Is There a Placebo Effect for Animals?

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.

Fully discussing placebo effects is a topic for another blog (or several other blogs).  Regardless, whether or not placebo effects exist in human medicine, there is little evidence that they exist in animals. (1)  In general, for a placebo response to occur, it would seen require that the patient being treated recognize that there is an intentional effort to treat.  Animals would appear to lack the ability to comprehend such intentions (other than they may not like a particular intervention).  As such, animals would not be able to participate in placebo-generating experiences.  So, for example, one couldn’t rationally suggest to a dog that a particular therapy might help it get better, or that it was beneficial because it was “natural;” one presumably wouldn’t wax eloquent to a horse that a particular therapy might give it a window of hope for recovery.  They just wouldn’t understand.

Still, there are many explanations for how a placebo-like effect might be explained in animals.  Take conditioning.  Conditioning theory proposes that bodily changes result following exposure to a stimulus that previously produced that change.  This is perhaps the most intuitively acceptable explanation for any placebo effects in animals.  Indeed, animal studies support such a model for placebo effects, starting with the first descriptions on salivating dogs by Pavlov. (2) Both human and animal studies support the idea that conditioning forms some basis for placebo responses. (3)  Since conditioning requires learning, it would be expected that repeated visits to a practitioner (of any particular persuasion) might increase the strength of the association between a learned stimuli and response in animals, good or bad.  There are numerous examples of dogs shaking in fear when being taken into a veterinary clinic; on the other hand, a dog that enjoyed being handled in a soothing environment might appear to receive some relief from a chronic condition; as it learned to associate its visits with the comforting handling, conditioning effects could occur.  This could certainly serve as reasonable explanations for purported placebo effects in animals.  Nevertheless, the hypothesis that a healing or therapeutic effect can be dependably provoked as a result of conditioning cannot be supported at this time by any evidence.

Expectancy theory proposes that bodily changes may occur to the extent that the person receiving the therapy expects them to.  There is considerable overlap between expectancy and conditioning, because learning is one of the major ways that expectancies are formed.  To the extent that therapies are expected to provide relief from disease, or at least provide the client and/or veterinarian with a feeling of control over the disease process, they may alleviate adverse mental states (in the humans).  Certainly, in humans, therapies that help restore patient control may evoke therapeutic effects, at least short term, but studies that investigate the expectancy model in animals have so far not been performed.  Still, if animals were able to form an association between treatment-related signals (the attention and handling received, the way that the owner behaves towards the animal when it is receiving treatment) and the relief of its distress, expectancies of treatment effects might develop (on the part of both animal and owner).

There is a good body of research that demonstrates that human contact has measurable effects on animals.  For example, petting by humans reduces heart rates in dogs (4) and horses (5) and causes major vascular changes in dogs. (6)  Gentle handling increases productivity in dairy heifers (7) and increases reproductive efficiency in sows. (8)  Thus, it is plausible that human-animal contact might play an important role in the observed responses to therapeutic interventions.  To take an “alternative” example, it has been shown that a single acupuncture treatment is as effective as petting a horse, when it comes to relief of signs of chronic airway disease; that is, there’s no demonstrable effect of acupuncture beyond simple handling. (9) On the other hand, handling may also be stressful to animals, so responses to handling may not necessarily be beneficial.  Still, there’s no question that human contact can invoke responses from animals and animals may behave quite differently when they are not being observed; those shouldn’t be confused with placebo-effects, however.

Can Therapies Induce Placebo Effects in Owners?

The reported intensity of subjective symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and depressed mood in an animal may vary over time for all sorts of reasons, not all of which have to do with actual changes in symptom severity.  Further complicating such analyses are treatment effects that might exist on the part of both the animal owner, as well as the veterinarian with a personal investment in an “alternative” approach.

