Essiac Tea: More Snake Oil for Pets with Cancer

I recently had a patient I was treating for lymphoma, a white blood cell cancer, whose owner was interested in giving the dog Essiac Tea, a well-known herbal remedy sometimes recommended for cancer patients. In order to advise this client, I investigated this remedy, and I want to share the results of that investigation.

What Is It?

Essiac tea contains four plants:

Burdock root

Sheep Sorrel

Slippery Elm

Indian Rhubarb root

There is also a related product, Flor Essence, that contains an additional four ingredients:


Blessed thistle

Red clover


The inventor of this concoction claimed it to be a Native American recipe, however there is no evidence this is actually true, and some reason to doubt this story. In any case, the product came into use in the 1920s, and since it has been recommended as a cancer therapy and treatment for many other health problems. It is marketed as a dietary supplement, which means there is no requirement for scientific evidence showing it is safe or effective so long as those selling it don’t make any specific claims that it can prevent or treat disease. This does not stop many people, however, from making numerous claims about health benefits for a wide range of conditions, including the potential to treat or even cure cancer. These claims are made for pets as well as humans.

Does It Work?

The short answer is, “No.” The longer answer is that there is no reason to believe it has any benefits at all based on the limited research that currently exists. It is never possible to completely disprove any possible effects of any chemical compound, even eith extensive clinical testing. However, with no sound biologic rationale and no compelling evidence so far despite miraculous claims made over nearly a century, the chances of any real benefits being yet undiscovered is vanishingly low. Here are the conclusions of a number of existing:

1. Katja Boehm, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Essiac.

“There is no evidence from clinical trials to indicate that it is effective. No clinical trial has been carried out to assess its efficacy and the only published uncontrolled clinical investigation did not suggest that Essiac has an effect on tumour burden.

2. Cancer Research UK- Essiac

“There is no scientific evidence to show that Essiac can treat, prevent or cure cancer or any other serious illness in humans.”

3. National Cancer Institute- Essiac

“There is no evidence reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals to show that the exact formulas of Essiac and Flor Essence are effective in patients with cancer or other health conditions…”

4. Ulbricht C, Weissner W, Hashmi S, Rae Abrams T, Dacey C, Giese N, Hammerness P, Hackman DA, Kim J, Nealon A, Voloshin R. Essiac: systematic review by the natural standard research collaboration. J Soc Integr Oncol. 2009 Spring;7(2):73-80.

“A review of the literature on Essiac and essiac formulations showed a lack of high-quality clinical trials to substantiate any of Essiac’s traditional uses. Weak evidence from preclinical, animal, and laboratory data warranted a discussion regarding Essiac’s use for cancer, but the results are inconclusive. Several other essiac preparations are noted in the literature, adding confusion to the exact formula and its proposed benefits. In general, there is a lack of both safety and efficacy data for Essiac and essiac formulations.”

There are no research studies at all to establish efficacy in dogs and cats.

Is It Safe?
The short answer is, “Who knows?” The limited evidence in lab animals has turned up some potential risks, including actually increasing the risk of cancer. However, the quality of evidence concerning safety is no better than that concerning any benefits. All of the individual ingredients have been reported to have undesirable side effects in humans, though the seriousness of these or the effects of using the individual ingredients together has not been studied. It is important to remember that anything which has any effect at all on the body can potentially have undesirable effects. The lack of good evidence does not mean the product is safe, only that we don’t know whether it is safe or not.

Bottom Line
There is no reason to believe Essiac has any benefits for dogs or cats with cancer or any other medical condition. The research evidence is limited, but without a good reason to think there might be benefits, the lack of evidence means no claims of benefits are justified. An absence of evidence, especially given nearly a century of claims for dramatic results, is more consistent with there being no benefit rather than with the product being a powerful treatment. Additional research could possibly show actual benefits in the future, but for now any use of this product is simply rolling the dice with your pet’s health.

Similarly, the evidence does not show whether or not the product is safe. Safety cannot be assumed in the absence of evidence, and it is more appropriate to assume there is some risk until safety is proven. Even individuals with cancer can have their lives made worse by the harm done by untested treatments, so there is currently no justification for inflicting this remedy on dogs and cats.

As usual, I will probably receive numerous anecdotes along the lines of “Well, I tried it and it worked for me/my dog.”  I have responded many times in detail as to why these are not useful in evaluating therapies like Essiac, so to save time I will list the articles that address this topic for anyone who thinks anecdotes contribute something to answering the questions of safety and efficacy:

Why We’re Often Wrong The Role of Anecdotes in Science-Based Medicine Why We Need Science: “I saw it with my own eyes” Is Not Enough

Don’t Believe your Eyes (or Your Brain)

Medical Miracles: Should We Believe?

Testimonials Lie

Alternative medicine and placebo effects in pets

Medical Practices Once Widely Accepted that Proved Ineffective or Harmful when Studied Scientifically




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Mammary Tumors in a Population of Dogs in Mexico

One of the topics that comes up most commonly in my ongoing coverage of the research concerning neutering dogs is mammary tumors. Mammary tumors occur overwhelmingly in female dogs, and they are far more common among intact females than neutered females. Though a recent systematic review identified significant limitations in the existing research on mammary tumors and neutering in female dogs, the evidence that does exist, including basic physiology, human health research, and the limited studies in dogs, all support intact status as a major risk factor for the development of mammary cancer and all suggest that neutering is protective against this disease. A recent retrospective study of biopsy samples analyzed at a university in Mexico illustrates many of the limitations of the available literature, and yet it too supports the association between intact status and mammary cancer in female dogs.

Salas Y, Márquez A, Diaz D, Romero L (2015) Epidemiological Study of Mammary Tumors in Female Dogs Diagnosed during the Period 2002-2012: A Growing Animal Health Problem. PLoS ONE 10(5): e0127381. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127381

The study involved reviewing biopsy samples from dogs submitted to the university pathology lab. This kind of study always raises questions about the applicability of the results to canine patients in practice since the population studied are only those whose owners have had biopsy samples sent to a university lab. This is likely to be a very different population from that seen in primary practice, so the relationships identified may be different. However, when the data are quite consistent with multiple other studies in different populations, as these are, in can compensate somewhat for this limitation.

The study found that the vast majority of mammary tumors came from intact female dogs (99%). Of these, about half were benign and half malignant, which is a typical proportion. There were some differences between breeds, and though this is one of the results most affected by bias in the selection of the study population, the general pattern of tumors being more common in small breeds than in large breeds is consistent with data from other studies.

The overall proportion of biopsies that were from mammary tumors was pretty constant over then ten year study period, at about 16.8%. However, the relative proportion of these tumors that were malignant appeared to increase, suggesting that mammary tumors in this population may be becoming more frequently malignant. The authors offer some speculation about possible causes for this, but this is not the kind of study that can provide any causal evidence.



On the whole, this study offers limited additional information relevant to the issue of neutering and mammary cancer, but it is at least consistent with the majority of studies that do find this to be a disease almost entirely confined to intact females, which strongly supports neutering as a preventative measure. Of course, this represents only one risk/benefit issue to consider in the larger, and quite complex, decision whether or not to neuter an individual dog.


Posted in Science-Based Veterinary Medicine | 3 Comments

Stem Cells for Kidney Disease in Cats?

I have written about stem cell therapy pretty frequently here for a couple of reasons. I consider it a very promising avenue of investigation based on lab animal and human studies, and I expect someday specific beneficial therapies based on stem cells will be available for dogs and cats. I also believe that stem cell therapies have been marketed aggressively and well beyond the actual evidence concerning risks and benefits. A general rule of medicine, in my opinion, is that any therapy that has real benefits also has real risks, and only rigorous controlled research will elucidate these. A recent review of the current status of research into stem cell therapies for kidney disease in cats illustrates well both the potential benefits and risks of stem cell therapies and the currently inadequate evidence about both that makes use of such treatments only appropriate under experimental conditions.

J.M. Quimby, S.W. Dow. Novel treatment strategies for feline chronic kidney disease: A critical look at the potential of mesenchymal stem cell therapy.  The Veterinary Journal 204 (2015) 241–246.

This review briefly outlines different types of stem-cell therapies, such as bone-marrow-derived cells, fat-derived cells, and cells from the patient or from other donor individuals, and discusses the potential advantages and disadvantages of each. This is useful in reminding us that stem-cell therapy is a complex collection of different processes and interventions, and we need good evidence for each specific intervention to make useful judgments about safety and efficacy.

