Not all dog and cat owners call themselves “pet parents,” but I became a dog mom to the now twelve-year-old Luna back in 2007, a few years before I had kids. Our family really wanted to add another furry member to our family, so I finally acquiesced in September of last year, even though I’m allergic to dogs (I’m fairly certain I’ll be on daily allergy meds for life). Sebastian, AKA Batman, a two-year-old adorably weird sweetheart who posed in a bowtie in his adoption photos, quickly stole the Senapathy-Milinovich family’s hearts.
To finalize his adoption, I had to take him to the rescue organization’s chosen clinic to get his certificate of health—I won’t give the clinic’s specific name, but it includes “Holistic Care.” My ears usually perk up when I hear “holistic” in the vicinity of anything health related. That’s not to say that a truly holistic approach to wellbeing isn’t a good thing, but because where there’s holistic, there’s often woo.
I admit I’d sort of overlooked veterinary pseudoscience trends until recently. I didn’t realize how widespread they were, in part because my family had been using the same vet clinic for the past decade. This clinic is evidence based, so I assumed based on nothing really, that pet woo was fringe.
I was wrong.
Batman and I headed to the Holistic Care vet clinic and, when I walked in, the assortment of gorgeous glowing salt lamps lining the office immediately set off my woo radar. I’m sure my eyes widened—I’m not known for my poker face—but I tried my best to conceal my unease. As soon as the vet assistant whisked my little guy to the back office for his checkup, I pulled out my phone and looked at their website.
As I suspected, this clinic doesn’t just love salt lamps for their aesthetic. The office’s alt med offerings, including acupuncture, detox services, essential oils, and reiki, suggest that they believe the lamps confer health benefits, too (tl;dr, they don’t).
I immediately vowed to keep my cool, finish the adoption paperwork, and get myself and Sebastian out of that clinic and never look back.
The thing is, I don’t hold it against the people who work at this clinic. They’re obviously kind and compassionate, and I have no doubt that they and most others like them really do care for the animals they see.
But caring doesn’t make science-scarce therapies worthwhile or harmless. As I’ve started to pay attention to the pet world, I’ve noticed more and more unsettling trends. Here are just five:
Herbal pet medicine, whose sellers make specific and unsubstantiated claims, litter the pet supplement market. Just a couple examples include Blood Sugar Gold, a tincture that can be purchased online for $36 a bottle and claims to support stable blood sugar levels in dogs, and Immune Sure (from the same company), that claims to work “like an antibiotic” for viral or bacterial infections. It’s not a stretch to imagine the potential drawbacks of using herbal medicines to treat or prevent illness—a diabetic pet needs vet-recommended interventions, and there isn’t evidence to support that an herbal concoction can replace that.
The reviews for these products paint an unsettling picture. One for Immune Sure is from a pet parent for whom, like too many, vet bills aren’t financially feasible: “My cat was sneezing, sleeping too much, being very lethargic, and not eating. I can’t afford a vet bill right now, so I got the herbal remedy for a antibiotic. She’s on the mend now!”
To be fair, the veterinary medical system is broken, not just for pets and their people, but for veterinarians, too—for one, a recent study found that veterinarians have been committing suicide at a significantly higher rate than the general population, due in large part to fatigue, stress, and income levels that haven’t kept up with hefty tuition costs.
But herbal remedies are at best a band-aid solution to a broken system, and the growing attempt to legitimize them hurt pets and their families. For a couple years, the American College of Veterinary Botanical Medicine (ACVBM) petitioned to achieve recognition as a medical specialty by the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS). Blogger Skeptvet finally confirmed earlier this month that ABVS rejected the herbalists’ petition.
That’s not to say that herbal remedies can’t help our furry friends. Skeptvet puts it well—“While I am hopeful that appropriate scientific study will find useful treatments buried in the pile of accumulated tradition and anecdote that currently makes up veterinary herbal medicine, I believe the ACVBM is not the organization to lead this effort, and I think the ABVS decision is in the best interests of animal patients.”
Avoiding Vaccines Because of Pet Autism
If vaccine avoidance wasn’t enough of a problem with humans, there’s also a burgeoning movement to avoid vaccines in pets because they purportedly cause autism. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.
The question of whether or not animals can display behaviors resembling autism spectrum disorders isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds—mice with atypical social interaction and mutations in genes linked with autism in humans have led to “mouse models” for autism, and dogs and other animals that display behaviors resembling autism have also been studied. This piece at Slate (where my writing sometimes appears) explains this area of research: “Not too long ago, human researchers were resistant to this kind of comparative work, claiming that autism is too complex and too human to be described in other animals. But that’s changing.”
This hardly means that dogs and cats “get” autism, though, and it most certainly doesn’t mean that vaccines cause animal autism.