Client expectations can be very powerful motivators.  Having participated in a therapeutic transaction, clients generally expect to see some results.  Optimistic owners may be more likely to diligently pursue treatments.  Even failing obvious results, normal reciprocal responses often result in clients reporting improvement, at least initially, even when no improvement has occurred.  At the very least, veterinarians can help clients understand what problems are occurring in the animal – such comfort and reassurance may make a problem easier for the client to deal with.  That’s a good thing, mostly, unless the veterinarian steers the client into areas that are unsupported by evidence.

Good veterinary care should include a healthy dose of understanding and compassion, and veterinarians should be interested in proven effective care.  However, there’s no evidence whatsoever that animals can benefit from, or even experience, placebo effects.  Indeed, when doctors claim effectiveness for a treatment beyond the evidence in the belief that they are doing the patient a favor by inducing a “placebo effect” to the animal’s supposed benefit, they are abusing three trusted roles: expert, authority figure, and comforter.  Animals deserve better.


  1. McMillan, FD.  The Placebo Effect in Animals.  J Am Vet Med Assoc 1999;  215(7):  992-9.
  2. Pavlov, IP.  Conditioned Reflexes.  London:  Oxford Press, 1927.  23–78.
  3. Voudouris, NJ, Peck, CL, Coleman, G.  Conditioned placebo responses.  J Pers Soc Psychol 1985;  48:  47-53.
  4. Gantt, WH, Newton, JO, Royer, FL, et al.  Effect of person.  Conditional Reflex 1966;  1: 18-35.
  5. Lynch, B.  Heart rate changes in the horse to human contact.  Psychophysiology 1974; 11:  472-478.
  6. Newton, JF, Ehrlich, WW.  Coronary blood flow in dogs:  effect of person.  Conditional Reflex 1966; 1: 81.
  7. Gross, WB.  The benefits of tender loving care.  Int J Stud Anim Prob 1980; 1:  147-149.
  8. Heinsworth, PH, Brand, A, Willems, PJ.  The behavioral response of sows to the presence of human beings and their productivity.  Livestock Prod Sci 1981; 8:  67-74.
  9. Wilson, DV, Berney, CE, Peroni, DL, et al.  The effects of a single acupuncture treatment in horses with severe recurrent airway obstruction. Equine Vet J 2004; 36(6): 489-94.

Posted in: Acupuncture, Science and Medicine, Veterinary medicine

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21 thoughts on “Is There a Placebo Effect for Animals?

  1. tarran says:

    Actually, animals do sometimes comprehend that they are being helped.

    I’ve observed this with two of the three dogs I’ve owned. All of my dogs have hated going to the vet. However, when they have had sever injuries (a broken toe for one dog, and a bad cut on a paw of another), the dogs reluctantly but without figthing went into the vet’s office and submitted to his ministrations.
    To me, it seemed that they recognized that people were trying to help them. They might not understand what was being done to them, but there was an uncharacteristic degree of cooperation.

    And, of course, the vet was the final link in a chain of treatment. When a dog first showed signs of being injured, we examined it. We soothed it. We looked at the injury. Then we took him to the vet because it was beyond our ability to fix. Of course, there were plenty of times when a dog would come home with injuries, and we did those things, and treated him at home.

    Dogs often recognize that humans are much smarter than they are. Dogs that are closely bonded with humans will trust that intelligence is being used to help them. A person who takes a pill often has no idea if it will work or not. They trust the doctor’s explanation. A similar thing can occur with a dog who has no idea what is being done, but trusts the human beings doing it.

  2. Tom Nielsen says:


    You are making are conclusion based on a personal anecdote.

    When people love their animals and see them in some sort of distress, they of course want to be able to communicate to them that the uncomforts associated with a veterinary visit is for their own good.

    Have you ever considered that your dogs submitted to treatment, because they considered you and the veterinarian as authority figures, and that it had no choice. And you still said “reluctantly”. How do you know, that your desire for your dog know it’s for its own good, doesn’t color your conclusion?

