I was unfortunate enough to read this uncritical article on acupuncture for animals. Along with the usual drivel about improving the flow of qi, it’s been around for thousands of years, it’s been “shown” (how?) to do numerous good things etc etc, we get this misleading old canard:
At least with dogs and cats we know the effects are real and not a result of the mental expectation of improvement.
What they’re getting at is that since animals don’t know what’s going on, any benefit can’t be due to the placebo effect, and so double-blind studies are not necessary to test the efficacy of therapies on animals. They’re actually using this as an argument that altie procedures such as acupuncture have real benefits above placebo, but how do they know there is a benefit? Who determines whether the animal is sick and who determines whether the animal got better? After all, the animal can’t tell you if he feels better or not. The answer is the person supplying the altie remedy is often also the person who decides if the animal improved or not. And that is where the double-blinding is needed – the veterinarian diagnosing the illness, and determining if the treatment worked or not, must be blind to whether real or placebo treatments are given.
People think altie remedies work for a number of reasons, and only one of these is placebo.
- Temporary mood improvements due to the personal nature of the treatment
- Psychological investment of the patient in the success of the therapy
- Incorrect diagnosis to start with
- The cyclical nature of the illness (gets worse/gets better/gets worse/gets better…)
- Other medicines the patient is taking
- The illness just goes away by itself.
All of the above can apply to humans, and 1 to 4 may provide actual benefits to some people. Animals won’t benefit from items 1 to 3, although items 5 through 8 may make it appear the altie therapy is working. (4 – Misdirection – might provide some minor temporary benefits in pain relief, but not much else.) It is important to remember that there is no benefit to the animal, and this is why the author of this article has it completely backward: altie therapies such as acupuncture, that are mainly placebo, should never be used on animals because animals don’t benefit from the placebo effect. In addition, unlike adult humans, animals don’t get to choose their therapies and so they need protection from bad decisions made by their woo owners.
The randomized double-blind study was designed to control for all the biases listed above. We know that the “great bulk of the randomised controlled trials [of acupuncture] to date do not provide convincing evidence of pain relief over placebo”. We also know it doesn’t matter where you put the needles: all that matters is the person receiving the acupuncture believes the needles are being placed in the special magic places. Even stronger statements could be made against, for example, homeopathy – another useless therapy that is also practiced on animals. Treating sick animals with useless therapies, instead of available evidence based therapies, is nothing but animal cruelty and should never be allowed.
On a lighter note, there was another hard to believe claim in the article:
Believe it or not, during the acupuncture treatment itself, most animals exhibit little or no pain or discomfort. In fact, most of our patients will lie down during a treatment with their owners holding them and take a nap. The treatment itself may last 10 seconds to 30 minutes, with the average treatment being 20 minutes.
For a dog maybe, but a cat would never put up with that kind of nonsense. My cat puts up a fight if I just check to see if her claws need clipping. I can’t imagine she’d sit calmly and let someone stick needles in her for even 10 seconds let alone 30 minutes. And she hasn’t even read the studies. Reference: How to give a pill to a cat and a dog.