Some of the most rewarding interactions we have with our pets involve food. Most dogs respond with gratifying enthusiasm to being fed, and this activity is an important part of the human-animal bond. Providing food is also part of the parent/child dynamic that in many ways characterizes our relationships with our pets. Giving food is an expression of affection and a symbol of our duty of care to our pets.
Because of these emotional resonances, pet owners are often very concerned about giving their pets the “right” food to maintain health and, if possible, to prevent or treat disease. This has allowed the development of a large, and profitable commercial pet food industry that aggressively markets diets with health-related claims. This industry resembles in some ways the pharmaceutical industry. It is regulated by the FDA, and also by individual states, according to a somewhat Byzantine set of standards established by the FFDCA (the guiding document governing the FDA) and by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a private organization made up primarily of state and federal feed control officials. Thanks to this regulatory structure, imperfect though it is, there is a good deal of solid science and research behind the products and claims the industry produces.
Periodically, one sees newspaper articles extolling the virtues of acupuncture for animals. To those familiar with the practice of acupuncture, the tag lines are nauseatingly familiar, e.g., acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, it works to stimulate the animal’s natural energies, etc., etc. Ditto the testimonials; Fluffy wasn’t helped by anything else; now, after a few months of treatment (and plenty of time), Fluffy is running around happily. Some may even take such testimony further, asserting, for example, with some rather tortured logic, that since acupuncture “works” in animals, and animals aren’t thought to be susceptible to placebo effects, then acupuncture must therefore work in people.
In fact, other than testimonials, there’s really no good evidence that acupuncture does work in animals. In fact, acupuncture isn’t much practiced in veterinary medicine – a distinct (but very vocal) minority of veterinarians may practice it. In fact, the most recent review on the management of canine arthritis concluded, “There was weak or no evidence in support of the use of” various modalities, including electrostimulated acupuncture and gold wire acupuncture,”1 and a recent study of electroacupuncture for postoperative pain after back surgery in dogs concluded that there was “equivocal evidence” for an effect, even though there was no difference in analgesics used between treatment and control groups.2
Without question, vaccination has been one of the most important interventions in disease prevention that has ever been developed. In spite of the demonstrable, and ongoing, success of vaccination, a small, but vocal, anti-vaccination movement has developed in human medicine, occasionally buttressed by horrifying instances of adverse reactions, as well as the occasional publications in scientific journals (vis, the Wakefield debacle). Vaccine development continues, and human health continues to benefit, as new vaccines are developed and tested prior to release.
In veterinary medicine, vaccination has also proven to be a boon for animal health. Diseases such as canine parvovirus and canine distemper, feline leukemia, or equine tetanus, have been greatly reduced – in some cases, nearly eliminated – by vaccination. And, as in human medicine, a small, but vocal, anti-vaccination movement has developed, regaling fearful listeners with tales of acute harm, or chronic, low-grade disease (sometimes termed “vaccinosis”).
One of the occasional arguments used in support of “alternative” approaches to human medicine is the observation that since “alternative” medicine is used (with anecdotal success) in animals, and animals don’t know anything about the treatment that they’re getting, then they must work a priori. Of course, the fallacy of such an observation is pretty obvious to anyone with a logical/skeptical frame of mind, because it assumes that the therapies do work (even though there’s little evidence of that).
Clearly, however, some people perceive that the therapies work, including veterinarians – there are veterinary acupuncturists, chiropractors, homeopaths, etc., etc. Since there’s very little scientific support for the idea that the therapies actually have any clinically significant effect on biological processes, including the processes that result in disease, questions arise as to whether there are other effects of “alternative” treatments on animals. Specifically, people may wonder whether or not animals can benefit from placebo effects.