The authors then briefly review the extensive lab animal evidence, which suggests potential benefit for stem cell therapies in animals with kidney disease. They do point out, however, that there are important differences between experimental disease in rats and natural disease in cats, so such studies can only suggest risks and benefits, not conclusively demonstrate them.

Finally, the review looks at the few small studies done to date in cats. These are interesting in their illustration of potential risks and benefits from stem cell therapies and also the complexity of identifying type of cell, route of administration, dose, and measures of effect to demonstrate real clinical impact from these treatments.

One study of 6 cats (2 healthy and 4 with kidney disease) involved injecting either bone-marrow-derived or fat-derived stem cells directly into the kidneys. Some improvement in measures of renal function were seen. However, the study also illustrated that getting cells from old and ill patients was very difficult and that this, along with the expense and risk of the procedure, would likely make this approach impractical in the real world of clinical medicine even if significant clinical benefits were ultimately found.

Three additional small studies have evaluated different doses and forms of fat-derived stem cells given intravenously to cats with stable chronic kidney disease. One group showed statistically significant changes in some bloodwork values, but these were not judged to be large enough to be clinically meaningful. In the other two groups, no significant change was seen in measures of kidney function. However, in one of these two groups, some undesirable adverse effects were noted in most of the cats, possibly due to inflammatory reactions or small clots caused by the stem-cell injections. This illustrates the general principle that any therapy which has significant effects on the body can cause harmful as well as beneficial effects, and the key to making good therapeutic choices is understanding both risks and benefits and being able to compare them in the context of an individual patient’s situation.

Another study of eight cats, this time with randomization, blinding, and a placebo control, investigated intravenous use of stem cells. Over a short-term followup of 6 weeks, no significant effects, for good or ill, were seen, but the study is still ongoing in order to observe any potential effects over a longer term.

From the various pieces of evidence reviewed, these authors draw a conclusion which seems to me to apply well to many potential uses of stem cell therapies in addition to the treatment of kidney disease in cats:

Although it holds much promise, at this time MSC therapy for CKD in cats should still be considered an experimental and unproven therapy. Notably, none of the studies conducted in cats with CKD by our group has been able to replicate the efficacy of MSC treatment reported in numerous rodent models of experimentallyinduced CKD.. Although rodent studies illustrate the impressive potential of MSC treatment for kidney disease, results of these models should be interpreted with caution for the reasons noted above. A conservative interpretation of the available data from studies in cats with CKD is that the current approach of IV administration of allogeneic MSCs is not likely to exert marked clinical benefit, although more animals should be treated before this conclusion can be firmly established.

There are still many questions to be answered regarding the logistics of MSC therapy. The optimal route of MSC administration, the ideal source of MSCs (allogeneic vs. autologous; culture expanded MSCs vs. SVF) and the impact of tissue donor status (attributes such as age, disease status and sex) on MSC function remain to be determined. Studies are currently under way investigating many of these aspects and additional information is eagerly awaited.

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Update: RenAvast Banned by the FDA Due to Illegal Claims

Last year, I wrote about a supplement marketed for dogs and cats with kidney failure, RenAvast. AT the time, the Bottom Line conclusion for this supplement was this:

The ingredients in RenAvast™ are deliberately not disclosed by the company beyond the fact that they are amino acids and some sort of peptide. Therefore, it is impossible to evaluate the plausibility of the proposed mechanisms of action or any preclinical research on these ingredients.

The only data presented for safety and efficacy is a poor quality, small trial with clear and significant risk of bias that is essentially useless as evidence. There are, of course, plenty of testimonials and anecdotes suggesting the product works, but that is true for every therapy ever invented, so either no idea in medicine ever fails, or anecdotes are very reliable.

There is no way to determine at this point if the product is safe or effective. However, the way that it has been marketed shows a clear disregard for both the regulations intended to prevent inappropriate and unproven claims for dietary supplements and the basic principles of medical research. The combination of secrecy and misuse of sloppy science suggests a great deal of skepticism is in order when dealing with this company and its products.

I also pointed out that in 2012, the FDA had warned the company about making illegal claims about the safety and efficacy of the product which had not been proven by appropriate clinical trials. Clearly, as of last year the company was still ignoring the law and defying this warning. Well, the wheels of regulatory enforcement turn slowly, but three years later the FDA has finally taken action against this firm:

On July 10, 2015, the United States District Court for the District of Nevada entered a consent decree of permanent injunction against Bio Health Solutions LLC, of Las Vegas and its manager and co-owner, Mark Garrison, for selling RenAvast, an unapproved animal drug.

According to the complaint filed with the consent decree, the defendants have marketed RenAvast to treat diseases, including chronic renal failure, in cats and dogs. It is illegal to market new animal drugs without first requesting FDA pre-market review and obtaining legal marketing status. The FDA pre-market review process evaluates whether products are safe and effective for their intended use, can be consistently manufactured, and are truthfully and completely labeled.

The decree, filed on FDA’s behalf by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada, prevents Bio Health Solutions LLC and Garrison from introducing RenAvast and any other unapproved new animal drugs into interstate commerce. The firm would not be able to market the drug unless and until it obtains an approved new animal drug application or meets the requirements for an investigational new animal drug exemption.

“The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act’s new animal drug approval requirements provide important protections for consumers and their animals,” said Bernadette Dunham, D.V.M., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. “We believe consumers should be able to trust that the drug products they administer to their pets have been proven to be safe and effective.”

It remains to be seen how the company will respond to this legal injunction, but hopefully this product will be taken off the market until and unless real clinical trial evidence is available to establish any risks or benefits it has. Sadly, that leaves scores of other similar products out there, but it is good to see that at least occasionally the FDA is willing to take action to prevent such flagrant illegal marketing of snake oil to pet owners.

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When Does Alternative Medicine Become a Religion?

I have written previously about the philosophical foundations of alternative medicine and how they differ from those of science-based medicine, and I feel this is a critical issue for those of us advocating for the latter. It is important to remember that while proponents of alternative therapies may use the language of science to market their products and ideas, they often don’t really accept the principles that underlie the scientific method. Much of alternative medicine is based on ideas about how health and disease work and how knowledge is acquired and tested that have far more in common with religion than with science.

I recently ran across a fairly explicit example of this from a Dr. William Pollak, who has written at length about the beliefs underlying his holistic practices, and who demonstrates why so-called holistic medicine often requires an outright rejection of the practice of science and the means by which science produces knowledge. Dr. Pollak redefines science and knowledge in terms that allow him to preserve his belief system regardless of the evidence arrayed against it, and he rejects some of the most fundamental and well-established principles of scientific medicine.

This raises the question, of course, why such people can take advantage of the exclusive professional rights and privileges that go along with being a licensed veterinarian. If the legal and ethical standard of medical care is based on science, as is explicitly stated in many of the laws and ethics statements that define the practice of veterinary medicine, how is it possible to reject science and still practice medicine? Should not this sort of healing practice be treated more as a form of personal faith, not a form of regulated, professional medicine? While there will always be differences of opinion in medicine, how far does one need to go in rejecting the foundations and core principles of a discipline before one can no longer legitimately claim to be a practitioner of that discipline?

Scientific Method- The Marriage of Intellect and Intuition

In this essay, Dr. Pollak essentially redefines science, complete with cherry-picked quotes from Einstein and others, to suggest that intuition is as useful as intellect and far better than objective scientific data for guiding our understanding and medical practice. He uses the tropes of post-modernism to make this claim, arguing that there really is no objective knowledge only a point of view. And he invokes the once popular idea that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which involves measurements at a subatomic level, somehow invalidates all objectivity because of some mystical unity of all things.

Dr. Pollak goes further, implying that scientific experimentation is just a ritual for confirming belief, rather than a mechanism for uncovering the truth about nature. While I believe the evidence is clear this is untrue, even if it were it is hard to see how uncontrolled intuition and opinion would be more reliable or less subject to bias. Dr. Pollak’s essay is quite poetic in places, but it is poetry without logic or any connection to the real world outside his own thoughts. It is simply the projection of his own feelings and desires, as are all models of nature that do not test themselves against reality in a systematic way.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty Principle states that an electron can be either be a wave or a particle depending on how you set up the apparatus to view it. The experiment set up in most cases structures the results of the investigation. The experimental result includes the intent of the researchers from the beginning; consciously or unconsciously; through attention and desire the outcome is created. It is just what it is — a set up.

