Q My cat Arya has chronic kidney disease. My sister credits homeopathy for her own good health and advocates it for Arya. My veterinarian doesn’t offer homeopathy and says it isn’t effective. Can you break the tie?
A This isn’t a tie, because only your veterinarian is trained to care for cats with chronic kidney disease. I advise you to follow those recommendations.
Homeopathy is an 18th-century medical art based on the notion that one can stimulate the healing process with a substantially diluted substance that at full strength would cause healthy people to experience the same symptoms the patient has.
Extensive research has proved that homeopathic treatments are not effective in humans. Although fewer studies have been conducted in cats and dogs, the results have been comparable.
In 2015, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council stated, “Based on the assessment of the evidence of effectiveness of homeopathy, NHMRC concludes that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.”
Two years later, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council stated that “the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts.”
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, agrees. They also document cases when homeopathy caused adverse reactions, including deaths, because of toxic contaminants or incorrect dilution of the active ingredient.
These organizations note that homeopathy is especially risky when treatments proved to be effective and safe are delayed or rejected.
Since scientific evidence has demonstrated that homeopathy is ineffective, Arya should feel better and live longer if you rely on therapies your veterinarian recommends, ones proved to be effective and safe.
Q In a recent column, you said a particular pain reliever was more effective than a placebo in clinical studies. I thought a placebo was an inactive substance that had no effects. Please explain.
A You’re correct that a placebo, pronounced “pla SEE bo,” is an inactive substance. It’s used in studies of drugs and other therapies so researchers can measure how much impact the drug itself has.
Many things contribute to what is called the “placebo effect,” the changes that occur after an inactive substance is administered. One is the body’s remarkable ability to heal itself, even without treatment.
Other times, the disease itself is responsible for the placebo effect. The frequency and severity of the clinical signs associated with most medical conditions wax and wane over time. Many people start treating their pets when the clinical signs are at their worst, so it should come as no surprise that many pets improve after starting a placebo.
Sometimes the patient’s improvement is due to other, less tangible things done at the same time the placebo is given. Examples are a diet change, rest, exercise or even just extra attention. Any of these can help the pet feel better.
In addition, the brain makes associations, such as recognizing that taking a pill or injection is followed by feeling better. When a placebo is substituted for the active drug, the pet might still feel some relief.
Most veterinary placebo research has been done in dogs with arthritis or epilepsy. But even studies in rats with diabetes show a placebo effect. Rats accustomed to insulin injections responded with similar blood sugar changes after placebo injections were substituted for insulin.
The caregiver placebo effect is another reason for apparent improvement. The caregiver wants or expects the pet to get better and therefore sees some progress.
Recognition of the placebo effect reminds us again that the body is a fascinating creation.
Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina.