I’ve always been fascinated by placebos and I never understood why the phrase “the placebo effect” was often spoken with such disdain. Here is a standard definition (from Wikipedia): “A placebo is a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient.” Except, it’s not necessarily ineffectual, right? That’s the point, if you think about it: We know that you can be helped just by the belief that something can help you, and that factor must be eliminating when testing new medications or treatments. Yes, the placebo effect can be a confounding factor when trying to discern if a particular treatment or medication is worthwhile, but isn’t it even more remarkable that belief itself can be therapeutic?
Study after study has shown that the mind-body connection is alive and well, illustrated by this experiment which found that a placebo was more effective at alleviating symptoms of Parkinson’s when patients were told they were being given a “more expensive” drug than the previous one they had been taking.
We are starting to understand more about the mechanisms of placebos: That they can create measurable changes in brain function and physiology based either on classical conditioning and/or what’s called the “expectancy effect,” both of which might be “in your head,” but only because your brain has changed its physiology and function in real and quantifiable ways. There’s tons of information out there on the placebo effect, but here’s a review article I thought was balanced and interesting. There are also a multitude of books written about the placebo effect; I’d love to hear if any readers have read them.)
But placebos and dogs? Ha! Surely no dog leaves the vet’s office in the belief that the hard, lump thing slid down her throat is going to make her better. But a recent study from Hungary (see abstract here) found that dogs do respond to what is sometimes called “contextual healing” and the type of placebo effect based on classical conditioning (more on that soon). In summary, dogs were briefly left alone in an unfamiliar room, and at one point, a stranger entered and spent a few minutes with the dog. The dog’s behavior, especially distress-related behavior at the doorways after the owner left, was first recorded to establish a baseline. Then some dogs were given a sedative 30 minutes before entering the room, while the control group were given a vitamin. Once the sedative took effect, the same order of “owner leaves, stranger enters” occurred. This procedure was repeated a third time, but in this trial, no dogs were given a sedative, and all dogs were given the vitamin. As expected, the dogs receiving a sedative were less distressed when their owners left (at least, their distress-related behavior decreased: We should all note that those aren’t necessarily the same things, right?).
The interesting result of the study is that the dogs who were sedated with a sedative were equally quiet when given the vitamin pill the next go round. That effect doesn’t appear to be one of habituation, because the control group, the dogs given only vitamins both times, showed more distressed behavior the third time around, not less. In other words, once the dog’s brain and body had learned to associate feeling (or behaving?) more relaxed after being given a pill that calmed them, the dogs had the same response to any pill given in the same context, even though it was a simple vitamin, not a sedative. This result could be taken as evidence of classical conditioning (UCS = a sedative, CS = being given a pill) and contextual healing (“any pill works in this room in this context”).
I’ve skimmed over some of the details of the study for the sake of brevity, but here it is if you have access to it: “Conditioned placebo effect in dogs decreases separation related behaviours.” Sümegi, Gácsi, Topál, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 159 (2014), 90-98.
Of course, the question is, what does this mean for our dogs? I’m not sure that anyone has a definitive answer to this question, any more than we do in human medicine. But at least, it means that details matter. Here is a direct quote from the article itself about possible applications:
“Severe cases of separation anxiety often require the use of medications in addition to a behaviour modification programme. Once the desired effect is achieved, the dose of the medicine may be gradually reduced and finally merely the procedure can maintain the effect. However, so far the administration method of the medicine has not been considered as important. Our results suggest that applying a specific regimen, that is, administrating the medicine always with the same environmental cues, for example with the same specific food type and with a set ritual, the real medicine can later be effectively replaced by placebo. As the anxiety relieving effect of placebo conditioning in dogs is of great applied importance, more research is needed to get a better perspective on the most efficient aspects of the treatment and the situational context that contributes to the manifestation of the placebo effect.”
Interesting stuff, yes? And of course, what effect might our beliefs about a medication have on our dogs? I find it hard to imagine that, at least sometimes, in some contexts, our own expectations have an effect on our dogs too. What do you think?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It was ten below this morning when we woke up, after 24 hours of snow and wind. There are many downsides to our recent blast of winter weather: The snow is now too deep to work the dogs on sheep (darn!) and ten below is just too cold for me to enjoy being outside. But there is a part of me that smiles when I look out the window at the white all around me. In spite of all the problems it brings, snow is just fun. Most dogs seem to think so too: Check out the blog that Julie Hecht wrote asking why dogs seem to love new snow so much.
Here are some photos I just took in celebration of snow. These red and blue “stakes” are the legs of an upside table. Who’d know under all the snow?
These rounds are from some Poplar trees we had taken down because they were leaning over the barn. Better to take them down on purpose than to wait for them to crash onto the barn or fence. They are nowhere near as large as they look in this photo! I rather liked Spot, Freckles and Cupcake observing in the background.
Extremely interesting! I need to read the study, but from your brief description it occurs to me that the design of the experiment would need to control for the possibility that dogs who have felt better in the situation because of the sedative learn from that to be more relaxed the third time around, with or without the ritual of a pill.
Excellent point Frances. The authors do discuss several other potential factors (including some other “treatments” that I didn’t mention,) most of which (all?) could be considered some form of classical conditioning, which is what many are beginning to believe is a primary component of the “placebo effect.”
Wow, fascinating topic! I admit, I was not initially surprised to hear that something like the placebo effect can be observed in dogs since they are such famously strong associative learners. However, I wonder whether there isn’t a finely shaved distinction to be drawn between conditioned response placebos and what I would consider true analogs to human drug trial placebos- unconditioned responses based on the predictive belief that something will help, despite having no direct experience with that specific thing.
Could such a thing be possible in the absence of language and/or symbolic thinking? That vitamin or sugar pills might soothe an anxious dog or decrease outward signs of pain, I readily believe. I can easy swallow both a classic conditioning explanation or one based on social observation and emotional reaction (dogs can be so devilishly subtle about reading unintended cues- it wouldn’t surprise me that dogs in a blind trial might manifest a placebo effect based on observing that effect in their OWNERS, if the owners were not aware of the dogs’ placebo status).
If dogs do or cannot show the unconditioned placebo effect, is it really a placebo, or would it be more accurate to describe the phenomenon simply as a conditioned and/or social response? Is the distinction even a fair one? To what extent is the placebo effect conditioned/social in HUMANS?
Fascinating! I need to read the study but what fascinates me particularly is that even when people KNOW they are been prescribed a placebo, they still demonstrate the placebo effect.
What is THAT about?
I was struck by the use of the word ritual. We know that dogs exhibit superstitious behavior–rituals intended to produce a repeat of a desired effect. Finna apparently associated a bounce before petting as making the petting (remember she’d received almost no handling before coming to live with me) pleasurable. I’ve worked really hard to eliminate the behavior of jumping on me in greeting and attention solicitation but while she no longer jumps on me she still has to bounce when she sees me after any absence when she knows she’ll receive petting. In her head the bounce seems to make it safe. She shies away if I try to pet her before her front feet have left the ground. It’s her necessary ritual/superstition. So is that a placebo effect and how much do placebos have in common with superstitions? Fascinating things to thing about.
Wow! That is a really interesting concept. I had a dog that had some orthopedic issues and during his later years, we did some fairly significant work with pain management. He was a most amazing dog because he learned to “ask” for his medication. He would come and get my attention and then run into the kitchen and stare at the drawer where the meds were kept. I thought it was amazing that a dog could conceptualize the connection between receiving the medication and feeling better. I have another dog now that receives numerous doses of medication every day for her gastrointestinal disease. It could be that she is also “asking” for medication or it could be that she just comes to me for sympathy when she is feeling poorly, but certainly her signaling is not as clear. OTOH, her medication is scheduled down to hours between doses of the same med. The dog on pain medication was more intermittent because of the “as needed” basis for pain meds.
During my days as a fosterer, I concluded that Rescue Remedy, a popular treatment for anxious dogs at adoption events, seemed to have a strong placebo effect on the handlers, thus indirectly helping the dogs to adjust to the situation. When a handler needed a short break and left the dog with another, the Rescue Remedy effect didn’t seem to help the dogs at all.
Tonya & Dexter says
Interesting for sure. I have two different dogs with different reasons for being medicated I can relate this to. First, my very thunder phobic golden retriever. He would settle down a bit when I gave him his anxiety pill (before the storm, but as it approached).
Second, my cavalier has Syringomyelia (SM) a very painful neurological condition. On bad days he gets an extra pain pill. He settles down pretty much after I give him the pill, way before any effect can take place.
Thanks Trish for the great posts. ~Tonya & Dexter
Marie Devaney Conyers says
My thinking is along the same lines as Frances’. There are many UCS in the set up, it may be faulty to assume the pill is the one the dogs select as the CS. Isn’t it wonderful that someone is pursuing these studies? Thanks for bringing it to us, Trisha.