The movement has become a problem in the UK. A recent annual report on pet wellbeing from the Britain’s People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals surveyed over 4,600 pet owners and found that over a quarter of dog owners and 35 percent of cat owners didn’t give their pets necessary vaccinations. Though the report didn’t look at whether pet people cite autism as a reason to forgo shots for their fur babies, the top reason (20 percent) cited for dogs was that vaccines are “not necessary.”
That’s a public health issue for human and non-human mammals. Core vaccines for dogs and cats prevent against transmission of serious illnesses, and rabies, for one, is deadly and transmissible to humans.
It’s still a niche practice in the United States, with some pockets of higher anti-vaccine activity, including in Brooklyn and San Francisco.
A quick walk-through of my local pet supply store turned up a handful of “calming” diffusers and sprays. Adaptil Calm brand home diffuser—“the effective, non-drug solution to comfort dogs during stressful situations”—claims to “help calm and relax your dog at home.”
The purported active ingredient is “dog appeasing” pheromones. That does sound wooey, but there has been legitimate interest in the calming effects of synthetic forms of natural pheromones secreted by mothers to calm their pups and other natural pheromones. There are also calming products that mimic pheromones secreted in cats’ faces to mark a territory as safe and secure.
It’s clear from scientific literature that pheromones do play an important role in regulating behaviors in mammals, so it’s plausible that they could have therapeutic effects. But the data don’t support claims from these products’ manufacturers.
According to Veterinary Practice News, “[a]vailable pheromone products are likely safe, but it is unclear what, if any, clinical benefits they may provide for any of the variety of indications for which they are commonly recommended.”
The SkeptVet blog says that pet pheromone products “appear harmless, and if clients wish to spend money rolling the dice on a treatment that is not well supported by the limited clinical research available that is certainly up to them.”
Skeptical parents are all too familiar with amber teething necklaces for babies. Made from baltic amber beads, their makers claim that a baby’s body heat releases tiny amounts of an analgesic substance that, when absorbed through the skin, can act to ease teething pain. Spoiler alert—they don’t work, and pose strangulation and choking hazards.
Frankly, my first instinct is to judge the parent—quietly, in my head, or whispered to a companion—whenever I see a baby wearing an amber necklace (which, by the way, is often enough).
Now I have a reason to judge pet parents too when I see their furry friends sporting amber collars.
“You can prevent ticks and fleas from attacking your beloved without resorting to toxic chemicals,” exclaims Amber Crown, which also sells amber teething necklaces for babies. “Natural unpolished amber generates slight static charge that prevents insects from clinging onto your pet’s fur.”
I was as shocked as you are, but it turns out that these amber flea and tick collars are getting pretty popular. As entomologists I spoke with for a Slate story on these collars told me, there’s no reason to believe that they work as claimed.
It’s worth noting that the demand for amber flea and tick collars is rooted in legitimate concern—traditional flea and tick medications have caused serious reactions in animals, especially when used incorrectly. As I explained in Slate, part of the appeal of amber collars is that they don’t contain ingredients that seem like they could harm your pet.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to forgo flea and tick control in favor of pet jewelry. Talk to your veterinarian about what approach, if any, is right for your pet based on her lifestyle, geographical location, and other factors, and use all products as directed.
In case you missed it, acupuncture straight up doesn’t work to alleviate the ailments that proponents swear by—the current state of evidence strongly suggests that perceived benefits of acupuncture can almost entirely be chalked up to a placebo effect.
Yet, as demand for acupuncture continues to increase in humans, fans of the practice have increasingly decided that their furry friends could also benefit from the non-treatment.
The clinic that I visited to finalize Sebastian’s adoption offers it, as do a handful of other vet offices in my town.
Alas, like acupuncture in humans, pet acupuncture straight up doesn’t work, either. In 2016, the American Veterinary Medical Association voted down a petition from the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture to be recognized as a specialty medical organization because of the lack of supporting scientific evidence.
Skeptvet wrote of the decision:
Such certification requires that the area designated as a specialty be a legitimate, scientific discipline, not simply that it be a complex collection of beliefs and practices accepted by adherents regardless of the scientific evidence. Homeopathy is not a medical specialty any more than shamanism or ritual sacrifice to Apollo are medical specialties, because it has failed to prove it can or does work through scientific testing. While some non-TCVM approaches to acupuncture are more plausible and compatible with science than homeopathy or TCVM, even these approaches have failed to generate the kind of robust, consistent body of positive research evidence needed to justify creating an entire medical specialty within the veterinary profession.
This list of five pseudoscience pet trends is hardly comprehensive. I put it together based on what I found most interesting—criteria for inclusion were somewhat subjective and drew strongly on my own personal jaw-drop scale. And though I’ve focused on dogs and cats, pet woo isn’t limited to just them. I recommend checking out the Skeptvet blog, the section on veterinary medicine at Science-Based Medicine, and keeping an eye out for salt lamps at vet offices.