  3. Fifi says:

    The reluctance also seems to support the idea that it’s a natural submission to authority (particularly since owners usually defer to the authority of the vet so the dog is given the message that the vet is the or another alpha dog, so essentially has two dogs higher on the totem pole pushing it to do something it is reluctant to do). Add in the reassurance that the vet gives the owner, who then calms down more themself, and it’s quite a potent mix of “calm down” and “submit” signals being given to the dog.

  4. Harriet Hall says:

    Or maybe the stress of the injury interfered with the dogs’ usual ability to protest a visit to the vet. Aren’t injured and sick animals more subdued and more likely to withdraw?

  5. Fifi says:

    Harriet – That sounds plausible too. Though I have met a dog or two that fake injury for attention! (They’ve correlated a certain behavior with the reward of love and attention – people do this too – so they repeat the trick to get the treat :-) )

    This is entirely anecdotal but one dog I’m auntie to freaks out when she goes to the vet with her owner (who’s somewhat highly strung himself and anxious about taking her) but is very calm when I take her. In fact, she acts quite differently towards other dogs too when out for a walk depending on who she’s with. She doesn’t like being at the vet more when I take her but she knows I’m in charge and is just more secure and therefore “braver” when she’s with me. Plus, I don’t make a big deal about it and if she freaks out I don’t get upset myself, I just calm her down and reassure her. She certainly doesn’t love me more than her owner, there’s just less confusion about who’s in charge and, because she’s a dog, this can cause anxiety for her because she’s not sure who’s in charge.

    Cats are an entirely different matter since their social hierarchies are constructed quite differently, as are our relationships with them, but if they’re highly bonded with an owner then they also respond to being reassured when they’re afraid. Plus, going to the vet is a much weirder experience for a housecat or even an outdoors cat than it is for a dog that’s used to going places with their owner as a normal activity.

  6. tarran says:

    You are making are conclusion based on a personal anecdote.

    Yes, it’s part of the way that human beings figure out the way the world works. One observes something. One comes up with a mechanism to explain the observation.

    And, often it’s the only thing we have to make judgments. Imagine a guy living in the neolithic era. He sees someone get bitten by a snake with a distinctive pattern on its back. The victim dies. Does the mere fact that his experience is “anecdotal” somehow invalidate his conclusion that that snake is poisonous? After all, it could be that the guy bitten by the snake had had a hear tattack after being bitten. Shall he perform a double blind study before coming the the conclusion that that snake should be avoided?

    Have you ever considered that your dogs submitted to treatment, because they considered you and the veterinarian as authority figures, and that it had no choice. And you still said “reluctantly”. How do you know, that your desire for your dog know it’s for its own good, doesn’t color your conclusion?

    Of course. I know this to be true. Listen, if a strange man grabs a wounded dog, particularly my dogs, they are going to get bitten. Badly. One of those two dogs I was referring to once fought off a gunman who came to kill my father in Turkey. They would never have submitted to the vet without the presence of the humans they knew.

    The dogs had learned that when they were injured one of the humans in the house would help them. They would seek us out when injured. They would submit to painful treatment that they would not submit to when not injured. Nor where they incapable of resisting.

    If the dogs thought that the painful treatments were useless, they wouldn’t seek them out. You can verify this by taking a dog and abusing it for no good reason. Trust me, the dog will hide from you and want nothing to do with you (unless driven to seek you out from hunger or loneliness).

    The dogs had made the praxeological connection that the way to resolve injuries or discomfort was to seek out a human member of the pack since the human would fix the problem. And that is precisely what humans do when they ask a doctor for a pill or an acupuncturist for a needle. The diminished mental capacity of dogs is irrelevant to the fact that they are making a decision expecting a result.

    I’ve noticed that some people have a strong aversion to crediting animals with thought and purposeful action. This can be an overreaction to the problem of people anthropomorphizing animals – crediting them with human thoughts, emotions or instincts. However, while human beings are by far the most intelligent of animals on the earth, and have some unique cognitive abilities that members of other species lack, in the end there is a great deal of commonality between human brains and those of other mammals.

    The idea that human beings can make decisions regarding themselves and that all other animals lack such a skill is nothing more than wishful thinking, particularly by people who are uncomfortable with the implications of treating thinking creatures as property to be exploited or destroyed at will.