Chris from Boise says
I’d been speculating about this exact topic, so found your post fascinating. Our Habi has been on fluoxetine for (most of) the last seven years, from age 3 to 10, and our behavioral vet had said that she’d need to be on it for the rest of her life to keep her brain chemistry balanced. (We had weaned her off it after the first year as an experiment – she was able to maintain what she had gained in her first year with us, but was unable to progress, so after a year off we put her back on it and have seen great progress since). To make a long story short, in the last few months she was exhibiting more anxiety in situations again, so our regular vet suggested we try weaning her off fluoxetine again, just to see. We’re on month three of a very slow weaning, things are going great, and we give her a little lump of cream cheese every day, whether or not it’s wrapped around a pill. I figured the cream cheese might elicit a little squirt of serotonin all by itself. If nothing else, it’s a fun way to start her day with a little treat. Too bad we don’t have a clone to use as a control…
Kim Leach says
Fascinating subject. Currently reading a book about this effect in humans and how we can teach our minds to control much more in our bodies than we ever thought possible: You Are the Placebo by Dr. Joe Dispenza.
Sue Bonness says
Back in the 70s I owned a Pyr who was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. I would give him an IM injectable sedative. He would go to sleep it off in the basement. One day as a thunderstorm approached I realized I was out of the medication. I just pinched his skin and pretended to give him the shot. He went off to his basement hide-a-way to sleep it off. I never had to give him the actual medication again, just pinched his skill, pretened to give the shot and he did his routine.
It would be interesting to know whether the owners knew if the dog was getting a sedative or placebo ?
Did their owners behaviour change in the knowledge their dog had had sedative or placebo ?
Great comments, especially I think regarding the role of classical conditioning in the placebo effect. Although my knowledge of the mechanism for the effect is thin, as I understand it, the placebo effect can be divided into two types: One is basically classical conditioning: You take a pill that has a known therapeutic effect, which conditions your body to improve when taking a ‘placebo pill.’ It appears that this can also apply to any ritual related to the administration of the therapeutic medication, including the room one is in, the method of medication, probably even something one says as giving the pill. It makes sense that this could apply to dogs as well as to people. The other type of placebo effect is about ‘expectations,’ and like many of you, this is the one that is hard to imagine in a dog. Surely we can’t communicate to them that this pill we are giving them is known to make them feel better–and then, voila! — because they believe in it, it does make them feel better. I’ve got to believe that that aspect of the placebo effect is unique to those who are fluent in human language and conceptual thought. But, as I mention in the post: What about our expectations affected our dog’s responses? There might be something there, yes? I see a new research project in the future…
No. I believe the dogs that were given the drug learned from their response while on it, and this carried over in subsequent trials. Similar to T-touch and other calming exercises, any organism will choose the response that is least stressful to their body. But they must experience that response first.
Trisha Shirey says
When my border collie mix Jessie had a leg injury she was getting anti inflammatory pills daily in a treat. My very food motivated Cocker Spaniel developed a limp on the same leg as Jessie’s right around pill time! Of course she was magically healed soon after her treat!
David Auerbach says
There’s an old joke about a [famous scientist] at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton whose colleague noticed a horseshoe hung over the [famous scientist’s] door. “But surely, you, of all people, don’t believe that supertitious nonsense!” “Of course I don’t,” says [famous scientist], ” but I understand it works even if you don’t believe it does.”
Responding to Peri — my dog actually FAKED limping once she figured out that when she limped, she got her pain meds (I guess she thinks that Rimadyl is a treat). I could have given her a regular treat and her “limp” would have magically healed … layers of placebo?
Susan Stewart says
Drop-jawed at the thought my extremely separation anxiety ridden pittie mix might someday transition from the Buspar we’ve been using with success in addition to training….to random vitamins! wow. Can’t wait to share this with my vet!
To me, this isn’t the placebo effect, since placebo effect is giving an ineffectual treatment for a disease. In this case, the treatment was not just the drug, but also the process. I think that placebo is often used incorrectly, and I think it’s misleading in this context too. The type of vitamin is also important to know when evaluating this study.
When My Lucy Diamond was being given Homeopathic Meds for Syncope, I noticed my older boy beginning to look visibly upset. Im sure he knew that she was the ultimate fuss pot when it came to anything to be injested. So for the life of him, he couldn’t understand why and how she ate these pills. So every time I called out to her and said ‘sweet pills’ and she would come running to me, I noticed Troy getting more and more upset and would walk around with a droopy sad face. A brain wave happened and I asked my Homeopath to give me plain pills with no medicine in them for Troy.
He has begun to feel so very important now, when I call out to them both for ‘sweet pills.’ Troy doesn’t sulk any more. This was my home experiment with placebos. And it works and how!