Why create an elaborate structure to justify a belief? This is done if there is a need to convince others. The “others” might be officials who want proof before something is allowed; or it may be industry that needs to convince others of a product’s potency or safety. The scientific method, conscious attention, and allocated resources take an already given intent and clothe it in a garment of supposed objectivity. The ends justify the means, money well spent.

[Intuitive personal observation] is in contrast to measuring, an action performed by people who claim to be scientists but still assume that they are separate from what they are measuring.. Measuring can thus never reveal the truth of anything because the separation between observer and observed is an apparent one…

This approach of science devoid of intuition is still quite prevalent in the world today, as intuition is not a valued part of experience in our society. Lower scientists (would be measurers, as it is less inclusive) set out not to seek truth, but to justify their original supposition through manipulating physicality to produce the wanted end.

This mask of the truth of the laboratory coat without intuition gives rise to the strength and conviction behind most of the scientific studies at universities and industries today. It is the common… assumption that by scientifically showing results of scientific studies, that certain implications by association are likely to be true. This type of lower science is a paid exercise in measurement, created to prove a point that the measurers already know and want to make beforehand. It attempts to objectify when it is impossible to do so- in the name of Science.

More accurate diagnosis and treatment does not require more facts or fancies, but a free exchange of intuition and intellect from one form to another in the field of our conscious attention. There in the playing ground of our thoughts and feelings, the joyful dancing duo will make the music that will sing to us and remind us of a most proper course of action to allow the healing to flow to those around us who want it.

The Energetics of Immunization and Vaccination

Dr. Pollak rarely deals in specifics, preferring vague poetic musings on the nature of the universe that can mean whatever one wants to project onto them and are too slippery to really analyze. However, he does sometimes try to connect his philosophical speculations to his alternative medical practice, and this is most specific in his discussion of vaccination.

He begins by suggesting that vaccination is an idea copied from the “like-cures-like” notion of homeopathy, which is of course nonsense in its own right and ignores the fact that the foundations of immunization, such as variolation, were known and practices well before Hahnemann invented homeopathy. He then goes on to argue that vaccines don’t actually prevent disease but simply exchange acute illness for chronic illness, again despite the complete absence of evidence this is true and the overwhelming evidence for the efficacy of vaccination. Finally, he starts down a path he will delineate more clearly in other essays suggesting that infectious organisms don’t actually cause disease and even that disease doesn’t really exist except as a projection of the human psyche.

The concept of vaccination is based on the mechanics initially understood from homeopathy. In this system of remedies, “like cures like”; giving the biological system an artificial short term disease (a remedy), temporarily displacing a more long term situation in which symptoms are seen.

Vaccination does not confer immunity. Vaccination might express an underlying pre-existing immunity in term of observable titers or might stimulate the latent immune capabilities of the biological system and thus enhance quicker more efficient action in the future. A healthy immune system does not need vaccination, as it is capable and waiting to perform its function with minimal disturbance. [The overwhelming evidence that vaccination does, in fact, protect against disease, and that the introduction of vaccines has saved billions from unnecessary suffering, disability, and death somehow doesn’t count against Dr. Pollak’s personal observations or theories]

In an ideal sense vaccination in its unfounded basis attempts to use an indication of weakened immunologic function (the organism itself or its products) as a means to strengthen the immune system. This is not only unfounded but often times counter productive. Where in fact vaccination agitates, distorts, and helps to corrupt the less competent immune systems…In the short run it appears that susceptibility to a specific disease has been reduced (allaying human fear), when in fact this fear transfer is deposited deeper in the biological system as seeds for future chronic disease. [Again, the evidence does not actually support the claim that vaccination is a significant risk for chronic disease.]

Humans fear disease, animals know it as transient restriction, easily making adjustments with very little complaint. Disease as a real thing for animals is non-existent; for they are ever in the flow of nature herself, yet they reflect how we see them. As the companion animal is the recipient of human thought, feeling and action it absorbs unconditionally the fear as well as the love. The human fear of acute disease as expressed in unsubstantiated over vaccination can only result in added chronic disease, fibrosarcomas and end stage renal disease are some of the best indicators of this disease transfer. [The idea that disease is simply a projection of human fear and at the same time caused by vaccines we give to assuage our fear is ludicrously anthropocentric and denies the palpable reality of both physical disease and the effects of vaccination]

Vaccination as it is currently being over used in Veterinary medicine today helps alleviate the fear of acute disease in the client (and veterinarian) and transfers it into chronic disease in the patient. The Veterinary profession is viewed as “protecting” the animals for which it is monetarily compensated. Protecting from what? [Pain and death, mostly.]


Another area in which Dr. Pollak makes fairly specific claims about medicine and medical treatment, claims which are contradicted by scientific evidence and supported only by his personal faith, is on the subject of epilepsy. He blames commercial diets, vaccines, medicines (the bulk of science-based healthcare, in other words) and parasites for seizures and claims to be able to cure them in most animals with raw diets, parasite treatment and, of course, withdrawal of conventional medical care. Detailed discussion of the evidence that Dr. Pollak is wrong about this would be beside the point since these theories are based entirely on personal experience and ideology, and he has already rejected the idea that scientific evidence could ever legitimately contradict personal experience or belief. It is sufficient to point out that real experts in neurology who know a great deal more about the subject of epilepsy, and the accumulated scientific evidence of decades, do not agree with Dr. Pollak’s theories, and there is no real evidence to support them. This is simply another example of the utter rejection of science and medicine in favor of idiosyncratic individual theories and belief.

Most commonly seizures in the younger and middle aged animals are due to parasites combined with a poor diet… The most common major factors that layer upon each other and predispose the nervous system to seizures is: 1. Parasites along with 2. the extensive feeding of a solely commercial pet food diet, along with 3. over-vaccination and 4. over treatment of chemical based medicines.[As usual, no reliable evidence to support this, and if we are taking mere opinions seriously, the overwhelming majority of opinions among veterinary neurologists disagree with Dr. Pollak’s.]

The poor diet in these pets predisposes the body to seizures due to the migrating larvae (immature stages of the parasites) that roam throughout the body, including the CNS. The nutritionally compromised system (on a solely processed diet) overreacts in a disjointed fashion to this disturbance. Animals fed a natural raw food diet better limit the parasitic numbers and are much less likely to seizure in response to them.[Raw foods are actually a risk factor for parasites, which is one of the main reasons we cook our food.]

Today’s modern approach to dealing with these problems is the administration of more chemicals,.. These chemicals oftentimes do not work and further confuse the biological system as already described earlier. The underlying imbalance is not directly addressed. Deranged metabolic disorders due to chemical shortages or imbalances are superficially addressed by further limitations in the diet; i.e.even more severely processed foods. These efforts though well intended are short sighted and short lived. After a brief period of lessened clinical signs the system must restabilize at a lower level of health, due to the continued lack of essential raw materials in a natural state. This results at best, in the reoccurrence of the disease and at worst, a deeper set of symptoms (“another” disease— that is really the same disease) or death. [The neat thing about this claim is that if no evidence is required to support it one can simply claim any disease that ever happens is the result of this supposed misguided attempt to prevent disease. You basically can’t lose!]

An active electrical network surrounds the physical body in all sentient beings. The CNS is constantly generating this network; this is the subtlest functioning of the DNA relationship. This non-physical energy of the relationship of matter resonates with the electrical fields of all other resonating bodies. When there is some threat; real or otherwise, the electrical system responds by either short-circuiting or overloading to some degree. This is a signal to the physical body to respond. If the body does not succeed, the imbalance is physically manifested… A seizure is an obvious instance of electrical overloading, without the appropriate physical response. [This sort of vague mixing of real physical phenomena like electricity and DNA with spiritual concepts like universal “energy” is a common bit of misdirection designed to steal some of the legitimacy from real scientific concepts and paint it on faith-based beliefs. This sort of explanation for disease was the norm for most of human history, with little in the way of success compared to the benefits realized by a scientific understanding of nature.]