    If you were to compare the brains of all mammals, you would find that much of the human brain has a great deal of commonality with most mammalian brains. Studying the cognition of animals is, of course, very difficult, but I think the early studies have shown that similar structures perform similar functions. Thus one would expect to see similar forms of cognition, especially in “higher order” mammals.

  7. Fifi says:

    Actually, humans are mammals – that’s why we share traits with other mammals. The experience of bonding and love is one of them – it has a very clear biological and evolutionary purpose (it’s unnecessary for snakes or other animals that don’t have young that needs to be matured outside the womb before they can be independent). However, love is an emotion not an intellectual or decision making process so to leap from “we’re all mammals” to “dogs think just like us” is a big leap not supported by anything (since the kind of though processes we’re talking about are necessary for some species and not others). So far, from what I’ve read, it’s only apes and some aquatic mammals like dolphins that even come close to humans in terms of self awareness and complexity of thought processes (which is not surprising since they also have the kinds of complex social relationships with complex communication needs that humans have).

  8. Fifi says:

    Being mammals, we of course share certain brain structures with other mammals – the parts that dogs don’t have is the part that is involved in the kind of complex decision making that you claim dogs can make. (From my understanding of neurobiology, though I’d appreciate David Ramey or a neurobiologist confirming this for me or letting me know if I’m incorrect.) So, before accusing others of wishful thinking, it’s perhaps worthwhile looking at your own bias which, by the way, may actually mean you’re not giving your dog what it really needs because you’re treating him or her like a human not a dog. (I say that with the understanding that you undoubtedly love your dog and try to always do the best for him or her – I’m not trying to call into question your love of your dog, just if you’re really doing what’s in his or her best interests as a dog.) Dogs need different things than humans – we love them best and give them what they need when we acknowledge their dog nature rather than turning them into surrogate humans. Loving anyone or anything is about recognizing and respecting them for who/what they are. People forget this, that’s why they think someone like Cesar the dog whisperer is working some kind of supernatural power when all he’s really doing is recognizing and respecting that the dog is a dog and needs to be communicated with and treated in a way that a dog can understand (which is not the same as a human). That doesn’t make dogs any less lovable, it’s just recognizing our responsibility when we choose to be a dog’s leader (that’s what we are, dogs don’t do equality, either you or they are the leader….quite often it’s the dog which is where a dog whisperer or trainer comes in handy…any dog trainer is really training the owner as well as the dog).

  9. Badly Shaved Monkey says:

    ” At the very least, veterinarians can help clients understand what problems are occurring in the animal – such comfort and reassurance may make a problem easier for the client to deal with.”

    As a vet, I’d like to say that one particular suit of clothes I have comprehensively stolen from the altmeddlers following my years of confrontation with and study of them is an ability to give “good narrative” to owners.

    Some conditions that owners find very distressing are actually medically trivial and giving them some insight into what is going on is, I think, quite healing of the relationship between owner and pet (and the altmeddlers can’t trump that for holism!).

    A particular example that I have been thinking about recently is chronic diarrhoea in dogs. This is a great target of altmeddlers and self-proclaimed animal nutrition gurus with their raw foods and “no additive” diets as well as being a target for conventional treatment.

    Clearly, there are many cases of real chronic bowel disease, but I have been wondering whether what we are also seeing is something that might better be called “non-poop-scoopable faeces syndrome”. I suspect many dogs have always had a variable bowel habit and owners didn’t much care, but now they are required to pick the stuff up they have a strong motivation for their animals to be regular sausage-makers. I think it is too easy to buy into an owner’s definition of their animal’s situation as a medical Problem, and one antidote to that is to give a good explanation which gives them more of an insight into the biological reality. I find that can usefully lower their excessive expectations and help them to live with the problem more readily even if I cannot persuade their dog’s bowels to produce perfectly formed faecal boluses tied up with a neat little ribbon.