What I did forget to mention is that he began to limp around along with sulking.
Interesting regarding homeopathy. Isn’t homeopathy simply the placebo effect?
I just listened to a TED report on branding. There was a discussion on how easy it is to “fool” people. Put a cheap wine in a bottle with an expensive-wine bottle and, voila, people think the wine is fantastic. This stuff has been proven over and over again. So the question is, is this manipulation “wrong”. That is when placebos came up. There is a feeling that using a placebo is cheating somehow, but is it really? If it works, isn’t that all that matters? If people think the wine tastes great, then that’s a good thing. (Assuming you didn’t get them to buy the cheap wine at an expensive price.) I would love it if all my medications were placebos. At least the side effects would be much easier to handle. 🙂
Ah, but LT, that’s part of the point. Researchers are beginning to understand that procedure and context can play as big a role in the placebo effect as any single pill or injection. It turns out that the placebo effect is far more complicated (and I’d argue, even more interesting) than previously understood.
To Nic: Ah, what a question (about homeopathy being all placebo effect). My definitive answer: Heck if I know. I can tell you that Arnica helps me greatly in some situations, and I’ve stopped worrying (but still wondering) why. I find its advocates description of its mechanism hard to swallow, and yet, I’ve had great luck with it and some other homeopathic medications. Here’s what I don’t understand: We’ve all take medications that simply didn’t help us, even ones shown through research to be effective for most people. Why didn’t the placebo effect kick in then? Some of us have take substances that western science says can’t be effective, and yet seem to solve the problem. What were the factors that led to that result? If the placebo effect is so strong, why does it work for some things and not others, even for the same person? I took homeopathic medicine originally as a complete skeptic, with virtually no belief that it would work. Then it did. Hummmmm… it’s all so interesting!
@HFR: If all your medications were placebos, I wonder if you would still have some side effects. If the brain is responding to a conditioning (placebo), wouldn’t one’s body have a connected response both in terms of feeling better and in terms of side effects? A placebo side effect?
I’m wondering about the classical conditioning/placebo idea. My limited understanding of CC is by giving a treat or play or uttering kind words we are trying to literally change one’s mind about something or at least one’s response to something. If I am being given a pill or if I am giving my dog a pill and it is done within a certain context and in a fun or kind manner, I would think the placebo effect is very likely to occur whether the pill is “real” or not. I see the two as intertwined. I know it would work for me.
As far as homeopathy is concerned, just because we westerners can’t “prove” it or it didn’t go through five different trials, or it’s not FDA approved doesn’t mean it’s real effects are suspect or nonexistent. Could it be a placebo? Maybe. Could it be that there are actual changes occurring? Maybe. I’m not ready to broad brush it with the placebo label. It’s done wonders for many people I know, and more importantly, very little harm unlike some pharmaceutical drugs.
Jenny H says
I have been very interested for years in “the placebo effect”.
The conclusions that I have drawn from my readings is that the placebo effect is exactly the same as ‘hypnosis’, self hypnosis (including meditation in all its guises) as well as “the power of prayer” for religious believers.
The effects are real — on brain chemistry, as explained in Norman Doidge’s book, “The Brain that Changes Itself” p, 191. He refers here to Ramachandran’s wonderful book, “Phantoms in the Brain” (both highly recommended reading :-).
Jenny H says
> LT this isn’t the placebo effect, since placebo effect is giving an ineffectual treatment for a disease.>
Not quite. An ineffectual treatment is simply an ineffectual treatment.
A placebo is a “preparation with no medicinal value or pharmacological effects”, which is used in studies to determine if the drug/treatment under investigation is actually causing any observed effect as against the simply administration of something or attention given my the medical practitioner is causing that effect. You should refer to it as an inactive treatment/ substance.
The “Placebo effect” is a measure of the degree of improvement you see between groups that receive NO treatment and those that receive the inactive treatment.
Or otherwise if you give half your subjects a medication containing the drug./active ingredient and the other half what appears to be an identical treatments but contains none of the drug in question, and there is no difference in the degree of improvement between the two groups, then you know that any observed improvements are NOT due to the drug.
It can be difficult to determine in animals because of the effect of researcher expectations. researchers (and owners) will behave differently towards those receiving the inactive treatment and those receiving the active treatment. UNLESS the person delivering the treatment is totally unaware of whether of not they are giving the inactive or active treatment, you cannot be certain that any observed effect is or is not due to researcher/observer effect.
