Adventures in bad veterinary medicine reported by the local media

We skeptical bloggers try our best to educate our readers about science and critical thinking, in the process explaining why various forms of pseudoscience, quackery, and cranker are, well, pseudoscience, quackery, and crankery. Unfortunately, even the most heavy duty, high traffic skeptical blogs don’t have anywhere near the reach of the mass media, in particular television. Unfortunately, we are awash in credulity in the mass media, compared to which it sometimes feels as though the forces of reason and science are but a rowboat buffeted about by a tsunami of unreason. I saw just such an example the other day in the media in my hometown, and I was sufficiently disturbed that I felt the need to apply a bit of my patented brand of not-so-Respectful Insolence to it.

Of course (and unfortunately, this isn’t the first time), my hometown media hasn’t exactly had the greatest track record. For example, a while back I wrote about a truly embarrassing story that aired on local media in which orbs were represented as actually possibly being spirits of the dead rather than what we skeptics know them to be: The result of a bit of dirt on the lens of the camera taking the picture. I mean, this is Skepticism 101, something so basic that one almost has to wonder whether the producers and reporters know this story was nonsense but ran it anyway because it would attract viewers. It’s not the only time reporters have reported on the paranormal in a way that would make Joe Nickell cry. It’s also hard to forget about Steve Wilson, our very own local version of Sharyl Attkisson, the antivaccine reporter working for CBS, except that Wilson worked for the local ABC affiliate and churned out conspiracy-mongering stories about mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism.

This week, it was animal acupuncture, courtesy of the local NBC affiliate, WDIV-TV. Worse, it was reported by one of the news anchors, Steve Garagiola. I couldn’t help but think that Ron Burgundy would have done a better job as I sat through a long story (over four minutes, which is a huge amount of time for a story on a half-hour news show) entitled Acupuncture for pets: Finding relief for man’s best friend. Here’s the video:

The story begins—of course!—with shots of two cute dogs frolicking and two of the anchors introducing the story, saying that acupuncture has “made a huge difference” in the two dogs, “as strange as it sounds.” Chuckling with that faux bonhomie with which local news anchors chit chat with each other between stories and to introduce new stories and even pointing out that when they’re talking about a “tale of two dogs,” they mean “tale,” not “tail,” anchors Carmen Harlan and Devlin Scillian play right into the story as they introduce the story about two dogs and a the woo-filled Arbor Point Veterinary Hospital, which offers acupuncture among its animal pain services. Depressingly, perusing the practice’s website, I learned that Dr. Michael Petty is the current president of an organization called the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, which doesn’t speak well for this organization has as its current president a vet who practices acupuncture.

The standard tropes are all there in this story. Garagiola describes acupuncture as being increasingly accepted in humans for chronic and acute pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, asthma, allergies, and infertility. There’s just one problem. There’s no good, reproducible evidence that acupuncture does any better than placebo for any of these conditions. For pain? Doesn’t work. For asthma? It’s downright dangerous placebo medicine. For infertility? It’s useless. As Steve Novella and David Colquhoun put it, acupuncture is nothing more than a theatrical placebo. As I like to say, in acupuncture, it doesn’t matter where you place the needles or, if the patient and practitioner are properly blinded, even if you place the needles in at all! Twirling toothpicks against the skin produces just as much apparent “benefit.” Worse, acupuncture is represented as being beneficial for children as well for conditions such as migraines. Then comes the predictable hook for stories like this, in which Garagiola tells us that—but, wait!—it works for pets too, although using acupuncture to treat animals is new. I’ll give him credit; at least he didn’t fall for the frequently parroted lie that acupuncture was used for animals in ancient times, just as it was for humans. It wasn’t.

From here on out, the rest of the story reminds me of Mark Crislip’s infamous recent People Encouraging Turtle Agony post, except that instead of turtles being subjected to acupuncture it’s dogs. The turtle angle was unusual anyway, given that most commonly it’s dogs, cats, and horses subjected to acupuncture. Amusingly, when acupuncture is applied to horses, the “meridians” (the magical pathways through which the magical life force energy known as qi, flows, to be redirected by the magical acupuncture needles) are extrapolated from humans, even the gallbladder meridian, even though horses do not have gallbladders.

None of this stops Dr. Petty from blathering on about how this isn’t magic, that the needles aren’t magic, that the needle doesn’t heal anything. But, according to Dr. Petty, the needle is just “telling the body to heal itself.” One wonders exactly how the needle pulls off this amazing feat? How does it “know” what’s wrong with the body and the body needs to do to “heal itself”? Inquiring minds want to know! No, contrary to what Dr. Petty claims, magic is exactly what is being claimed for acupuncture. There’s no science behind it. It isn’t science. It isn’t science-based medicine. It is a practice based on prescientific vitalism.