    Similarly, when clients tell me that their animals are scratching “a lot”, I do try to restrict my therapeutic interventions to those cases that actually suffer from identifiable lesions, so, for the owners of animals where I am trying hard to prescribe no pharmaceuticals at all, I do try to give a good story about what is going on. I accept that in many cases I could use a big therapeutic hammer to crack that little medical nut, but my worry is that we give the client the wrong message by doing so, raise an expectation that drugs will always be used and quietly reduce the benefit:risk ratio that we are trying to maximise with medical treatment.

  10. Tom Nielsen says:


    The problem I had with your statement, was the matter of fact nature of it. You start off with a somewhat controversial statement, including a high degree of certainty, and you back it up with personal anecdotes. Yes, personal anecdotes are not worthless, but when expressing something that might be considered uncertain or controversial, you better have something better than anecdotes to back it up with. Anecdotes are uncontrolled observations, and if you have been reading this blog, you should know how unreliable they can be, especially when someone has an emotional investment in something, as you seem to do. Plus, positive anecdotes, can easily be negated by negative anecdotes. One have no way to decide who is right. I have two dogs myself, and could present anecdotes to the contrary.

    There is a big difference between stating something very plausible and directly observable, as a certain snake being dangerous, and a dog having the cognitive ability to comprehend they are being helped. It might be that it can comprehend it, but understanding what is going on inside the head of dog, is not directly observable. If a dog doesn’t understand how the mechanisms behind the treatment it receives work, then how does it know that you are helping it, and not doing something entirely else to it. Again, maybe it just submits because you are the leader of the flock – and thereby doesn’t perceive of you as a threat – and because it is in a bad position.

    Maybe if you were licking its wounds… it would see that you are trying to help it.

    And I have no aversion to crediting animals with thought and purposeful action, I just think that we should be careful that we, in some cases, are not just projecting it onto them.

  11. Joe says:

    tarran on 25 Oct 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Responded to “You are making are conclusion based on a personal anecdote.”

    With “Yes, it’s part of the way that human beings figure out the way the world works. One observes something. One comes up with a mechanism to explain the observation.”

    Yes, and that brought us blooledtting and horrible purgatives. It wasn’t until we realized how easily we fool ourselves that we started making regular progress; including, dumping many of the things we had hypothesized about the way the world works. That is, we developed scientific, controlled studies.

    Anecdotes can be useful in suggesting what to study; but no number of them add up to a conclusion.

  12. David Ramey says:

    The field of canine cognition is far beyond the scope of this particular piece, but it is a very interesting area. In some ways, the conclusions reached, and the opinions held, say as much about the people making the observations as they do the dogs.

    If anyone is really interested in digging into this area, I’d suggest starting with an article, “Can dogs think? Maybe yes, and maybe no. What dogs do quite well, though, is make people think that dogs can think,” published in 2005, by Blumberg and Coppinger, and available at It’s a fairly good overview of much of what has been written on the field.

    For those REALLY interested, try searching for Vilmos Csanyi, Britta Osthaus, Stanley Coren, Adam Miklosi (Hungary), Friederike Range (U. Vienna), or Juliane Kaminski (MPI).

    Good luck,
    David Ramey, DVM

  13. mckenzievmd says:

    I would just add to Dr. Ramey’s comments that I think the placebo-effect-by-proxy is an important problem in evaluation of veterinary therapeutics. Owners, vets, and researchers are just as prone to see what they want to see as human patients and clinicians. So while animals probably don’t receive much “real placebo” effects, placebo controls are essential for veterinary studies, and studies without such controls (as well as “clinical experience” evaluations) are just as likely to be misleading in veterinary as in human medicine.

    As to the cognition issue, I did a MA in animal behavior and worked with chimps for several years bnefore becoming a vet, so I have a great deal of interest in the subject. I do not believe the research evidence supports anything like the level of cognition some here have attributed to dogs, and I am personally quite convinced my canine and feline patients have no idea that I am trying to help them. I do think they, especially dogs, are exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of their owners, and owner’s unknowingly contribute greatly to the amount of anxiety or cooperation their pets exhibit during a visit.