Hi Trisha – it’s fascinating. There are no observed or measured pharmacological mechanisms associated with homeopathy medicines yes? What about Chinese medicine? What about reflexology? Acupuncture? Are the latter placebo effects too? Some of these practitioners can be scorned by some people as pseudoscientists, yet if nobody really understands the placebo effect, does it matter if it works and does no harm? There may be no hard science or data yet, but we’re maybe not asking the right questions.
We know why an antibiotic may not work for example (resistant bacteria), but with some drugs with known pharmacological effects, why do some people have withdrawal symptoms or experience side effects and others don’t? There are no side effects with the ‘alternative medicine’ candidates is that correct? So if they work, there are no side effects, have little financial cost and not detrimental to the environment to produce, happy days. Probably a bit naive but we definitely need to research more.
Of course if you or your dog do have a bacterial infection, for example, then you would be wise to use western medicine!
Sorry for rambling!
Trish K says
There was an interesting interview on NPR two days ago with a neuroscience professor David Linden from Johns Hopkins promoting his new book “Touch”, fascinating interview. It’s funny because he was discussing the pleasure or discomfort that can be caused by touching certain parts of the body interpreted by the brain and the nerve endings on each hair follicle. Well that made me think of Dogs which made me think of Patricia. :-). When asked what he basically thought about the Placebo effect he said “When things work, whether they are drugs or the placebo effect or acupuncture or meditation or psychotherapy, they work because they’re changing the functions of brain circuitry. And my feeling is that if it works, it works, and it should be used”.
I’m not sure if anyone has heard the news about Walmart and other huge chains being sanctioned by the government for selling herbs/vitamins/supplements that were found to be have completely bogus ingredients. I wonder if any consumers complained that these supplements didn’t work or if they thought they did wonders? There’s a good natural environment experiment for you!
Placebo? Or is it that pack animals require care of other pack animals and therefore require a sense of belonging (and all that leads to being accepted and cared for and/or signals we are worthy of care now or potentially as we anticipate future potential vulnerabilities)? Sense of belonging is powerful, potent stuff.
Its “just” the little ole Social Effect that it seems we value so little and miss out on potential power of …of course with power comes responsibility which is scary..YES we do have a huge impact on one another’s healing, immunity etc. Dogs share that based on a more limited set of conditions I assume yet greater sensory abilities to apply to that limited set.
…..sensing we are loved, accepted etc. is monumentally profoundly healing (this is sensed likely better by dogs but still by us also as someone is giving us a pill or even selling it as emotionally and subconsciously for us humans more expensive can mean more socially valued, the medicine and us for being able to have it). Bet the dogs didn’t respond based on price! LOL
For me, a socially motivated yet very socially out of sync person, trying to fit in, be of use, be cared for is such a darn complex mystery and skill I’ve not honed that is perhaps why I am somewhat fixated compulsively or is it desperately attached to the two strays I took in – they are relatively simple compared to my fellow humans and myself. What if the Placebo effect is in fact the power of love and calm sensed by someone, canine or human, in need receiving that love either directly or thru the metaphor of price or prayer or all the other manifestations?
naming my next dog, Placebo! Ok, sorry (sort of) for the long rant.
Ahh, the homeopathy issue. I was wondering how long it would take before it popped up. I have neither the expertise nor experience to offer any answers, but I would like to stick my oar in long enough to introduce a couple of complicating factors.
Homeopathy has often been used as a catchall term (in the US at least) for a range of therapies that include not only the traditional homeopathic medicine (the basic principle behind which is that a compound which causes illness in strong quantities will CURE that illness if delivered in extremely dilute solution). This is basically the definition of placebo- pills or solutions with no measurable active ingredient. However, homeopathy is often attached deliberately or by mistaken association, to a range of other “natural” remedies including herbal supplements with measurable active ingredient.
Arnica is one of those therapies that can be purchased as either an herbal remedy (with a measurable amount of active ingredient) or as a homeopathic (highly diluted) one. There is some indication that the herbal version may be more effective (for good OR ill) than placebo, but it’s my understanding that the homeopathic version has been found to be no more effective than placebo in clinical trials (which, of course, does not necessarily mean ineffective (see comments and post above), just no better than placebo.
I will refrain from offering a general opinion on the subject of homeopathy, but I will observe that to me, any treatment which claims to be 100% safe and carry zero risk of side effects immediately suggests that it is a placebo (because the only way a therapy can be 100% safe is if it doesn’t actually have the ability to change the body’s chemistry) and/or user feedback is being selectively reported. I don’t know for sure, but I seriously doubt that patients receiving placebos in drug trials report zero side effects. There are many instances where I don’t see any harm in using the placebo effect to our therapeutic benefit, and indeed, potential for great good, but I am a more than a little morally squirmy about packaging and marketing placebos as medicine to unsuspecting purchasers.
