The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Veterinary Homeopathy

Here's a cheerful note from the Feedback section of the October 18th New Scientist. I'm just going to quote it -- you can draw your own conclusions.

AN EMAIL from Andrew Rankine raises concerns about Dr Frank's Pet Pain Spray, a homeopathic treatment for cats and dogs suffering from arthritis. It set us ferreting around, and we soon found a discussion of the spray on James Randi's quack-busting website. Here we came across a notion that hadn't previously occurred to us, despite it being so obvious. Perhaps homeopathic treatments for animals are said to "work" not because the animals report feeling better - how could they? - but because their owners and the homeopaths who treat them report that they are better. It's the placebo effect again, but the effect is vicarious, working on the owners and homeopathic veterinarians, not the animals.

By way of an anecdotal example, a link on the Randi site takes us to a case report on the website of the wonderfully named British Veterinary Voodoo Society. Here "a veterinary surgeon from East Sussex" reports on a client who brought in a dog with a skin problem, but who refused to allow the vet to do the requisite tests. Instead, he announced he was "off to see the local homeopath". A couple of months later he returned with the dog, saying: "I just wanted to let you see what a brilliant job the homeopath did when you were completely useless."

The vet comments: "What could I say? The dog stood there, to my eyes actually slightly worse than it had been on the day I'd last seen it. Frankly, it looked just awful. But in the owner's eyes there had been a massive improvement. I think this is how homoeopathy 'works' in quite a lot of cases. Somebody wants to believe the animal is better, so it is better."

There is, however, a further possibility which is raised by one of the contributors to the Randi discussion. If the owner is happy because they believe a homeopathic treatment has made their dog better, then perhaps their happiness will make the dog feel happier too - and as the vicarious placebo effects bounce back and forth, perhaps all this happiness will assist the dog's recovery from the condition it is being treated for. So perhaps homeopathy for pets can sometimes "work" after all.

Or not. What would "work" would be criminal charges against the owner, in my opinion, same as we do when dietary extremists let their children starve to death.

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