The core idea that seems to underlie Dr. Pollak’s rejection of science and scientific method is vitalism, the belief that the physical aspects of nature are only a part of reality and that the real cause and management of illness lies with some non-physical spiritual essence of life force. This is a core idea behind many alternative practices, and it undermines any distinction between medicine and religion. While people are welcome to believe whatever they choose about the ultimate nature of reality, medicine is not simply any belief anyone chooses to have about health and disease.

If one believes God will cure disease if petitioned through prayer, that is their business. However, using this belief as a basis for calling oneself a doctor and then selling not only prayer but herbs, supplements, and other medical therapies to cure illness is not legitimate. Science has proven far more effective than any other means for understanding nature, and it has led, in a mere few centuries, to better health and less disease than all of the beliefs and practices that went before it in all of human history. Because of this, science has been granted a special position as the foundation of medicine, and society expects doctors to treat patients with methods compatible with and supported by science. Faith healing may be a fine spiritual practice, but it is not medicine and it cannot be sold as such.

Yet Dr. Pollak very clearly blurs the line between his private spiritual beliefs and the practice of medicine until he becomes far more of a shaman than a doctor, and it is disingenuous to market his services in any other way.  He claims that the true cause of disease, insofar as the concept of disease has any reality at all, is in non-physical entities that cannot be objectively studies, measured, or manipulated. If true, then all medicine is a spiritual exercise based entirely on what each healer intuits about the spiritual essence of the patient and the general nature of the Universe. While it is not possible to disprove a notion like this, it is clear that moving away from such ideas and towards a science-based approach to medicine has had tremendous, unprecedented benefits, so we should be wary about giving up the distinction between medicine and religion or giving personal faith equal weight with scientific evidence in healthcare.

Physical substance no matter how crude or refined is only a partial vehicle for the life giving flow that is healing. [But, of course, the non-physical is detectable only by intuition or belief, so not claim about it can ever be proven or falsified, which leads us to abandoning any hope of knowledge and leaves us relying on idiosyncratic and ephemeral personal opinion as the only guide to how to treat disease. Not a successful approach in the past!]

When the physical substance (gross, essence or quintessence) is seen as the only balancing agent in the pursuit of greater health the doctor has removed the predominant health giving force. This makes health care impotent; not much better than a system that pushes disease from one system of the body to another while every specialist claims “Cure”.

Scientific/objective research attempts to remove the practitioner from the scenario of healing by only allowing a framework that takes into account physical substance. An almost total intellectual perspective and lots of commercial money drive the current type of research…what is sought is a specialist’s panacea; and there are many, for if disease is defined narrowly, within that narrow definition cure will readily be found again and again. Keeping the scope of investigation within the physical framework keeps the illusion of cure very much alive. [So attempts to control error and bias through systematic scientific investigation are futile. But we can see the real truth by just letting our intuition and imagination free. Uh-huh….]

The use of holistic measures to eliminate disease is the key to enhancing wellness. This flow of higher balance (resulting in cure) can come on three levels; the first is from physical substance, usually natural, vibrant material. The second source of cure is from the essence or sound of the material (homeopathic potency or any pure essence or thought of such material). The third and most powerful means of cure is the direct infusion of wholeness into the patient, either directed through the healer via “hands-on healing”, telepathic, prayer or under the guise of any modality.[So anything works, as logn as you believe it works.]

Disease is resistance to the changing aspect of life.. Without constant changing scenery, life would be not only boring, but unable to fulfill is purpose of containing Wholeness. Disease can be seen as allowing the attention of lack to persist longer than it’s needed and then creating a mental structure based on it; justification, blame and helplessness follow. Our animal friends of earth are there to absorb innocently what the humans around them project…Animal disease is an understanding of humans. Animal restriction viewed as disease by humans, is a lack that is not focused upon by animals. The animal and plant kingdoms are forever in the flow of life’s energy. It is just through the effect of humans that their lives are remolded through relationship, either enhanced or made shorter. The life of the animal and plant kingdoms prior to the presence of humans was serene and peaceful (and not as full). [So all disease in our animals is caused by human beliefs, since we somehow perturb the blissful state of nature that existed before us when there was no disease and no suffering. Arrogant and ridiculous.]

Disease arises through a weakened Vital Force. Strengthening the Vital Force dissolves disease through life’s nature to maintain and express greater balance.

Disease is fluid, not confined to bodily parts, it can move easily through the mind, emotions, body and environment. Movement of disease from mental to emotional to physical, and downward and out from the center of the body indicates a strengthening of the Vital Force.

Tissue changes are the ultimates (end results) of disease; not the disease itself. Tissue changes are the expression of the interplay of the nature of the flow of life energy, observing these changes allows for further refinement and expansion of life’s flow. The predisposition allowing the tissue changes lies closer to the source of disease.

The healer consciously bestows desired life force through intent and knowledge of the nature of its flow. In the intent and act of healing through any modality, a process of harmonizing is appreciated and felt to what ever extent. Tapping into this sea of potentiality with focus of intent, begins the wheels of the universe turning in the direction of that which is wanted. If healing is one’s desire, then from this foundation of wholeness, healing arises via any modality. The wholeness of the healer joins with the wholeness of the one desiring healing. The strength of resonance between the two, determines the degree of healing. Modality is a matter of preference.[All that matters is that you believe, not what you actually do. Except, of course, if what you do is vaccinate and prescribe drugs, in which case you are doing harm.]

Here, Dr. Pollak has made explicit (if not necessarily clear) his belief that attention to abnormalities in the physical body is misguided, that disease is simply one state of matter brought about by nonmaterial forces, even manufactured by human feelings and foisted upon our otherwise healthy pets. The nature of being a doctor, in this world view, is not to heal the physical body but to facilitate certain desirable alignments of spiritual energies. He claims that it doesn’t matter how one does this (“modality is a matter of preference”), which allows him to do what many alternative practitioners do, which is accept the truth of numerous mutually contradictory therapeutic practices. On the other hand, he clearly doesn’t really believe this since he derides the modalities of science-based medicine as ineffective and harmful. But perhaps this is only because our “intention” and belief as doctors is mistaken? Perhaps toxic chemicals would become as healthful as homeopathy if only we shared his understanding of the true nature of the Universe? In a world view such as this, anything is possible.

Death-Just Another Kind of Healing

In terms of my own philosophical perspective, I see death as an inevitable and natural part of the existence of living beings. In a metaphorical sense, it can be viewed as just one more natural life event or stage. However, that doesn’t mean that the death of a child from preventable infectious disease and the death of a centenarian from the accumulated physical ailments of the years are both to be viewed and treated as the same. The natural and inevitable nature of death doesn’t mean it isn’t a real phenomenon involving failure or breakdown of the physical body, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make reasonable efforts to avoid it when possible.

Dr. Pollak writes at length about death from the perspective of his particular spiritual philosophy, and his views on the subject are no more or less legitimate than anyone else’s. However, his treatise on the subject is problematic from the point of view of the veterinarian’s responsibility to reduce suffering in our patients. He writes about animals as idealized archetypes of nature incapable of suffering except from a flawed human perspective. Disease and death are, in this view, not fundamentally real, and the suffering our pets experience is an illusion we project on them. Such a view may offer psychological comfort, but it also discounts the reality and the significance of the pain our pets experience in their own right, independent of any beliefs we hold about it.

The implication that our pets experience disease and pain and death only as a function of our projecting our feelings on them diminishes the reality of their experience and can discourage appropriate intervention. It denies our pets the dignity of being treated as beings in their own right, not merely reflections or recipients of our needs and fears. And coupled with belief in useless therapies like homeopathy, this raises a very real risk of inadequately treating our patients’ discomfort and accepting not only death in general but death in circumstances where it could be reasonably and appropriately prevented. And it implicitly blames the victim of disease for bringing it on themselves or on their pets with wrong thinking, as well as, of course, the error of believing in science-based healthcare.

From a truly holistic perspective, death is a continuation of the healing process.

Understanding disease from a holistic perspective as healing episodes (periods in which the individual mind/body releases or sheds what is no longer wanted or is no longer of use) will help us to understand the deeper spiritual significance of the experience of death.

At the basis of disease understanding lies the notion of fear, not so much fear of something in the world, but of fear itself. The base fear, as a metaphor, is fear of death; an obvious end with an unsure beginning. This is fear of the unknown, arising from a lack of conscious love. If symptoms are seen or felt, and the fear of fear (lack of love) is active, then dis-ease grows stronger, this can only happen when unconditional love seems so far away.[So if you get ill, it’s your own fault for having the wrong thoughts or feelings.]