There are, after all, limits to what expectations can do- if I take a massive dose of cyanide believing it to be a vitamin, I am still going to die. When my husband used my pastry board to chop garlic, I didn’t find out because I EXPECTED my apple pie to taste like garlic, I found out because it did. Counterfeit vaccines don’t protect against disease well enough to avoid detection as fakes, and sugar pills aren’t going to heal a bacterial infection. I’m really interested in the idea that the placebo effect might be better harnessed for therapeutic applications, but I’m still a bit wary of dangers of giving inadvertent support to pseudoscientific scams.
Thank you, Em – exactly what I was thinking, but could not have expressed so well!
Great post em. My own view is to look at the science and with regard to homeopathy, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence yet that it works. Therefore, why do some people claim otherwise? The only alternative seems to be the placebo effect. I really don’t know much about it, have never tried it and my gut is highly sceptical.
I have concerns where people try to push ‘alternative medicine’ into areas where they can be a danger to health because of the lack of evidence. That just about covers most areas of medicine and treatment IMO.
A couple of canine behaviourists I know recommend rescue remedy (I have never tried it) which I found a bit surprising at first as they are quite hardcore scientists. However, when people use Rescue Remedy or other such alternatives as a first attempt at trying to ‘treat’ a bit of mild anxiety, that maybe a better first option than running to the GP or vet to get some meds. SSRIs in humans can have some horrendous side effects and withdrawal effects that can actually be worse than the initial symptoms.
Scott Sheaffer says
My experience has shown me that the strongest placebo effect is with the human. If the human thinks it helps the dog, it helps the dog. I have “prescribed” Zylkene or L-theanine for the dog, but the real effect was meant for the owner.
em makes an excellent point that the term “homeopathic” is often mis-used. I loved the specific example of Arnica as an herbal medicine versus a homeopathic preparation that uses Arnica in its preparation. Thank you for that reminder. And yes, it is so true that expectations can only go so far. I am fascinated myself what factors might explain why expectations have such a strong effect sometimes, and not others.
And I wonder how many vets, like Scott above, prescribe ‘medications’ for pets in the belief that it is really for the owners. Anyone?
Margaret McLaughlin says
What an interesting discussion–and how polite everyone is. I love it.
Just a couple of random comments:
I have put acupuncture in a different category than other alternative-to-Western-medicine treatments ever since seeing the vet I used to groom for use it as an alternative to anesthesia for some C-sections. It would be hard to convince me that the bitch thought all those needles were going to keep her from hurting when her belly was sliced open. Also had the great advantage that she didn’t wake up & wonder where all those puppies came from.
I lived for several years in an intentional community which employed homeopathic treatments, so my skepticism on that is well honed. Staying out of it.
Re dogs “asking” for things that make them feel better; I have a friend whose first warning of an approaching thunderstorm was her German Shepard staring at the drawer where his Thundershirt was kept. Lia never went quite that far, but she would try to ram her head thru hers before I could unfold it.
And Rescue Remedy–I think it’s total rubbish. I take it (myself) before obedience trials, which scare me silly–my friends claim I get all the no-sits because my dogs are doing triage to see if they need to start CPR, since I’m not breathing. It always works. Go figure.
And I wonder how many vets, like Scott above, prescribe ‘medications’ for pets in the belief that it is really for the owners. Anyone?
Wow – vets are not qualified to treat the human species….
So, how does that qualify their actions?
I feel like Alice in Wonderland…..
Scott said, “I have “prescribed” Zylkene or L-theanine for the dog, but the real effect was meant for the owner.”
I have given one of my dogs Anxitane (L-theanine) for more than two years now. There have been clinical trials on Anxitane for use in dogs, which is one of the reasons my vet behaviorist recommended it. Did it make me feel better? No. It was only after many months of giving it to Olive and seeing some effects on her behavior did I think it was a good idea. Our vet behaviorist wasn’t prescribing for me but to find a real aid for Olive. I was actually a little resistant to the idea.
Then there is the paradoxical effect to consider. When a drug or supplement has the polar opposite effect of what its intended use was. Is that a reverse-placebo effect? Our biases dictate how we approach taking or giving medications or supplements and also how the placebo effect comes into play — on either side of the equation.
I also think we can go too far the other way and start to think that if it’s not put out by Pfizer or Johnson&Johnson than it’s a placebo (homeopathic).
Trish K says
It would probably be cheaper for the human and more honest if Scott told the human to take a Xanax and then work with your dog on separation anxiety issues.
