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Take your pet duck to the quack

I recently had to buy some veterinary care for my dog and the expense didn't just have me eating cheese on toast for a few weeks but got me thinking about the animal world's equivalent of human alternative (to) medicine.

It should come as no surprise that people who reject real medicine for themselves and their families should also look for alternatives to real medical treatment for their animals. An example of this is that opposition to childhood vaccination extends to opposing the vaccination of animals. While there is legitimate disagreement about the frequency of some animal vaccinations (is an annual vaccination for parvovirus really necessary, for example), there is general agreement out in the real world that animal vaccination is not only a good thing, but something that should be done. Analogous to the "No Jab, No Play" policy in some states which prevents unvaccinated children attending childcare facilities, my local boarding kennel has a "No Jab, No Stay" policy and a current vaccination certificate has to be produced before you're allowed to take your dog out of the car.

I haven't been able to locate an equivalent organisation in Australia, but there is a British Association of Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeons. A senior executive of this group once wrote an article savagely attacking me for my support of vaccination but it is interesting to note that since that time BAHVS has changed its position and now states "Where there is no medical contraindication, immunisation should be carried out in the normal way using the conventional tested and approved vaccines". There is hope for us yet. As far as I know opposition to animal vaccination is still almost universal in Australia among believers in magical "medicine".

A leading anti-vaccination campaigner in Australia didn't have to wait until her unvaccinated pet dog caught a preventable disease – when the dog was bitten by a snake she treated him with vitamin C and homeopathy. RIP.

Let's look at acupuncture. Here is something I wrote in this magazine in September 2010:

On a shelf next to the desk in my office there is a model of a dog. This is not just any old model, but is a model showing acupuncture points on the dog, and it came with a list of the points and what each point is associated with. When I first got the model I was concerned about a point on the tail called Wei Jan, which is used to treat stroke, sunstroke and gastroenteritis. The reason I was worried is that some dogs are born without tails (and until recently some of them had their tails cut off to comply with fashion), but I found that losing this point is not a problem as there are several other points which can treat stroke and sunstroke. Gastroenteritis is treated by needling or smoking Hou San Li (on the rear leg), which provides the added advantage of also being useful for posterior paralysis, neuralgia, paralysis of pelvic limb, intestinal spasm and colic, arthritis, febrile symptoms and dyspepsia, as well as preventing diseases and making the dog strong and healthy. I am not making this up.

There are similarities in mammal physiologies between species (it is one of the pieces of evidence for evolution, for example) but I'm not sure that the mythical meridians of acupuncture also exist in different species with the various acupuncture points treating different conditions. Perhaps I'm being skeptical. Oh, wait … .

Then there's chiropractic. It's probably possible to make a better case for similarities of nervous systems between mammal species than it is for acupuncture meridians, but there are still difficulties. One of the best-known uses of animal chiropractic is to treat thoroughbred racehorses. Considering that a racehorse is a finely tuned athlete with all that means for muscle tone, that there are several centimetres of muscle between the spine and the skin above and that the horse can run at top speed with 55 kg of jockey on its back, it's hard to imagine how strong the chiropractor's thumbs must be to manipulate the joints in the spine.

And as for the picture I saw recently of a chiropractor adjusting a turtle's carapace, well … .

One defence of animal quackery always used is that a placebo effect is impossible in animals because they don't have the expectations that humans do. This ignores the fact that any form of treatment can be an interesting break in the animal's routine (the Hawthorne effect) and that any change in condition (or even lack of change) is interpreted according to the owner's expectations. I know that dogs can certainly pick up on their owners' moods, which is why mine always growled when we walked past the Wellness Centre with its sign saying that the naturopath was on duty that day.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the October 2016 edition of Australasian Science

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