Our pets do not suffer as we do, they greet the new situation of temporary restriction with ease and love rekindled; this lends itself to quick adjustment. When we extend our discomfort onto them, and see them as ourselves in situations that we greatly fear, then we can only see ugly disease, devoid of love, all around us…The basis of suffering and overwhelming pain is the interpretation we place on the temporary restriction.[And you pets only suffer because of your feelings too.]

It is natural law that physical disease will follow this kind of thinking and feeling of lack and self-unworthiness, as there is a continuum between the different levels of life, from gross to subtle and beyond. In the absence of conscious unconditional love disease will express itself in a myriad of forms as long as the underlying bed of discontent continues.

Our pets mirror us through the reflection of love. This picture is not like that of a simple mirror that hangs in the dressing room and simply reverses left and right. This new image is a reflection that passes through a mirror with crystals of unconditional love on the back, warming the light with the glow of freedom and security as it passes through. These crystals are our pet’s conscious knowing of its place in the universe combined with the joy of having a family and master all wrapped into one. This makes their living, their role in life clear, simple and extremely fulfilling, all they do in their unconditional joy is innocently reflect back.[A clearer explication the human species’ arrogance and narcissism would be hard to find.]

Sometimes our pets linger in pre-death waiting longer than is necessary because it is important to them that their master(s) is well. They oftentimes do not understand the grief that is being emitted by the master with reference to their soon be departure. Grief and loss associated with this eternal process of transformation is unknown to them. They feel uncomfortable in leaving at a time when their master seems so confused, saddened and disoriented. They will stay, as long as they can, to further bring comfort to someone they truly love. If we are incapable or unwilling to let them go, they will stay around as long as they can, even to the point of obvious discomfort.

…They wish to know with certainty, that through your relationship with them, you have gained some increased sensitivity in the nature of your own being, for it is theirs as well. Our pets are in tune with the deepest of our knowing, a mixture of projected feelings, pictures and intentions. They barely hear our words that don’t ring true, but sense to their core, our core feelings, and reflect them back in love. This is done whether they are playful in health or restful in the physical weakness of great transformation.

The Pollak Protocol for Eliminating 85% of Common Disease in the Dog and Cat

Like most believers in a simple, mysterious, universal truth about health and disease, Dr. Pollak believes he has found answers not seen or understood by other veterinarians. And like several others, he has created a simple recipe for dramatic reductions in disease which requires accepting his view of the world but doesn’t apparently require any scientific evidence to validate it. And, of course, he’s named this recipe after himself. Sadly, the vast majority of scientists and healthcare professionals don’t have the insight to abandon their ineffective approach to health and follow this simple recipe.

The Pollak Protocol addresses seven basic areas:

  1. Diseases amenable to the Pollak Protocol
  2. Feeding the Natural Raw Food Diet
  3. Transitioning on to the Natural Raw Food Diet (NRFD) and Fasting
  4. Understanding Healing Episodes
  5. Deworming (if necessary)
  6. Least Medical Interference as possible
  7. Enjoying the Onset of Cure

This simple protocol is for those who still believe, if only somewhere deep inside, that curing disease, not treating disease, is the guiding light of real health care. Following this protocol will bring results beyond imagination and give strength to an intuitive learning that has been put on the back burner in a society gone mad about treating disease while giving up on cure. [In other words, anyone who believes in scientific medicine has given up on actually curing disease, despite all of the illusory improvements in health and longevity brought about by the scientific approach.]

This protocol is based on the dramatic and consistent improvement in health and vitality seen in thousands of dogs (~10,000) and cats (~6000) (1) when dietary changes were made. Based on the large numbers, a protocol emerged that helped bring Wellness to over 90% of the animals. Success was directly related to owner compliance with the dietary changes in a large majority of the cases. Understanding the protocol and interest and appreciation by owners of their pet(s) are the primary limitations on the level of Wellness obtainable. [In other words, if it doesn’t work it’s the owner’s fault for not understanding or adhering to the magic formula sufficiently. Oh, and it must be true because he made up some numbers.]

Excessive internal heat from unnatural breakdown of processed food is also the main cause of arthritis in our pet population. Dogs or cats showing arthritis in any form will usually respond quite nicely to a diet of only raw food. Return them to cooked or any processed food and the arthritis usually returns.[No evidence, as usual, just opinion. This is very typical of the kind of pre-scientific attempts to explain disease that had us killing patients with bloodletting for thousands of years.]

Switching to raw foods is very powerful medicine. Healing episodes can occur as deep house cleaning starts in the pet’s body. This can happen within hours of starting to feed raw food. Our pets have been waiting for this raw food their whole life, and when they get it, the body can over do it a bit in trying to make up for lost time. Diarrhea is the most common symptom seen…The strengthening of Wellness can sometimes bring symptoms suggestive of disease. [Just as death is a sign of healing, so is illness. If your pet gets better using his regime, of course his regime worked. But if it gets worse, that also means the regime worked and at an even more profound level. A nifty marketing trick, making every outcome a sign of success, but it’s not a legitimate way to validate any therapy.]

Bottom Line
It is common for alternative medicine practitioners to claim a respect for legitimate science or to claim that science supports their practices. Often, however, these claims are inconsistent with the evidence or with the behavior of these practitioners when confronted by the evidence. While some undoubtedly do believe science is the best way to understand nature and guide their medical practice, many turn out to have beliefs about health and disease and about the role of healer that are inconsistent with the basic principles of science and the core knowledge of science-based medicine. These beliefs often privilege personal faith and vague, ill-defined spiritual forces above scientific investigation of the material world.

I have no objection to spiritual beliefs per se, even when they touch on the causes and remedies for disease. And I understand that alternative practitioners will bring their core values and beliefs with them to work to some extent, as we all do. However, I do believe that science has proven itself far superior to any other system for understanding nature, and it has led to unprecedented and real improvements in health. Further, I believe society as a whole, at least in the developed world, accepts this and stipulates in the legal and institutional context of medicine that science should be the foundation for medical practice. When doctors are granted a license to practice medicine, they have great freedom to interpret and apply scientific knowledge, but they cannot legitimately reject or ignore it entirely.

When someone like Dr. Pollak explicitly rejects the definitions, principles, and core knowledge of medical science and uses personal spiritual beliefs as the foundation for his medical practice, I believe he has strayed outside the legitimate purview of the practice of medicine. He has declared himself a shaman or spiritual guide, rather than a doctor, in all but name. Again, this is fine by me so long as he represents himself honestly as such. But to call oneself a veterinarian while abandoning the epistemological foundations of the profession and declaring nearly all science-based medical practice to be vain and misguided is fundamentally misleading.

In any case, while I think the evidence against Dr. Pollak’s specific claims is strong, delineating that would be pointless since we are using entirely different systems of understanding. The best I can do is call attention to Dr. Pollak’s philosophical views, which he has expounded on at length on his own web site, and illustrate how they conflict with the principles that underlie conventional medicine. Those who share his beliefs are free to choose the shamanistic approach, and those who believe in the reality and value of science-based medicine are free to choose that approach, with the distinction made clear.

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No Vet for My Pet? Veterinary Nurses Can Sell Woo Too!

Despite the real harm unproven or bogus alternative therapies can cause, I get a lot of flak here for being critical of alternative practitioners. Some of that stems from the natural resentment of having one’s beliefs questioned. Alternative medicine is more of a philosophy, even a religion, than it is a rational approach to healthcare (1,2,3), so challenging it is much like questioning someone’s religious beliefs, and it tends to draw the same sort of response as illustrated by the sometimes vicious hate mail I get (4,5). And pointing out the lack of scientific evidence or a plausible theory behind an alternative practice can (hopefully) dissuade people from pursuing it, which obviously threatens the livelihood of some practitioners, so naturally this would engender some angry responses.

However, this criticism of criticism is pretty hypocritical given that the foundation of most alternative medicine marketing is exaggerating the risks and minimizing or ignoring the benefits of science-based medicine. The criticism alternative practitioners level at conventional medicine in promoting their own practices is often dramatic, and even those who claim their methods are compatible with conventional therapies and that they employ these still most often give more credit to the alternative treatments they use.(6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12) Ultimately, most alternatives to science-based medicine have to be sold with the claim, or at least the implication, that they work better than conventional medicine or in situations where it does not, whether or not there is evidence to support these claims.