As far as our expectations effecting our dogs response to medication, do you mean that if we expect the dog will get better then maybe more often than not they will? Maybe influenced by our positive energy / behavior transferring to the the dogs, creating a healing effect in their chemistry and making them actually better faster?
Interesting post and comments. I love that we are all exploring our beliefs and assumptions. One aspect I wonder about is how much it matters to me if the placebo effect can be documented in dogs. I mean, theoretically it would be great and fascinating to know. Putting any of the proven knowledge into practice, however, does not make the medical care discussion any less of a slippery slope for both dogs and humans. I guess either way, when it comes to medicine, we seek counsel, individually research, try things, observe, adjust. (Except for preventative care- another facet I wonder about. I use fairly common supplements on myself and dogs to potentially ward off joint issues. Since I’m using these from a preventative standpoint, I will never know their entire effect. But as long as I’ve done research sufficient to know they will not cause harm (vet, dr., books, online) I do appreciate the fact that I’m actively trying to do something to possibly prevent pain.) All very personal choices, but as with dog food, when we are making choices for another being it becomes a heavy issue.
And with heavy issues, the potential for misunderstanding in discussion is increased. Like above, I thought that commenter Scott put ‘prescribed’ in quotes since he’s not a vet, rather a trainer. So what vets prescribe may be a different issue than what other professionals recommend altogether…
But on a note that combines health and the Farm Topic of snow, we are having a blast in the snow here. Snow drifts become huge crash pads for dog tumbling, and what a joy it is to see the running dogs ball together, flop into snow banks deeper than their bodies, and send powder flying through the air. Maybe dogs partly enjoy the snow’s softness, and its ability to cushion an entire landscape? Whatever the reason, dogs in snow has got to be among the top five reasons to love winter.
Trish K says
What if a dogs mirror system is more sensitive than ours. I recently listened to a story of a woman who’s mirror system / neurons were elevated so much so that she could actually feel what she saw others experience. Synesthetes.? Well ok so, it’s new to me…
This may answer partly why placebo effect works for some and not others. Also why are expectations could affect the outcome of our dogs treatment?
HFR, you can quit taking rescue remedy as it looks like there is no real evidence it works. – see above.
Try a large martini instead before your obedience trial? Just make sure you can get someone to drive to be safe. 🙂
I’ve always been sceptical to the point of being derisory about reiki massage (no touching required). There are reiki practitioners for canines too I think. However, the link above suggests that there may be some placebo effect. ‘Channelling and harnessing energy by the angels to prescribe and heal’ was how someone described the practice to me. I’ll take a Unicorn with that.
ute hamann says
Could not the effect be explained by “trigger stacking”?
Mireille Wulf says
Fascinating discussion! Just a couple of thoughts. I couldn’t help smiling when I read ” Of course if you or your dog do have a bacterial infection, for example, then you would be wise to use western medicine” . As a clinical microbiologist I am aware that may bacterial infections are self-limiting and that antibiotics are not the holey grale of medicine. In fact, one of my teachers reminded me that 60% of people would get better anyway, 10% dies in spite of all we do and in the remaining 30% we might make a difference….. Off course it depends on type of infection, host response etc but how many people remember that a simple urinary tract infection is a self limiting disease that in most cases resolves by itself. Antibiotics shorten the complaints and occasionally prevent serious consequences. Which is off course what a lot of medication does. Nobody will notice if their statin is replaced by a placebo for a couple of weeks, since the desired effect is a longer life, but how much longer is longer for the individual? Effects of medication are described for groups and averages, not for the individual.
And as docters are also human: prescribes something a few times and it doesn’t seem to have any effect, well, how much believe do you still have in it 😉
As for alternative medicine: I wouldn’t put accupunture in the same category as homeopathy. Acupuncture has a physical substrate, adaptations in the form of dry needling are western medicine. Trigger points exist. Our body’s – and our dogs body’s are complex machines. I had quite a serious back injury, causing my nervous system to be out of sync. “Vagal symptoms” like bouts of crying, stomach cramp, feelings of chest pain. Painkillers didn’t work for the cramping pain in the muscles around my spine. What helps is warmth, several exercises from my yoga teacher and physical therapy and osteopathy (and yes, thank you, I am feeling much better )
It did cause me to think: Spot was regressing in his behaviour towards other dogs (on leash aggression). It coincided with my injury, less exercise (a bit, I am still grateful for the friends that helped me when I needed them most!) but I also noticed him moving more stiffly. So I decided to contact a dog chiropractor and lo and behold, I have a much more relaxed dog on the leash….