  14. Calli Arcale says:

    Bingo, mckenzievmd. Placebos aren’t just there to blind the patient as to whether or not they’re getting the real therapy. They’re also there to blind the person who is collecting data to evaluate the effectiveness of the therapy.

    I also think that you, and others, are right that when pets calm down for a placebo, it’s not because of high intelligence but because they are cuing off of the owner. We tend to grossly underestimate our influence on our pets, especially dogs. One thing strongly emphasized on “Dog Whisperer” is that in nearly all cases, fixing a problem dog situation doesn’t depend on retraining the dog so much as retraining the owner. They read our body language extremely well, so if we’re nervous, they’ll get nervous too. If we’re calm and controlled, they will be too.

  15. tarran says:

    A few points:
    1) Anecdotes can be useful for coming to a conclusion. An anecdote is really an observation. Certain theories can be falsified by a single observation. For example, one could advance the theory that dogs don’t recognize that they are being treated for an illness or injury. This can be falsified by a single observation, where a dog demonstrates that he or she knows she is being treated.

    2) Most of the commenters seem to be misreading my comments as arguing for near human intelligence of dogs. This is not what I am arguing. Far from it. I am arguing that dogs act purposefully. That is, that a dog will feel a want or desire (such as for the pain of an injury to stop) and then act in a manner that they expect will satisfy that need. This is the definition of praxeological action. The converse to this assertion is that dogs do not act purposefully, that they are responding to stimuli mindlessly with no expectation of outcomes. I don’t think anyone who works with dogs would argue that they behave this way – they could not be trained to do tricks, for example, if that were the case.

    3) By arguing that dogs behave purposefully, I am not arguing that dogs plan ahead. The two are very different things. I have no evidence that my dog ever goes the bed thinking, “tomorrow, I think I will try to chase a rabbit”. But a dog which recognizes that a favorite toy is missing and systematically explores all the spots that a toddler might have taken the toy to is not behaving in some instinctual behavior. It is purposeful behavior designed to satisfy a need, in this case to get its favorite toy back.

    4) My argument remains. A significant number of well cared for dogs that are in distress will seek out their owners for relief. Of these well cared for dogs, those which have had humans take care of their distress in the past will expect that humans will do the same thing in the future. It is this expectation which is a requirement for the placebo effect to exist. For a human to demonstrate the placebo effect, they must expect to get better.

    5) I am not asserting that dogs always know that they are being treated. I had a neighbor who owned inbred Irish Setters, and we can falsify that hypothesis based on those particular dogs’ behaviors (those dogs always acted bewildered when my dog bit them after they strayed onto our land – they just never seemed to get it). However, I am asserting that some dogs expect that humans will make their injuries or discomfort better, and will conclude that the mysterious actions being taken are meeting that need or want. This does not mean that a dog would recognize pointless things being done to it by its owner.

    6) I agree that since dogs can’t tell you whether or not they are “feeling better”, or tell you their pain levels on some scale, we are left to guess whether or not a placebo effect exists.

    I am somewhat amused by this insistence that animals don’t think. Yes, they don’t think like humans do. They are farmore alien than anything dreamed up on a Star Trek episode. But, much of the denials I read here strike me as wishful thinking. I suspect that it is a reflexive desire to deny legitimacy to those terrorists who call themselves animal rights activists. But in doing so, they seem to be asserting that a non-primate brain is closer in function to an ant brain than a human brain.

    Humans are special, but not that special.

  16. daedalus2u says:

    If there is a placebo effect, that effect is mediated through physiology. Human physiology didn’t suddenly appear, it evolved. Human ancestors had physiology quite similar to modern humans, the more distant the ancestor the less the similarity. If humans have a placebo effect, then human ancestors had a somewhat similar physiological effect.

    How far back does the physiology behind a placebo effect go? That is a good question. Presumably it involves the regulation of healing. Healing is an extremely early evolving trait. Essentially all multi-cellular organisms (and many single-celled organisms) exhibit healing, so they must also exhibit regulation of that healing process.