A reader recently pointed me towards a particularly egregious example of the marketing of complete nonsense as a substitute for real medical care. See if you can spot the subtle suggestion that the methods being offered can replace conventional care.


That wasn’t hard, was it? Now in the U.S. it is illegal to claim to diagnose or treat any disease without a license to practice veterinary medicine. I presume the same rule applies in Canada, where this quack is located, and as a result the web site is all about implying therapeutic powers without ever actually directly stating this. The usual sort of disingenuous CYA disclaimer appears on the home page:

The information contained on this website is for educational purposes only. It is not to be used as medical treatment or diagnoses. Do not alter any medical treatment, or the use of any medication without the permission of your medical care provider.

So if you aren’t supposed to use these products and services as medical treatments, why is the site called “No Vet for My Pet?” And why are there lists of medical conditions, from allergies to infections to cancer, paired with the names of specific products? Doesn’t that perhaps suggest the products are recommended as treatments for those conditions?

The site belongs to a veterinary technician/nurse named Salina Bhimji. Veterinary nurses, like nurses in human medicine, are in many ways the backbone of clinical medicine. They provide much of the direct patient care, and they serve as eyes, ears, hands, and often brain and conscience for veterinarians. I am blessed to work at a hospital with an amazing staff of highly intelligent, motivated, and trained nurses, and they make life incalculably better for me and my patients.

Unfortunately, in human medicine nurses are often a driving force for the integration of pseudoscience and nonsense into patient care, and I have seen at least some examples of the same problem in veterinary medicine. Healing Touch is the classic example of such a method among nurses in the human medical field. A form of “energy medicine,” which really amounts to a spiritual rather than a medical practice, it was invented by a nurse and has been accepted and promoted primarily by nurses despite clear evidence that it is nothing but a placebo ritual.

It is actually understandable that nurses in human and veterinary medicine might be more inclined towards alternative therapies than many doctors. Their training is often more practical and involves less basic science and scientific method and theory. And nurses provide most of the direct comfort to patients, so treating psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs more often falls within their domain than in the territory of doctors.

Most nurses, fortunately, believe in providing comfort and high-quality, science-based medical care, but a small group do tend to be sympathetic towards the kind of nonsense Ms. Bhimji sells. It is critical that those of us committed to evidence-based medicine include the nursing/technician community in our ranks and in our education and training efforts, because they are a large and indispensable part of the healthcare system for our patients.

According to her bio, Ms. Bhimji has an undergraduate biology degree and became a certified veterinary technician working at veterinary emergency hospitals. Apparently finding real medicine not to her liking, she has begun offering a wide array of the most ludicrous pseudoscientific and mystical nonsense available in the alternative medicine “toolbox.”

So what sort of alternatives does she offer? She seems to specialize in the more spiritual styles of therapy. This may be because of her personal beliefs, but I suspect it has more to do with legal restrictions on providing the more “medical” forms of alternative therapy (herbal remedies, acupuncture, chiropractic, and so on) without a license to practice medicine. She states that she is pursuing a doctorate in naturopathy, so I expect once she achieves that she will expand her product line—uh, I mean “toolbox.”

This is is essentially a form of spiritual healing in which a healer directs a mysterious form of spiritual “energy” to heal physical disease.(13) It has the advantage over some alternative therapies of being benign in itself since it relies on magic rather than plant chemicals or needles. Nevertheless, no reliable scientific evidence has demonstrated any actual healing effects. If magic is real, then perhaps someday we will be able to demonstrate such effects, but as Tim Minchin has pointed out, “Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be—not magic.”

The process of performing Reiki, however, might have some actual behavioral and physical effects on animals. It does, after all, involve quiet, gentle interaction and sometimes touch from a human. Anyone who has ever shared a bed or petted a dog or cat will be unsurprised by the idea that animals might enjoy this sort of interaction and find it comforting. It seems gratuitous to take ordinary kind and comforting interaction that might help shelter animals and load it down with a pile of mystical baggage and then claim that is why the animals benefit.

The use of spiritual practices in medical care does come with significant risks. While the humans involved may find such practices comforting, and that is a good thing, there is no reason to think our animals share any of our many specific and often incompatible spiritual beliefs. I have personally seen animals who are suffering be denied appropriate pain control and human euthanasia by owners whose spiritual beliefs precluded the use of these therapies. While animal owners are entitled to these beliefs, veterinarians have a duty to advocate for the welfare and interests of our patients. It is all too easy for psychologically comforting rituals like Reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy, and so on to fool us into thinking we have done something real to reduce an animal’s suffering when we actually have not. We must rely on objective scientific evidence to help us determine if what we are doing is truly comforting our patients and not just us.

Ms. Bhimji has a variety of certificates from training as Reiki practitioner. This may qualify her as a spiritual advisor of sorts to people who believe in the sort of ideas behind Reiki, but it does not give her any legitimate medical expertise or right to imply that she can treat health problems in veterinary patients.

A separate service Ms. Bhimji lists on her site is “energy healing,” but it is unclear how this differs from Reiki, which is just one of many forms of “energy medicine” (aka faith healing).

Crystal Healing
Here is how Ms. Bhimji describes this therapy:

What is Crystal Healing

This is a healing method that is used to heal animals using various types of crystals. There are many different crystals that work well with animals, it is about what crystal resonates with you.  If a crystal jumps out at you, or you are attracted to one, that is the stone that you are meant to use.

What does it do?

Using crystals in conjunction with other healing methods can enhance the healing process for an animal.  They simply amplify the energy that is flowing throught [sic] the animal.

It should be fairly obvious that this is again more religion than medicine, but there is no scientific evidence that crystal healing is anything other than a placebo therapy. (14, 15) While one can legitimately debate the merits of offering people placebos, it is clear that it is ethically unacceptable to treat disease in animals with placebos for their owners. (16)

Essential Oils
Essential oils are one of the products and services Ms. Bhimji offers which sound less obviously like religion and more like actual medicine. The claim that odors distilled from plants can heal disease, however, is still pseudoscience unsupported by reliable research evidence. There is little doubt smells can have potent emotional effects on humans, and they could potentially have behavioral effects on veterinary patients. BThere is weak evidence for beneficial effects on subjective mood states, such as anxiety, in humans, but the notion that they can influence the outcome of serious diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and so on, is entirely unproven and highly implausible. (17, 18, 19, 20)

Ms. Bhimji specifically offers a type of essential oil therapy called Raindrop, and she proudly attributes the practice to Gary Young. Mr. Young is an infamous character with a long history in alternative medicine. Though the details are often in dispute, and Mr. Young does not hesitate to threaten legal action against those who criticize him, he has apparently been in regular legal trouble for practicing medicine without a license, making illegal drug claims, and other alternative medicine marketing activities for decades. (21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26). This is not a source anyone should trust, and the fact that Ms. Bhimji uses Mr. Young’s method and appears to admire him speak poorly of her own judgment and reliability.

Finally, Ms. Bimji offers consultations in person or via Skype for $50-65 per hour to help pet owners “achieve their goals in enhancing the health and wellness of their pet.” She also offers a variety of educational  presentations in person and online. While I suspect there is nothing illegal in this, it seems obviously unethical and fraudulent by every other definition. Ms. Bhimji essentially offers either spiritual guidance or completely unsupported pseudoscience and calls it “healing” or “wellness.” It is hard to imagine how anyone could come to this web site and view the material there as anything other than healthcare advice for their pets, despite all the careful language and disclaimers, so the site strikes me as misleading even if Ms. Bhimji actually believes the nonsense she is preaching.

Bottom Line
I have no quarrel with people who find comfort during times of illness from spiritual practices. And I see no problem with utilizing these practices for our pets when they are intended to give us spiritual and emotional comfort. But there is a meaningful difference between medicine and religion, and when the distinction gets muddled patients suffer. Treating serious disease in animals with religious rituals and pseudoscience in lieu of science-based medicine denies these patients real, effective medical care and causes real and unnecessary suffering. Advertising oneself as a spiritual advisor helping people cope with their pets’ illness is perfectly fair. Advertising spiritual services and bogus treatments as if they had real medical benefits is misleading and dangerous.

