Reiki for Fido

I don’t like quackery.

I know, I know. Big surprise, right? After all, I’ve only spent the last six years laying down a nearly daily dose of Insolence, Respectful and not-so-Respectful, on the anti-vaccine movement, alternative medicine practitioners, quacks, and pseudoscientists of many different stripes. Seeing my fellow human beings fall for unproven or even dangerous remedies leads me to want to try to convince them to pull back and stick with science-based medical therapies. When quackery causes harm, I become even more motivated. Yet there is an area of quackery that I rarely write about. I don’t know why, because it’s not as though it’s any less unscientific or pseudoscientific than the usual varieties of quackery I discuss daily, but there it is. Maybe it’s because I don’t know as much about the subject as I know about surgery and medicine in general. I’ll introduce the topic with a question:

What have our four-legged friends ever done to us to deserve the same sorts of woo to which humans are subjected??

Most commonly, it’s acupuncture. Many are the times when I’ve seen people take their pets to have acupuncture done, as though sticking needles in a dog will magically fix his pain from hip dysplasia to the point where he can walk again. As much as I sometimes enjoy watching The Dog Whisperer, I cringe inside when Cesar Milan goes all woo (which is fairly frequent). In particular, I remember episodes when Cesar subjected dogs to acupuncture and various other woo. It’s part of the reason I don’t watch the show as often as I used to; well, that and because it’s on Friday nights.

Most advocates of animal acupuncture argue that it’s impossible for animals to be affected by placebo effects, the way humans are. In fact, some acupuncturists argue that the “effectiveness” of acupuncture on animals is evidence that the effects of acupuncture in humans must be due to more than placebo effects. Regular readers of this blog know–or at least have been exposed to arguments–that this isn’t true (use the search box to find posts about acupuncture if you don’t believe me), but that doesn’t stop animal acupuncturists from puncturing Fido with multiple needles. Never mind that acupuncture points and meridians are even more fantastical on animals than they are on humans, and that’s hard to achieve. The reason is because the acupuncture charts for animals are 20th century inventions in which fantastical human acupuncture points and meridians are transposed onto animals, in essence the transposition of a fantasy onto creatures for which the fantasy wasn’t even designed. Large animal veterinarian Dr. David Ramey reviewed the evidence for animal acupuncture not too long ago and concluded that it doesn’t work and that it’s a “triumph of style over substance.” None of this has stopped animal acupuncture from being being a lucrative veterinary specialty or the development of “certifications” in animal acupuncture.

As far as quackery for Fido and Kitty, though, I thought I had seen it all. Yes, I know. I really should never, ever think I’ve seen it all because invariably I’m proven wrong. So it is this time. Ask yourself: What form of unscientific and unproven “treatment” would you least expect to “work” in animals? Think about it. One form of quackery that you might not expect to work in animals is reiki. Remember, reiki is nothing more than faith healing in which an Eastern mystical viewpoint based on Buddhist and Shinto beliefs is substituted for Christian beliefs. Instead of channeling the healing power of Jesus into a person to heal, as faith healers claim to be able to do, reiki practitioners channel the healing power from the “universal source” into people for allegedly healing effect. It’s pure placebo medicine, of course; so one might expect that it wouldn’t work on animals. Not so fast, say reiki practitioners, on a website called Animal Reiki Source (Facebook here and Twitter here), which proclaims itself a resource for “education in energy healing for animals.”

Wow. The woo doth flow.

Because I’m distinctly a dog person rather than a cat person, I’ll concentrate more on what this website says about dogs. Animal Reiki Source is the website of one Kathleen Prasad, who is described thusly:

Kathleen Prasad has been a life-long animal lover and an educator for over fifteen years. After receiving her BA in History from U.C. Berkeley in 1991 and her California Teaching Credential from Sacramento State University in 1993, Kathleen went on to teach History, Social Studies, English, and Drama in the San Francisco public schools for nine years. In the course of these years, she designed curriculum and community projects for her students in animal kindness, encouraging volunteer work in animal shelters. In 1998 she learned Reiki and began regularly volunteering Reiki with local shelter animals.

You know what? It sounds to me as though Prasad just likes playing with the shelter dogs. And that’s great. Both our dogs, both our late, beloved Echo and our current dog Bailey, came from shelters. Back when we were looking for our first dog more than ten years ago, the search that ultimately led us to Echo, we perused a number of animal shelters in New Jersey and environs. We even visited the Staten Island Animal Care Center. One thing I learned is that many shelter dogs are starved for human attention. Indeed, it was incredibly hard on at least a couple of occasions, to leave the shelter because we wanted to take more dogs home than we could ever possibly care for (which was one). Is it so hard to imagine that shelter animals would respond positively to loving human contact? Unfortunately, she adds layers of imaginary appeals to “energy” from the “universal source” to justify her liking to hang out with shelter animals. There’s no need to invoke mystical faith healing woo to explain why dogs and cats in shelters might appear to improve after undergoing a reiki session. If you think I’m being too dismissive, take a look at Prasad’s advice on how to approach animals with reiki.