    Healing is not a simple process. It takes time and resources to accomplish. Presumably a successful organism needs to allocate its resources efficiently. Organisms that allocate their resources efficiently will have more resources to devote to reproduction, and so will have more descendents than those which do not.

    Under what circumstances would it be advantageous to slow down the healing process? When the resources needed to implement healing are needed for something more important, such as flee from a predator. If an organism is being chased by a predator, the optimum organism will allocate all available resources to fleeing because to be caught is certain death. Delayed healing may also cause death, but if death from being caught by the predator would be faster than death from delaying healing, the optimum organism would delay healing while being chased. Once the organism has escaped from the predator, then healing can be resumed.

    Presumably the faster healing can be resumed, the faster the healing will occur, and the better the organism will survive and reproduce. Presumably a neurogenic mechanism to resume healing once the predator has been escaped from would be the fastest mechanism.

    I suggest that the neurogenic mechanism of resuming healing following stress as in the fight or flight state is the quintessential placebo effect. As such, probably all mobile multi-cellular organisms exhibit it. Perhaps plants exhibit it too but via different mechanisms.

  17. mckenzievmd says:


    The problem with your argument regarding anecdotes is that the question is not “does a single clear case of a dog knowing it is being treateed falsify the theory that dogs never know this?” The question is what constitutes proof that a dog does know this. Your anecdotes are subjective impressions of the behavior and its significance, and it is this that is doubtful as evidence. An anecdote is not an anecdote just because it is a single instance but because it is not a controlled observation that reliably controls for bias and makes objective the findings.

    Obviously, I see lots of dogs coming to me for treatment and lots of owners with beliefs about what their dogs think under those circumstances. My personal experiences do not support your contention that dogs are capable of recognizing the significance of the context in the sense that they understand I or their owners are trying to make them better. But my personal experience is no more objective than yours. However, to blithely dismiss it as “a reflexive desire to deny legitimacy to those terrorists who call themselves animal rights activists” is a wildly inaccurate speculation. I could just as easily characterize your conclusions as motivated by your desire to see your significance in your p;ets’ lives as greater than it really is. But such motive-questioning isn’t really useful in a debate like this. Instead, I contend that intuition and personal anecdotal experience simply isn’t sufficient to demonstrate a theory as true. It is a great way to form hypotheses, but that’s about it.

    As far as how dogs respond to treatment, I do see lots of behavior consistent with classical and operant conditioning. It is true that a dog who has a thorn in its foot that the owner removes may approach the owner the next time it gets such a thorn. This is, as you describe it, purposeful behavior, but it doesn’t imply the sophistication of thought you think it does. I just as often, or frankly more often, see dogs whos owners attempt clumsily to remove a thorn and cause greater discomfort, and these dogs avoid their owners and everyone else any time they try to touch their feet whether they have a thorn or not. This strongly suggests to me conditioning is a more likley explanation here than an understanding of the owner as a source of help for injury or illness.

  18. Fifi says:

    I’d like to point out that I’ve actually been saying that animals DO think, they just don’t think like humans (most likely because they don’t have the same brain structure).

    I’d also like to point out that one doesn’t have to believe animals think like humans to consider it unethical to create unnecessary suffering for animals. It’s sufficient to recognize they experience pain, fear and suffering. I’m not trying to open up an ethical debate about scientific research, I’m just pointing out that tarran’s assertion that people just don’t agree with his/her point because of some anti-anti-vivisectionist bias is a strawman is inaccurate and actually misunderstands what both anti-vivisectionists and other less militant animal rights supporters base their beliefs and ethics upon. No matter where one stands on animals being used in medical research or eating animals, I think we can all agree that puppy mills, dogs being made to fight to their death, and beating kittens are unnecessarily cruelty to animals – not because they’re having existential thoughts about being beaten and this causes mental anguish but because they have nervous systems and feel pain and fear.

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