Sorry,digressing form the subject. What I wanted to say is, there are >5000 years of experience with the human body in our history ,why should only the last 200 give valuable information? And I think we tend to forget how self healing we can be, in spite of all sorts of medication. I do find it interesting that even dogs get to rely on something outside themselves for feeling better. Although we shouldn’t think it so strange: apes eat medicinal plants for stomach upset. Would be interesting to investigate if they would also eat plants without the effective compound and feel better for it 😉
A simple urinary tract infection may not be self limiting in an elderly dog in the summer who isn’t drinking enough water. I think ‘it depends’ on the individual, severity of disease and any co morbidities. Of course antibiotics are not the holy grail. They are utilised far too frequently and inappropriately by some clinicians and patients and we now have a problem on our hands with resistant organisms. I have lived in countries where they are not controlled medicines and people would buy them over the counter to treat a sore throat!
I recently ended up hospitalised with bacterial pneumonia as i thought it best to see if a chest infection would clear up on its own. I had a check list ticked off with every symptom of pneumonia by the time I called the GP. It’s really not black and white and one must consult a qualified expert of human or veterinary medicine if in any doubt about infections in particular.
Amelia Looper says
Maybe I’m mistaken, but I was under the impression that the placebo effect referred to people merely reporting that they felt better after treatment, not that any extant medical conditions actually improved? Not that that would be insignificant; I imagine having confidence that treatment will work greatly improves patient compliance. But surely that has mostly to do with how well the experimenter “sells” the placebo: the language they use, the bells and whistles, the apparent confidence. I wonder if anyone has done work comparing the perceived effectiveness of placebos with varying presentation…
Speaking of snow; we have practically none this winter. Yet the dogs still try to snowdive. Breaks my heart
Snowdiving in “no-snow” http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-e3yM5sb2-nQ/VNdJYQ6AxEI/AAAAAAAACig/vpkz6HHE6pc/s1600/IMG_1565.JPG
Not important but, Nic1, it wasn’t me using Rescue Remedy. I never get nervous when competing. I wish I did, I’d probably win more. 🙂
This all makes me wonder if it’s possible that a skeptical outlook can keep drugs or natural remedies from working. I never think a drug is going to work and so I have hard time figuring out if it is. I started giving my elderly dog xanax at night to help her sleep (after determining there was no pain going on) and I thought, as usual, it wasn’t helping at all. So after a couple of weeks, I stopped giving it. Well, for the next couple of nights she was worse than ever. Suddenly, it dawned on me why that was. (Yes, I’ve never been accused of being quick on the uptake.) Anyway, she’s back on it and now I can tell it definitely helps.
I think especially when the results may not be black & white (symptoms there, symptoms gone) then it is even harder to judge whether a remedy is working.
Margaret McLaughlin says
It was me with the Rescue Remedy :). Still don’t believe in it, I just take it.
Nic1, Know you were joking with your martini remedy for ring nerves, but even if I drank (I don’t) there would be another issue you might not be aware of–alcohol is not allowed on the show grounds in the venues where I compete, & impairment in the ring is Seriously Dealt With. I was once at a trial where an exhibitor was expelled from the show grounds for self-medicating with booze before her run. Not pretty. No Authority confiscated her car keys, either.
I’m sorry Nic1 – and others – I see I forgot some pretty important words. A urinary tract infection in young women
Sorry for the mix up HFR and thanks for the correction Margaret!
Sounds like an alcohol ban in the competition ring is probably a good idea all round. As you say, I was joking but I do believe that there is evidence that there is also a placebo effect for alcohol in some people. So maybe you could have a tonic water, pretend there was some alcohol in it and also add some rescue remedy. 🙂
Christy Paxton says
Ute, I’m with you wondering about how trigger stacking might fit in. I am endlessly fascinated by all the things that can be involved in creating a behavior and believe we only see the “tip of the iceburg” when trying to figure out these trigger sequences. I think they are more important than anyone knows. …On another note, there is human brain research out there that shows drug addicts will stop reacting to the drug itself but will instead produce their high when placed in the environment they usually are in when they take the drug. (Not a scientist so pardon me if I mangled that last statement! Hope it made sense.)
Trisha – the veterinary profession are calling for a ban on homeopathic remedies for pets.
‘At best, it leads to unnecessary suffering and a reduced likelihood of a full recovery. At worst, as with the case of a horse I treated for severe laminitis, there is no option left but euthanasia.’
Homeopathy practitioners are putting their personal beliefs ahead of evidence-based medicine and the body of knowledge the veterinary profession has accrued. Risky practices that can compound negatively on animal welfare…