Because acupuncture is based on prescientific vitalism and there is no science behind it, all we’re left with are two testimonials. First, there’s the story of a dog named Hogan with pain from a “variety of neurological and other issues.” It’s never really explained what the source of the dog’s pain is, but he’s shown getting an acupuncture treatment, while it’s claimed in the voiceover that it’s pleasant, with soft music, dimmed lights, and sometimes treats to distract him. The dog’s owner is portrayed as “having nothing to lose” and wanting to do the best for her dog. To me, that dog didn’t look particularly happy or relaxed as he got the acupuncture treatment. He was laying on his side, panting furiously, rather the way my dog does when he’s really upset or excited and I’ve forced him to lay down while I pet him to try to calm him down. Whatever Hogan’s mental state while undergoing acupuncture, he’s portrayed as making a “miraculous” recovery (a year after he began treatment, I point out), to the point where he can go on a full walk for an hour and isn’t afraid of stairs. Of course, one wonders whether a more likely explanation is that the tincture of time plus gradually increasing walk times has allowed Hogan to largely recover.

Next up is an eight pound Yorkie named Princess, whose owners also have a 70 pound chocolate Lab named Buster. Unfortunately for Princess, one day while they were playing Buster plowed into Princess and seemed to severely injure her. Princess lay still, and they thought Buster had accidentally broken her neck. After Princess was rushed to the vet, the owners were apparently told that there was nothing that could be done; however, noticeably missing is even a cursory description of the extent of Princess’ injuries. It’s implied that they’re serious enough that there was nothing the vets could do, but none of the specific injuries were mentioned? Were there broken bones? Internal injuries? We don’t know. What we do know is that Princess’ owner decided to try acupuncture and got Princess acupuncture treatments every day. That’s no small expense, given that at Arbor Pointe each acupuncture treatment runs $50 to $80. (I sure hope they got a volume discount.) Cost aside, this is how it’s described in the news story:

At first, Princess got acupuncture treatments every day. Then she started going just three days a week, then down to two days a week. In less than a month she’s back to normal.

In this case, results were almost miraculous. If you’re considering this treatment for your pet, keep in mind this is science, not magic.

Uh, no. It’s magic. There is no science here. In any case, this case is almost certainly an example of confusing correlation with causation. We have no way of knowing for sure whether Princess would have had the same “miraculous” recovery in less than a month if nothing at all had been done. Almost certainly, she would have, because acupuncture is worthless and there’s no evidence that it is anything other than an elaborate placebo. In essence, what we’re observing here is exactly the same thing we see when parents mistake the proximity of regression or onset of first symptoms of autism in their children to vaccination as meaning that vaccination caused it. When you have an N of 1 and relay on personal experience, for all the world it can look as though that vaccine caused autism or, in this case, that those acupuncture treatments healed Princess. Vaccines don’t cause autism, and acupuncture doesn’t result in miracule cures. However, you’ll never convince the antivaccine parent of an autistic child that the vaccine didn’t cause that child’s autism, and you’re just as unlikely ever to convince Princess’ owner that acupuncture didn’t heal Princess of a potentially fatal injury. In any case, if I might be allowed to speculate briefly, what sounds like what happened to me is that Princess suffered a significant closed head injury, which wasn’t enough to kill her but did render her lethargic and poorly responsible for several days to a couple of weeks. Now, closed head injuries that can heal will heal on their own with the tincture of time, while those that can’t won’t. In retrospect it’s obvious that Princess’ injury was one that was survivable and from which she could heal on her own, no acupuncture needed.

But, believers say, if acupuncture appears to work due to placebo effects in humans, how on earth could it possible work in pets? Obviously, animals don’t have placebo effects, right? Well, not so fast. Human contact has effects on animals and the expectancy effects underlying placebo effects can work on animals through their human owners who expect the treatment to work and, not coincidentally, often pay a lot more attention to their pet when acupuncture is being done, with petting and treats and all those things that most dogs, for example, love. As David Ramey put it:

The reported intensity of subjective symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and depressed mood in an animal may vary over time for all sorts of reasons, not all of which have to do with actual changes in symptom severity. Further complicating such analyses are treatment effects that might exist on the part of both the animal owner, as well as the veterinarian with a personal investment in an “alternative” approach.

Client expectations can be very powerful motivators. Having participated in a therapeutic transaction, clients generally expect to see some results. Optimistic owners may be more likely to diligently pursue treatments. Even failing obvious results, normal reciprocal responses often result in clients reporting improvement, at least initially, even when no improvement has occurred. At the very least, veterinarians can help clients understand what problems are occurring in the animal – such comfort and reassurance may make a problem easier for the client to deal with. That’s a good thing, mostly, unless the veterinarian steers the client into areas that are unsupported by evidence.

So, yes, placebo effects can be apparent in animals, although mainly through the influence of their owners.

None of this matters as far as this incredibly credulous report goes, however. It was so bad that it didn’t even fall for the trope of false balance (also known as the “tell both sides” trope, in which the side of pseudoscience or quackery is presented as an equally valid viewpoint as the scientific viewpoint). Not even a single word of skepticism appears. There wasn’t even a “token skeptic” veterinarian interviewed to give the science-based side. It was all Dr. Petty and his two happy dog patients and their owners singing the praises of acupuncture. It might as well have been a commercial for Dr. Petty and his clinic. At least a commercial would have been honest.