Ms. Bhimji seems to take great care to avoid explicit claims that could get her in trouble with the law though I suspect those will appear if and when she gets licensed as a naturopath. But she clearly creates the impression that what she offers can have real medical benefits and can replace science-based medical care, and that is wrong whether legal or not.

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Evidence Update: Old Tricks Used to Massage Neutricks Study Data

A few years ago, I reviewed a nutritional supplement called Neutricks which is marketed to “support brain health.” The company is careful not to make any specific claims about prevention or treatment of disease, which would be illegal, but the marketing materials strongly imply the supplement can help prevent or treat Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), a type of dementia seen in older dogs. In my previous review I concluded:

Could it work? Sure.

Is there clear evidence it doesn’t work? No.

Is there any significant evidence of risk? No.

And finally, is there any meaningful evidence of beneficial effects? Nope.

So while I certainly would love to see additional, and more relevant testing of apoaequorin and the underlying hypothesis behind its  use, at this time it is just another example of selling wishful thinking to people without a lot of better options.

A new study of the chief ingredient, apoaequorin , has been published which claims to support the use of Neutricks.

Milgram, NW. Landsberg, G. Merrick, D. Underwood, MY. A novel mechanism for cognitive enhancement in aged dogs with the use of a calcium-buffering protein. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 10 (2015) 217e222.

The authors of this study conclude:

The current results demonstrate selective cognitive benefits from use of apoaequorin in an aged dog model… Further work will be needed to better define therapeutic benefits from apoaequorin in the aging canine… Further controlled studies in clinically diagnosed patients are needed to validate which signs might be improved and whether apoaequorin may have an effect early in cognitive decline.

This is a fairly modest conclusion, but I believe it still goes farther than what is supported by the data presented in the paper. The study consisted of two experiments in older laboratory beagles, and it was quite similar to a previous study conduct by the same organization and at least some of the same researchers, which I discussed in my previous post. In brief, this study compared two doses of apoaequorin (2.5mg and 5mg) to a placebo by giving the dogs in each of these three groups two cognitive behavioral tests (a delayed non-matching to position task (DNMP) test, a discrimination task, and an attention task). The investigators also ran a second experiment comparing 5mg and 10mg of apoaequorin to slegilene, a medication approved and marketed for CCD, using the same discrimination and attention tests. The results reported were as follows:

Experiment 1-

  1. There was no difference in performance on the DNMP test between any of the three groups.
  2. On the discrimination task, there was a statistically significant difference between the low-dose group and placebo but not between the high-dose and placebo or the two apoaequorin dose levels.
  3. On the attention task, overall there was no significant difference between the groups. When the data were manipulated to compare the groups under different testing conditions (the number of distractors used during the tests), then a statistical difference could be seen between the placebo and the high-dose group under some conditions, but no difference could be found between the placebo and the low-dose group.

Experiment 2-

  1.  In the discrimination task, the most errors were seen in the selegilene group, followed by the low-dose apoaequorin, the control group, and the high-dose apoaequorin. Only the difference between the selegilene and high-dose apoaequorin groups was statistically significant.
  2. On the attention task, there was no overall difference  between the groups. Again, when additional variables were factored in (age and cognitive level at baseline of the dogs) a statistical difference was found between the high-dose and selegilene groups, but not between any of the other groups.

So what do these results mean? Essentially, they do not show much of an effect of the apoaequorin or provide much reason to use Neutricks in actual patients. Here’s why:

A. Most of the comparisons between apoaequorin and placebo of selegeline showed no difference. Those that did were produced by manipulating the data to add other variables or compare different subgroups. This can be a legitimate way to identify differences if planned in advance, but it does not seem like this is what happened.

B. If the investigators got negative results and then conducted a bunch of additional or unplanned analyses and reported those that showed a difference while ignoring those that didn’t, this is a bit of statistical sleight-of-hand. There is no way to know if this was what happened since veterinary studies and their protocols are not published in advance. However, such data mining is common practice, and it can create the impression of findings that do not reflect reality, so such post-hoc analyses are always viewed with skepticism.

C. Those findings that were statistically significant don’t fit a consistent pattern suggestive of a real biological effect. In the previous study, which was very similar to Experiment 1, there were no differences on the DNMP task or the attention task, and the low-dose group appeared to have fewer errors on the discrimination task than the control or high-dose group. In this study, there were again no differences on the DNMP task or the attention task (except for some questionable post-hoc analyses), and the low-dose group did better on the discrimination task than the high-dose or placebo.

In Experiment 2, however, the high-dose group appeared to perform better than the selegilene group, while the low-dose and placebo groups were the same for the discrimination task, and no differences were seen overall on the attention task.So basically, a handful of inconsistent statistical differences were found which did not fit a consistent pattern showing a dose-response or superiority to placebo. This might be enough to warrant further research, but if this is the best that multiple studies have come up with, it is not very persuasive.

D. The real-world significance of even the limited findings in this study are unclear. The relevance of these cognitive tasks to normal life function in dogs with CCD hasn’t been demonstrated.  And while there is limited experimental evidence of an effect for selegilene, it is widely regarded as not very effective in real patients, so showing equivalence or superiority to it doesn’t add much support to the rationale for trying apoaequorin. CLinicla trials in actual patients would be a better kind of evidence to suggest real-world benefits.

E. There is a significant risk of bias to be considered in this study. The investigators are either employees of the company marketing Neutricks or of the research firm hired to do the study, CanCog, which markets itself specifically in terms of working to provide supporting evidence to help companies market veterinary products. While I am sure the individuals involved all have appropriate ethical standards, their positions and employment virtually require that they have at least unconscious bias in favor of the product they are testing.

The manufacturer of Neutricks not only funded the study but was apparently actively involved in its conduct:

This study was funded under contract from Quincy Animal Health and conducted by CanCog Technologies. The sponsor helped plan and approved the study design and was also consulted in the decision to submit and publish the article and provided input in the final content of the article…

This provides a lot of motive and opportunity to subtly influence the outcome. Some controls against such bias are present in the study, such as the use of a placebo, but others are not specifically described (randomization of subjects and blinding of investigators), and as previously mentioned a number of post-hoc manipulations of the data were employed which could easily allow unconscious bias to affect the results.

Bottom Line
This new study does little to support claims of real-world clinical benefit for dogs with CCD taking Neutricks. There is some theoretical and preclinical evidence to suggest apoaequorin might be beneficial for dogs with this disease, but the studies so far presented by the manufacturer of this supplement have weak and inconsistent results and some concerning potential for uncontrolled  bias. The experimental models used in these studies might or might not be relevant to naturally occurring disease even if the study outcomes were strong and consistent, but with relatively weak results, it is difficult to know whether this product is likely to have any meaningful benefits.

Undoubtedly, people will come forward with anecdotes and testimonials for Neutricks that supposedly show real-world benefits. Unfortunately, while these stories are very psychologically persuasive, they are even less reliable a guide to the truth than the lab animal studies I’ve discussed. Below are some links that illustrate why in more detail

To be clear, I am not saying this product or compound are not beneficial, since there is not sufficient evidence to make that assertion. However, as of now there is also insufficient reason to claim that it has any benefits, and the question is unlikely to be settled without independent, well-controlled clinical trials in real CCD patients.

Why Anecdotes and Testimonials are Unreliable

Don’t Believe your Eyes (or Your Brain)

Medical Miracles: Should We Believe?

Testimonials Lie

Alternative medicine and placebo effects in pets

Placebo effects in epileptic dogs

Medical Practices Once Widely Accepted that Proved Ineffective or Harmful when Studied Scientifically

Why We’re Often Wrong


Posted in Herbs and Supplements | Leave a comment

California Passes Science-based School Vaccination Law (SB277)

A while ago, I wrote about a bill in the California legislature intended to remove non-medical exemptions to vaccination requirements for children in the state. Despite often vicious and irrational opposition, science and reason and public health have won the day! The bill passed all committees and both houses of the legislature, and it has now been signed into law by the governor.


It wouldn’t surprise me if there are legal challenges to the law ahead, but I am proud of my state and grateful as a parent that the politicians have made the right choice for public health.


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Canine Nutrigenomics by Dr. Jean Dodds: Science as Windowdressing

A number of readers have asked me to review a recent book on canine nutrition:

Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health

The book has two authors. One is Diana Laverdure, a self-described “canine nutrition activist”and “pet food diva.” What this appears to mean is someone who has lots of opinions about animal nutrition which she shares freely. She does list a master’s degree in animal science among her credentials, though no specific background in nutrition or genetics. Among her influences she includes some of the most notorious figures in alternative veterinary medicine, including Dr. Richard Pitcairn and Dr. Shawn Messonier, and of course her co-author for this and a previous book, Dr. Jean Dodds.

