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Monday, February 24, 2014

WTF folk medicine? (Rant warning)

Hey kiddos, how has everyone been the last few weeks?  It's been ....interesting to say the least.  Chaos at work, at home, at the Skeptical Okie headquarters, and everywhere in between.  There have been some interesting things in the world of science, which have been covered by everybody.  So once again, this is going to be a rant at dangerous, misguided beliefs.

This is a bit off topic, but I highly recommend listening to the Monster Talk podcast.  Blake Smith and his guests do a good job discussing various cryptids and the likelihood of their existence.  I heartily endorse Monster Talk and urge anyone interested in Nessie, Bigfoot, Chupacabra, Mothman, and any other cryptids to go and give them a listen,  You won't be disappointed.  (Just let them know I sent you.)

Todays topic once again is based loosely on my work, and it relates back to several previous posts.  I'm talking about, as you can surmise from the title, folk medicine.  What brought this on is an encounter at my place of employment.  As I've said in the past, I work in animal welfare for a largish city.  As I was walking through the dog kennels, I saw an older woman looking intently at a young pup in one of the pens.  I walked up and began talking to her and at some point canine diseases come up.  She stated that her daughters dog had parvo and was nearly dead.  She gave it a wormer, and it was better the next day.  I looked at her and, thinking to use this as a teaching moment, told her that wormer only works on internal parasites, not a virus like parvo.  It will get rid of roundworms, tapeworms, or pinworms, depending on the type of wormer used.  Parvo is a virus, so it has to be treated symptomatically.  She looked at me and said "Nope, it was parvo, I just know it, and the wormer worked, just like always.  Just as a side note, there are some parasite infestations that can cause symptoms similar to parvo, which is why it's important to take your animal to the vet anytime it begins to act ill.  The woman then followed that amazing cure with another one.  She said her 12 year old German Shepherd had had distemper, and been suffering from it for about 5 days.  She put 1 drop of Blue-in in its water and the next day, it was cured.  Surely everyone from the 80's remembers Blue -in?

Image from Google Images
When I asked her what her vet had said about her dog, she said she doesn't go to a vet, because the old ways work the best. (Can you say Argument from Antiquity?  I knew you could.)  If her dog actually had distemper, blue clothing dye wouldn't have had any effect.  Once again, distemper is a virus and needs to be treated symptomatically.  And according to the vet and several vet techs and assistants at the facility, even if an animal recovers from distemper, it normally has neurological damage due to the extreme high fever.  What this woman's dog  more than likely, had was either a sinus infection or Bordetella, also called Kennel Cough.  She probably "medicated" the dog as the disease was finishing it's natural course, and of course it seemed he was cured. (Correlation does not equal causation)

Many folk medicines tend to fall under naturopathy.  Natural cures, herbal medicines, and the like.  They also tend to heavily rely on off label uses of various products.  This just means they aren't using the item as directed.  An anecdotal example is from when I was young.  I found out the hard way I am allergic to Neosporin, so my families idea was to use Corona (not the beer) on my various injuries.

Image from Google Images
On the label, it says "Not for use on humans"   Makes me wonder what my parents thought I was?  Maybe that's why I was always called a Hobbit growing up.  But I digress.  Another one is when my brother, who was about 5, caught chicken pox.  First, he was intentionally exposed, which was a practice that was quickly falling out of favor at the time.  Then he was put into a scalding hot bath and given a shot of Jack Daniels whiskey (that is not a typo) to speed the process up.  I'm surprised, looking back, that any of us survived childhood.

There are almost as many folk cures as there are people and diseases combined.  Some are fairly benign, such as chicken soup or orange juice for a cold.  Some are dangerous, like alcohol to a small child to speed up chicken pox.  Some are deadly, like azarcon, which is a powder that contains high levels of lead some people give to their children for stomach aches.  There are just too many variations, not only based on culture, but also geography, to even start listing them.  However, one thing most of them have in common is that they are generally passed down through the family or culture and have been used for decades, if not centuries.  Another thing they have in common is that if they were effective, then they have been tested and the active ingredients isolated, the effectiveness greatly improved, and are now manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.

As I mentioned in the example of the woman with the 2 dogs, there are also many, many folk cures used on animals.  The ones that come immediately to mind involve garlic and tobacco and motor oil.  If a dog were bred by an undesirable male, then some of the old timers would shove an entire clove of garlic down the dogs throat to induce an abortion.  Many old cowboys would feed their horses a cigarette to worm them.  As I mentioned in my previous post, people used to pour motor oil on dogs to treat them for mange.  Sevin dust sprinkled directly on the animal was a treatment/preventative for a variety of external parasites.

