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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Homeopathy and the Hound

Hello everyone. No long rambling preamble this time, but I am going to ask a favor. If you enjoy this post, or any others I have written, please share it on Twitter, Facebook, or print it out and hand out copies to strangers on the street. Everyone will thank you for it. Now for todays topic. And as a quick aside, I've been working on this for quite a while. I keep getting so frustrated I have to leave it, and later come back and edit out most of the swearing.

Homeopathy and animals.
Most of the time, when I see articles about alternative medicine, they normally relate to the U.K. or central Europe.  This time, it was Oklahoma's Channel 9 news that did a story on people using alt med to help their pets.  You can find the article here.   What really gets me is that the people interviewed claim there was an immediate improvement when they began the treatments.  I do understand the use of the placebo effect on a human when it's end of life care and all other options have been utilized. But as far as I can find, there are no reputable studies that show the placebo effect has any benefit to animals.   I think this is more for the relief of the owners than the animals.  Alt med hasn't really been shown to have much of an effect on an animals level of stress, which is about the only way to determine pain in an animal that is unable to talk.  If the pet isn't responding well to science based medicine, and the owners decide to go down the alternative medicine path, the owners feel better, because they feel they are doing everything they can to help the animal, which in turn will reduce the stress levels of the pet.  So I guess, in a round about way, a placebo does have an effect on pets, just indirectly through their owner.  At the end of the article, it says that the dog has the energy of a dog half her age.  In an ironic twist, I am going to use an anecdote.  I have 3 dogs, all are stock dog varieties, 2 Heelers (which are stock trained) and 1 Australian Shepherd. The oldest is around 15 years right now, (and the 7 dog years to every 1 human year is just an old wives tale.)  and occasionally suffers from arthritis.  The symptoms come and go.  For a couple of days, the dog hobbles around the yard, barely mobile, and then he's running and playing with the others.  This is normal, though most of your standard alt med practitioners won't tell you this. Most of these treatments tend to rely heavily on the fact that most symptoms will come and go as the condition continues. And before anyone starts saying "You skeptics have never worked with a homeopath!", I have worked with a homeopathic/naturopathic vet. She was nowhere near as effective at treating the animals in our care as any of the other vets I have had the pleasure to work with.

I, like most other people in the blogosphere that could be called skeptics, have written on homeopathy, folk medicine, acupuncture, and naturopathy. (click the words to read some of my previous articles.) We are fairly familiar with these alternative medical modalities, and the placebo effect, and are aware of the fact that they most likely don't work.  But I think there is more at work here than just the placebo effect that you normally find in alt med. I really think that the Clever Hans effect is involved. Just in case you aren't familiar with this fallacy (and it's pretty interesting), I will try and give a brief overview of what is.

Clever Hans
In the later part of the 19th  and early 20th century, a German math teacher named Wilhelm Von Osten tried to teach a horse to do math. I have seen a couple of reasons for this. One was that he was trying to show that his teaching methods were so good that he could even teach an animal to do math. Another one I've seen is that he felt that animal intelligence had been greatly under estimated, so he was trying to prove that animals were smarter than people thought they were. Either way, he worked with a horse named Hans, and eventually was convinced that the equine scholar could answer math questions by stamping out the sums. During the training phase, the horse received praise and a treat when he answered correctly. (standard animal training/Pavlovian response) Von Osten began showing off the horse, and of course people were amazed. There was an investigation of the animals abilities, and when they brought in the psychologist Oskar Pfungst, he found that the horse wasn't actually doing math. Instead, he was picking up on subtle body cues and responding appropriately. When his tapping would reach the correct number, his owner would minutely shift his body, and the horse would stop. They even tried having other people ask the questions. His accuracy dropped a bit, but not by much. But if Hans couldn't see the questioner, or if the questioner didn't know the answer ahead of time, he got the answer wrong. Still an impressive ability, even if the horse can't do your taxes. There are quite a few articles on this, including The Skeptics Dictionary, Wikipedia, and Damn Interesting and they go into a lot more detail.

So what does the Clever Hans fallacy have to do with alternative medicine and veterinary medicine? Quite a bit actually. Pets can't talk and tell you how they feel. An animal could be in pain and a human wouldn't be able to tell because their body language is different from ours. We can tell if they are limping, not eating, or whining, but minor changes in their body language are difficult for most people to pick up on. Domestic animals, namely dogs and to a lesser extent cats, will normally respond to a humans body language, however. If you're happy, they'll act in a manner we interpret as happy. If you're sad or upset, their behavior will change. When you take your dog to a vet, quite often, you're nervous and anxious, which will affect how the dog is acting. Afterward, if you think the treatment is working, you'll be happy, and your pooch will respond to the change in body language. Combine this with the fact that most ailments wax and wane, and you can see why some people feel that alt med can be effective for treating animals. That's may be why the people claimed that there was an immediate change in their animal. Of course, they are possibly biased towards alternative medicine (it doesn't come out and say it in the original article, so I am making a supposition here) and to prevent cognitive dissonance, they have to believe it's working and they see results, sort of like prayer. That also may explain why they felt that actual vet care wasn't working. Vet medicine, just like human medicine, isn't fucking magic. It can't treat everything, and when it works, it will sometimes take some time before any sort of improvement is noticeable. Whereas alternative vet medicine is just like magic. It's an illusion that is designed to make you feel better about yourself, take your money, and isn't real.

 So, before spending a large piece of your money on acupuncture, homeopathy, and chiropractic treatments for your furry friend, do some research, preferably through reputable sources (avoid Natural News at all costs!) and determine 1) If the treatments are actually for you rather than your pet, and 2) Will they really give your animal a marked improvement in the quality of life. To be frank, these alt med treatments don't work. All they do is empty your wallet, and possibly prolong the suffering of an animal.  Finally, whenever you are contemplating using alternative medicine, either for yourself or for your pet, remember what Mark Crislip of Science Based Medicine says:

I'll end here before I go off on an expletive filled rant. As always, until next time, Be Good and Be Skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie.

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