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Percy, Pavlov and placebo in animals

One argument that I hear with unfailing regularity when discussing with CAM enthusiasts is this: “It cannot be a placebo, because animals benefit from homeopathy”. This notion is not just wrong, it is wrong three times over! Let me explain.

One argument that I hear with unfailing regularity when discussing with CAM enthusiasts is this: "It cannot be a placebo, because animals benefit from homeopathy". This notion is not just wrong, it is wrong three times over! Let me explain.

First, who says that a treatment which is effective for animals also works for human patients or vice versa? I once had a girlfriend, who insisted on seeing a vet when she was ill.

I would not generally recommend this behaviour, however. Some treatments might work in an animal but not in humans. Some treatments work in humans but not in animals. Other treatments work in both and others again in neither species.

Second, who says that animals do not benefit from placebo-effects? If I remember correctly, Pavlov discovered conditioning in dogs – and conditioning is clearly part of a placebo response.

My dog, Percy, has a mini-depression each time I travel, and lately he even does so at the mere sight of me carrying a suitcase. No placebo-effects in animals? I am sure this is wrong.

Third, who says that animals benefit from homeopathy? The trial data are, of course, not entirely uniform but their totality fails to show convincingly that homeopathy works in animals.

A recent randomised placebo-controlled, double-blind trial is a case in point. American vets tested whether dogs that panic during fire-works (like my Percy) experience less anxiety after a homeopathic treatment specifically designed for that problem.

The outcome? Well, I think you already know it (The Veterinary Journal 2008;177:80-88).

Professor Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School Recent posts

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Homeopaths ride to swine flu rescue 06 May 09
Just because a patient gets better, doesn't mean their treatment worked 28 April 09
Homeopathy for cancer is nothing more than placebo 23 April 09
Do complementary and alternative therapies do more harm than good? 20 April 09
Don't let your practice become an evidence-free zone 15 April 09
Natural doesn't mean safe. And CAM is neither 06 April 09

So-called 'integrated medicine' is disturbing nonsense 30 March 09


Why 'belief' in complementary medicine is misguided 23 March 09

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