One of the major problems with using folk medicine is that, much like homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and anything else that falls under the Supplement, Complimentary, and Alternative Medicine (S.C.A.M. Thank you Mark Crislip) umbrella, is that no actual physician is ever consulted.  This means that there is no diagnosis.  Many diseases, from the minor to the fatal, have symptoms that are very similar, generally being "flu-like".  This means that while they may think they are treating something relatively minor, say a chest cold, the victim...sorry, I meant patient, could actually have the early stages of tuberculosis.  The people that promote and practice this crap are what used to be called hedge doctors.  They know a little bit about herbs and a little about diseases, not from education, but from their personal experience or family stories, and put 1 and 1 together and get 3.  Many times, in my line of work, I have heard someone say that their animal had parvo, or distemper, or they were poisoned and they cured them with some asinine treatment.  When I ask them what their vet said, they almost always say they didn't talk to a vet.  They talked to the guy down the street.  He has dogs, so he knows what he's talking about.  By that logic, because I have a microwave, I should be able to diagnose and treat radiation poisoning.  Another issue that many people in the skeptical community will find is that when talking with these people, or at least get them to look at the evidence, they will always fall back on the argument from antiquity, the natural fallacy, and sometimes they will even throw a conspiracy theory in for good measure.  My favorite of the last category is when people refuse to get their animal vaccinated for rabies, or even microchipped because they think the government will use it to track them.  Fun times.

Like I said at the beginning, this one is more of a rant than a researched post, mostly because I have covered most of this in one form or another previously.  I just thought I would throw it out there for those that are new to the skeptical community as an example of some of the misguided, pseudo-scientific bullshit you will run into on an almost daily basis.

I am having problems finding anyone that is willing to talk to me about the Sea Band that was suggested during my call for Woo products.  I still plan on discussing this product, but I don't know when I will be able to write it.  If anyone out there is a neurologist, neurosurgeon, or at this point, if you're neurotic, leave a comment. I will give you their responses to my questions and allow you to respond in kind.  I'm also working on a healing bracelet that has been harmonically synchronized with the Earth's own vibrational field (Urg, I think I had an anurism talking to the guy.)

Until next time, Be good, Be fair, and Be skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie

Monday, February 10, 2014

WTF natural medicine?

How has everyone been?  As usual, it's been hectic here at the Skeptical Okie headquarters, between the strange weather (thanks climate change), work (thanks needing to eat and pay bills), and just life in general (thanks?).

Now on to the main topic.  A few days ago, during the course of my normal day at work, I had to take an animal to a local emergency veterinarian.  While I was there waiting on them to determine the course of action for the kitten, one of the vet techs escorted a family back to see their dog, a schnauzer I believe.  While two of them were talking to the schnauzer, the third one in the group, a rather elderly lady, began looking at the other animals in the recovery area.  She noticed a couple of pups that were in essentially incubators.  The vet came out and told the family what the schnauzer had been doing while in his care.  Then the older woman asked what was wrong with the pups.  The vet informed her that they had a virus, which had already killed 2 other litters that morning. (I don't know what they had because the vet never said)  She looked at him and said "You need to go to a health food store and get some oregano oil.  You rub it on their bellies and they'll absorb it.  They'll be right as rain."  The other 2 people with her were standing there, nodding their heads like it was common knowledge.  The vet looked at the three of them and said that he didn't think it would work on a virus.  She said to do it and he would see it would work.  The vet sort of blinked, said okay, and went back to his office.  The 3 folks were just saying he'll see, and the natural cures work the best.   About this time, the vet tech that was working on the kitten I had taken in was looking at me sort of oddly, and she finally said "You want to say something, don't you?"  Yes, I did, but I couldn't because it wasn't directly related to my job, and I need the paycheck.  One thing I wanted to say was the vet blew a perfectly good teaching moment.  Granted, it probably wasn't the first time he'd heard it, and he may have just given up.  Secondly, I wanted to ask the 3 people, "If natural cures work the best, why is your dog at an emergency vet?"

Looking on the ever trustworthy interwebs for the efficacy of oregano oil, the first site I looked at states that it can be used to treat arthritis, allergies, and wounds, but nothing about viruses. The best sentence of the article says "Though there are no known side effects when using oregano on dogs, make sure to consult your vet immediately in case you encounter any problems."  Then at the bottom of the page, it goes on to talk about a couple of other herbs that are good to use on dogs, including slippery elm, basil, milk thistle, and hawthorn.  Another site only states that it will kill parasites, and yet a third says that it is "Antifungal, antiviral, anti-aging, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiparasitic, immune stimulant and antiseptic."(  So feed your dog lasagna, it never needs to see a vet?  The reason that this pissed me off, aside from the fact I really couldn't say anything to the owners, is that, like many people who rely on "natural cures and treatments" they wait until it's too late before seeking actual medical treatment.

