profession received the prerogative for diagnosis and treatment of animal diseases based on the assumption that veterinarians are guided by scientific methods. The EBVS therefore only recognises scientific, evidence-based veterinary medicine which complies with animal welfare legislation."
In November 2005, the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe formally adopted the same policy as the European Board of Veterinary Specialisation. At the meeting where this was passed, the President of the Royal Netherlands Veterinary Association asked if this prohibition (on "implausible treatment modalities with no proof of effectiveness") included homeopathy. The President of the FVE confirmed emphatically that it did.
It remains to be seen whether the RCVS will follow suit and only allow the practise of evidence-based veterinary medicine by its members. If not, it will need to justify its position; and that position is scientifically untenable.
The myth that homeopathy works in animals is not based on evidence; it is based on the claims of the vets who practise it. They are simply using their position of authority to convince their clients that their pets are improving with homeopathic treatment. Sadly, this is endorsed by the RCVS by allowing 'homeopathic vets' to be listed in their official register.
The major claim that is made is that homeopathy must work because it works in animals and they are not affected by the placebo effect. The truth is that because animals do not benefit from the placebo effect, using bogus treatments such as homeopathy on them means that they receive no benefit from the treatment whatsoever.
This article has focused on homeopathy as this is the most common treatment that this claim is made for. There are, however, also practitioners who treat animals with the likes of acupuncture, reiki, energy healing, etc.
The bottom line is always the same though: the customers may be happy, but the animals are not being treated. These treatments do not work in animals at all.
Warning: these are cases where animals have suffered at the hands of "homeopathic vets": Case Reports.
Homeopathy in dairy cows (PDF 79K)