First, we are told:

  1. Always begin by asking permission of the animal directly OR by setting your intention that you are open to facilitate the healing process for the animal for as much energy as they are open to receive, or none at all (this is a form of permission).
  2. It’s best not to initiate hands-on contact when working with an animal. Always allow the animal to be the one to initiate contact.
  3. Allow the animal to move freely in the treatment space. Pay attention to what your animal is telling you by their behavior about how he or she wants you to give the treatment.
  4. Animals appreciate a passive and open approach.Do not “beam” or “send” energy to the animal or to a specific health issue the animal has that you “think” needs healing. Instead, try “offering” the energy in a non-assertive manner. Imagine you are creating a Reiki bubble around yourself which the animal can move into and out of freely, or build an imaginary “Reiki bridge” which the animal can cross if he or she wants to participate in the healing treatment. In this same vein, your body language should match this passive intention: in other words, don’t initiate and hold eye contact, don’t make yourself “big” and dominant in your body position. For example, try to stay on the same physical level with the animal and remain in a non-threatening pose -ideally, don’t stand up over a small animal on ground level or have your hands up and palms facing out like a predator about to pounce.
  5. Let go of your expectations about how an animal should behave during the treatment (they usually do not behave like humans, lying down motionless for 60 minutes). The typical treatment consists of an ebb and flow of hands-on/short distance Reiki as well as short periods of movement and relaxation. Also, let go of your expectations about what healing result the animal should manifest.
  6. After you finish the treatment, always thank the animal for participation in the treatment.

I’d love to know how Prasad can tell whether animals appreciate a “passive and open approach” or how one “beams” or “sends” energy to a specific health issue. However, notice #4. The way it’s phrased leaves a perfect “out” if the reiki doesn’t seem to work. Because Prasad demands that the reiki practitioner “ask permission” of the animal and “offer” the reiki energy to the animal, if the animal doesn’t get any better, then the animal must not have wanted to be healed. Yes, indeed! It’s exactly the same idea that woo-meisters use in humans: If you aren’t healed or the woo doesn’t work, the person receiving the treatment must not have “believed” strongly enough! Of course, applying the concept of “believing”–or even of “giving permission”–to animals is ridiculous in the extreme, but that’s exactly what Prasad is doing. How does she know if the animal “gives permission”? How does she know if the animal “accepts” the reiki energy? She doesn’t. She deludes herself into thinking she does, but she doesn’t.

As I’ve said time and time again, reiki is far more religion than science. it’s belief without evidence, and Prasad’s ecstatic description of reiki for animals makes that explicit:

Then along came Reiki. And as Reiki swept into my life and carried me away on its vast wave of swirling change, suddenly new possibilities began to present themselves. As the animals (my own, other animals in my life and even unknown animals) came forward to literally demand that they be a part of Reiki in my life, their people also followed. They wondered about this amazing modality that could create peaceful responses and connections in even the most highly stressed and nervous animals and situations. And so I began, out of my love of helping animals, the long journey of coming out of my shell and meeting many new people to share a combination of two things I love most (well, besides my family), and what seems to resonate to the very core of my being-Reiki and animals.

If that isn’t a description of religious conversion, I don’t know what is. This religious conversion led Prasad to teach reiki by e-mail:

One of my first, and perhaps (by attendance) most successful, classes is my Animal Reiki Workshop: Core Curriculum by Correspondence class. This class, offered for Reiki practitioners seeking a foundation in animal approach and ethics, is done completely through e-mail, so it is ideal for people living far away. Each week students read the lesson and receive a homework Reiki practice to do with an animal based upon the lesson’s teachings. Students then e-mail me their treatment results along with questions that come up. In writing and preparing this class and responding each week to students’ notes, my initial motivation was to help to “teach” them something to assist and empower them in their connections with other species

All this for a mere $199! And if that isn’t enough there’s distant reiki healing of animals, too! In any case, the animal reiki course is completely subjective. Students evaluate how their animals are “responding” to the lesson’s teachings and to the reiki being administered to them by beginners. It isn’t hard to imagine that the apparent “effects” of reiki are due to the expectations of the reiki practitioner, who sees what she wants to see and disregards the rest (apologies to Simon and Garfunkel). In any case, reading through this, I wonder how my dog would respond to me coming at him and trying to do reiki on him. Chances are, I bet he’d think I was playing with him. Either that, or if I did “hands on” reiki on him, he’d relax, because he loves to be petted and is very affectionate. In fact, I bet I could outdo any reiki master on my own dog by gently petting his front paws, because he really likes that. All it takes is a little persistence to make him calm down. Of course, if he’s all hopped up and you stop petting him, he’ll instantly revert to being excited, but I don’t have to invoke any magical, mystical “energy” from some “universal source” to explain why I can, with persistence, at least temporarily calm my dog down. And my wife is actually much better at it than I am. She must be a more powerful reiki master than I could ever be!

Perhaps the most unintentionally amusing (and disturbing) part of the Animal Reiki Source website is the Code of Ethics, for instance these guiding principles:

  • I believe the animals are equal partners in the healing process.
  • I honor the animals as being not only my clients, but also my teachers in the journey of healing.
  • I understand that all animals have physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects, to which Reiki can bring profound healing responses.
  • I believe that bringing Reiki to the human/animal relationship is transformational to the human view of the animal kingdom.
  • I dedicate myself to the virtues of humility, integrity, compassion and gratitude in my Reiki practice.

Which all sounds very well and good, but how is it “ethical” to claim to these animal owners that you can somehow channel “energy” from the “universal source” into their pets–but only if their pets “accept it” or “give permission”?

I will say one thing in closing, though. This whole “animal reiki” thing is the perfect woo. First, the creatures to which it is being applied can’t talk, and judgements of the efficacy of reiki are, at least the way Prasad is doing it, completely subjective. Second, there is no way of knowing for sure if the animal got better or not; no objective measures are mentioned. It’s all “feeling.” Finally, animals, particularly dogs and cats, do respond to human contact and touch. There’s no way to tell if this “reiki” does anything more than what would be accomplished through just petting the animals and paying attention to them.

I do have one question, though.

What did the animals ever do to deserve this? And wouldn’t all these shelter reiki practitioners do a lot more good if they spent all that time, money, and effort trying to find good homes for shelter dogs, rather than imagining the animals are “inviting” them to “channel” life energy from a fantastical “universal” source?

Sorry, that was two questions.