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'Placebos for Pets'? Talk about barking up the wrong tree.

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‘Placebos for Pets’? Talk about barking up the wrong tree.

A review of “Placebos for Pets?: The Truth About Alternative Medicine in Animals”

In a world that often seems to be increasingly anti-science, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices are becoming more and more popular. Unsupported (and sometimes disproven) practices like herbalism, homeopathy, acupuncture, supplements, and manual therapies like chiropractic are erroneously used to treat any number of human ailments, in place of modern, science-based medicine.

As odd as it may (or may not) seem, many people who believe in the effectiveness of CAM practices feel that these alternative therapies are better choices not only for themselves, but also for their pets. Placebos For Pets? The Truth About Alternative Medicine In Animals, by Dr. Brennen McKenzie, VMD, does an amazing job of explaining various CAM therapies, their infiltration of the human/pet relationship, and why they may not be the best thing for you or your furry loved ones.

'Placebos for Pets'? Talk about barking up the wrong tree.

Placebos for Pets? starts with the basics of what CAM practices are. McKenzie discusses terms like “holistic” and “natural,” and delves into the “appeal to nature fallacy,” which is the false idea that all natural things are good and that things which are not natural are inherently not as good. He focuses on the fact that not only do many CAM therapies contradict one another, but also that practitioners of a given CAM may not agree with one another, noting, “CAM in general is an ideological category, not merely a collection of individual treatments. It is a collection of different, sometimes even mutually incompatible, ideas and practices united by their status as outside the mainstream.”

McKenzie points out that CAM practices are largely based in faith, and are often filled with attempts to affect our energy fields, with the belief that physical aspects of illness are only secondary to mental, emotional, and spiritual energy disruptions. CAM practitioners don’t feel that scientific research is important because the realm of nonphysical energies does not fit into the modern scientific world. “Individuals who believe in the importance of such metaphysical forces are unlikely to give up those beliefs regardless of the outcome of scientific research,” McKenzie says.

Before delving into some of the individual practices that fall under the umbrella CAM term, Placebos for Pets? attempts to educate its audience about the difference between anecdotal evidence and true scientific research, explaining why personal stories can be so appealing, even when scientific data refutes them. McKenzie uses the historical example of bloodletting, which was used for millennia to unsuccessfully treat many ailments, to show why you cannot choose a form of medicine simply because it’s been used for a very long time.

Most importantly, Placebos for Pets? takes great pains to explain the placebo effect, and how it’s manifested in the human/pet relationship. McKenzie imparts that while we know science “is imperfect and deeply flawed,” it’s still the best choice when it comes to medicine. “Controlled scientific research makes fewer mistakes than ordinary human observation and judgment,” he says, following up with a concise explanation of how the scientific process works and why the information gained through it is invaluable to making decisions about healthcare for ourselves, as well as our pets.

McKenzie spends the remainder of the book painstakingly walking the reader through various CAM practices and therapies. He breaks these chapters into categories:

  • What is it? — History, basic idea of therapy, modern variations.
  • Does it work? — Evidence, science, research, clinical trials.
  • Is it safe? — Misrepresentation, regulations, side effects.
  • Bottom Line –Summary.

If you’re pressed for time, you can skip to the “Bottom Line” section of any chapter for a quick summary of that particular CAM, but you’ll be missing out on a wealth of information about the history and science (or lack thereof) behind these techniques. It’s clear in these chapters that McKenzie’s main purpose is to educate people so they’re able to make rational choices for their pets’ medical care, though the reader may question how, after McKenzie’s explanation of the ineffectiveness of acupuncture, he could be certified in veterinary acupuncture and be comfortable using it as a form of treatment.

The final chapter of Placebos for Pets? implores us to use reason over emotion when making medical decisions for our pets, rather than following those who would appeal to our emotions in times of desperation. McKenzie’s main hope seems to be that we will take the time to empower ourselves with knowledge before making any decision, and maybe to be extra careful when it comes to our pets, since they can’t make decisions for themselves.

'Placebos for Pets'? Talk about barking up the wrong tree.

Placebos for Pets? isn’t just for animal lovers — it should be required reading before any other exposure to the CAM world. It can save people a lot of wasted time, money, and hope, though it probably won’t change the minds of those who already believe that CAM therapies are better than scientific medicine, regardless of the amount of evidence presented and sources cited. I do believe that the decisions of those who are on the fence, or have no previous experience with CAM, will be swayed to the side of science thanks to the information provided in  Placebos For Pets? The Truth About Alternative Medicine In Animals.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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