When I was looking for the efficacy of oregano oil, and a few other "natural treatments", I kept running into the same websites, namely,,, a lot of them using some variant of "wellness" "natural" or oregano in their page title.  As soon as I see anything promoted by mercola or naturalnews, my skeptisense begins tingling.  I have discussed these two several times in the past, and I think I'm just going to have to write an article on them, and several other people and start referring people back to that.  Quick rule of thumb kiddos: When doing research on any medical treatment, if they claim something works, say oregano, or Antimonium crudum (no, that's not a Harry Potter spell) and strangely enough, why lookie there, a link to buy what they just said works!  What a coincidence! Yeah right.  The reason that there are links to buy whatever miracle cure you just read about is because it was an ad trying to entice you to buy whatever they're selling.  While looking into this lovely bit of Woo, I did find 2 articles on the first page of Google (using the keywords: Efficacy of oregano oil for dogs) from  The articles are Oil of Oregano: All anecdotes, no science and Oil of Oregano – No substitute for the pertussis vaccine.  I couldn't find anything published through the World Health Organization.  The CDC has about 3 pages of published material mentioning oregano.  These seem to consist mostly of articles about rates of exposure, studies about the rates of CAM(complimentary and alternative medicine) used by different ethnic groups, and a cookbook.  In Pubmeds, there are quite a few articles mentioning oregano, but they include ones concerning extending the shelf life of rainbow trout and the chemical components and character of oregano oil.  Yes, there are some talking about it having antibacterial or anti-cancer traits, but I could only read the summary, not the entire article, nor can I find anywhere that these results have been reproduced.  As far as I can tell, the main benefit to Oregano oil is to make a grilled piece of tuna taste even better.

I hope that my slightly ranty article shows that skepticism and critical thought aren't relative to only people, but can be helpful to the various animals that many of us share our lives with.  When I was young, a common treatment for mange was to cover the dog with motor oil.  Need to worm your dog or horse, feed them cigarettes (My grandfather insisted the Camel brand unfiltered worked best).  Your female dog was bred by an undesirable male?  Give her an entire clove of garlic (Just watch out if she tries to lick your face afterwards).  After I got older, and learned a bit of science, I realized that not only were a lot of the hedge doctor cures I grew up with ineffective, but a lot of them were also dangerous. (I guess if the patient dies, you can consider them cured of the problem?)  Now that I'm nearly 40, I'm mildly pissed, and a bit frightened that this crap is still being used.  As I've said in the past, I work for animal welfare, and we often see animals come in that have been covered in oil or paint to "cure" skin issues, cinnamon or sevin dust put on the animal to prevent or kill parasites, and various other "treatments" that people will swear works, yet they are dropping them off at the shelter because the animal has either gotten worse or it died.  I got particularly upset and argumentative with a woman that brought in several adult dogs, 2 litters of puppies, and 2 carriers of kittens and adult cats.  The puppies had parvo, which without medical treatment, is fatal to dogs, the adults were emaciated due to a worm infestation combined with nursing the puppies, and the felines had a variety of illnesses.  When I asked her how long they had been ill, she said a couple of months, and the puppies started showing signs of parvo the day before.  I asked her why she hadn't taken them to a vet and she informed me she had.  When asked what the vet told her to do, she said she didn't like the treatments suggested because they involved "harmful man made drugs".  She finally found a naturopathic/homeopathic veterinarian (do they actually come in that flavor?  WTF!) that prescribed activated charcoal for the parvo, and parsley for the worms. For the cats, the owner had several vials with cheap labels and fake latin sounding names hand written on them.  I won't go into detail, but needless to say, I was asked to step back and go help someone in the back, and let the supervisors take care of it.  On a side note, we had to euthanize everyone of those animals, as well as the others that she brought up later. She had more animals that she was treating for a variety of illness in a similar manner. As I said, Woo is dangerous, not only to humans, but to our fuzzy, furry, scaly, and feathered companions.  So the next time you're tempted give your animal something that claims to be All Natural, or some form of a cure-all, do a little research, consult your veterinarian, and remember, cure-alls cure nothing.

As usual, feel free to leave a comment here. Until next time, Be good, Be polite, and stay warm!

The Skeptical Okie