I have written about Dr. Dodds before. (1, 2). She is a prime example of a variety of the ailment sometimes called the Nobel Disease. She is obviously a smart and confident person who has made real contributions to veterinary medicine outside of the conventional academic career path. Unfortunately, she has come to embrace a variety of pseudoscientific views, and she has such confidence in her own talents and beliefs that she does not feel obligated to subject her own theories to the usual sort of scientific testing and critique. Her ideas about allergies, thyroid disease and, as we shall see, nutrition, are widely viewed as unproven, unlikely, or outright factually incorrect by experts in these fields, but Dr. Dodds has moved forward with not only books of advice but commercial diagnostic tests without apparently feeling any need to demonstrate her ideas are correct through scientific research.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence to support them, Dr. Dodds’ opinions have influence as a result of her standing and previous work. However, in science the final arbiter of what is true is not the intelligence or achievements of individuals but the results of controlled research and the verdict of scientific evidence. Dr. Dodds’ new book is a seamless blending of legitimate and mainstream science, plausible but unproven hypotheses, unlikely or “long-shot” hypotheses, and outright factual error and nonsense. She uses the language and trappings of science, but often the words she uses don’t mean what they are usually used to mean, and the appearance of scientific validity is only superficial.

It requires a great deal of time and effort to untangle the legitimate from the farfetched in a book like this, and it is more challenging that addressing the outrageous and clearly ridiculous claims of someone like Dr. Will Falconer. However, it is important to make this effort because it is easy for a book like this to mislead pet owners and even veterinary professionals. Dr. Dodds’ reputation and resume and the bits of legitimate science sprinkled throughout her book can generate an undeserved aura of validity to claims she makes which are not scientifically validated. Opinion can be dressed up as fact and nonsense disguised by actual science, and the result can be dangerously misleading.

Since it is impossible for anyone to have expertise in all subjects, I have consulted a number of specialists in relevant disciplines to help me evaluate Dr. Dodds’ claims. Two experts in small animal nutrition, a cancer specialist, and a nutrigenomics researcher contributed their time and expertise to review sections of Dr. Dodds book, and their input has been invaluable. Unless specifically stated otherwise, of course, the opinions in this article are my own.


The general argument of this book can be summarized as follows:

  1. Almost all disease is due to environmental factors, with diet being the most significant.
  2. Most diseases ultimately results from chronic inflammation.
  3. This inflammation is caused by unhealthy gene expression triggered by environmental factors.
  4. Everything we eat is either a “functional superfood” which optimizes our gene expression for good health or a “toxin” which exerts an unhealthy influence on our genes and predisposes us to illness.
  5. By feeding “good” foods and avoiding “bad” foods (as well as other environmental toxins such as vaccines, parasite control medications, many medications, and most of the products recommended by mainstream veterinary medicine), we can “take control” of our dogs’ health and prevent most disease.

The appeal of this argument is obvious. It is simple and clear, with all choices being either good or bad, and it gives us the confidence that if we simply do the right things and avoid the wrong things we can prevent our beloved animal companions from becoming ill. Nothing bad happens by chance or is outside of our control, and we don’t need to wait for more research to identify the causes and preventative actions involved in canine health because we already know all we need to know to protect our pets. Alternative medicine often employs simplistic, black-and-white reasoning and emphasizes that we can control our pets’ fate and prevent those outcomes we fear from happening.

This can be a very encouraging and positive worldview, but it can also be problematic. For one thing, if the specific claims about health and disease and the actions we take turn out not to be true, then our efforts to protect our pets will be ineffective or may even do harm. And reality has not shown itself to be so simple or easily divided into good and bad choices. Chance does play a huge role in our lives, and we can’t always control what happens. As literature throughout the ages has warned us, sometimes the attempt to avoid our fate leads us to it, especially when the actions we take our based on wishful thinking or faulty information.

One of the key problems with Canine Nutrigenomics is that legitimate scientific ideas are either extrapolated far beyond what the research evidence supports in order to promote dubious claims. Another weakness is that complex phenomena are simplified to make good and bad outcomes easy to predict and control. There is accurate information in the book, but it is frequently misused. There is also theory, opinion, and guesswork presented as fact and straightforward nonsense in the book, and the purpose of this article is to help readers separate these out and develop a more accurate and realistic assessment of the subject matter than that presented by the authors.

The most glaring problem with this book is that it really has almost nothing to do with the actual science of nutrigenomics. The word “nutrigenomics” is used here a bit like the word “quantum” is used by homeopaths and other proponents of pseudoscientific practices. Labeling pseudoscience with the name of a legitimate scientific field that most people know little about and don’t really understand allows you to claim a legitimate scientific foundation for your ideas without having to actually explain how they work in detail or adhere to the details of the new or obscure branch of science you are borrowing your legitimacy from.

Nutrigenomics is the study of how compounds in foods affect gene expression, that much is true. And there is great potential in this field for developing nutritional practices which can prevent disease. However, the field is in its infancy, and there is very little understanding of the health effects of specific foods or dietary practices or of how food compounds interact with genes to affect the risk of particular health problems. In other words, when Dr. Dodd’s claims one food is a “superfood” that can prevent illness and another is “non-functional” and promotes disease, she is either extrapolating this from preliminary data that don’t actually support such a claim or simply making it up. She is claiming that the potential inherent in nutrigenomic approaches has already been realized and that she can tell you which foods to feed and which to avoid in order to keep your dog healthy, but this is not true because the research to identify such relationships hasn’t been done. She is borrowing the language of nutrigenomics and the limited findings of lab experiments to support claims which are fundamentally just her beliefs and haven’t been actually tested or proven to be true.

Dr. Dodds does try to create the impression of a science-based book, and specifically designates her work that way more than once:

The information we have provided in this chapter is based on scientific evidence, not folklore or guesswork.

In the following pages, we will reveal the latest scientific findings…

[In reference to anyone who counsels against her recommendations] While these individuals no doubt mean well, they are basing their opinions on incorrect, outdated, or even biased information-no on the latest scientific findings. Trust what you’ve learned in this book…

The problem is that she does not provide evidence that actually supports most of what she claims, and often there is plenty of evidence against it. When she cites papers to support her arguments, they are often not scientific research but opinion pieces by her or other alternative practitioners and advocates. And when she does reference research papers, they are often in vitro or lab animal studies that don’t actually support the strong clinical claims she makes. The superficial appearance of science is everywhere, but actual science is scarce in this book.

In general, the aura of nutrigenomics is used in this book to support a laundry list of alternative nutrition clichés: organic produce is healthier than conventional produce; GMO are dangerous, gluten is harmful; common ingredients are unhealthy (corn, chicken, soy) and exotic ingredients are healthier (bison, goat, venison); “artificial” flavors, colors, and preservatives are dangerous; raw food is better than cooked food; magical “superfoods” or supplements can have powerful health benefits. The evidence for these claims varies from weak to non-existent to clearly showing the claims to be untrue. While I cannot address in detail every single food, supplement, or health claim Dr. Dodds makes, I will try to briefly respond to some of the most pervasive and misleading claims.

Specific Claims

Genetically Modified Ingredients

[Healthy food is] Unadulterated (e.g., non-GMO) and unprocessed or minimally processed.

Remove pro-inflammatory ingredients such as …GMO foods

This is, of course, a topic which deserves multiple posts on its own. However, Dr. Dodds regularly lists GMO ingredients as unhealthy, promoting inflammation and food intolerance, and there is no evidence to support this. While there is always the potential that particular modifications of food crops and animals could lead to health risks, the anxiety about genetically modified organisms is generally ideological and based on misconceptions or poor understanding of the relevant science. It is part and parcel of  the Appeal to Nature Fallacy, and the existing evidence does not support most of the hysterical fears about GMO. Dr. Dodd’s claims are not based on research from nutrigenomics but are simply part of her own beliefs and prejudices, and she provides no compelling scientific evidence to support her claims. Relevant discussion of this issue and the evidence can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Gluten is Terrible

“…gluten causes the intestines to release a protein called zonulin, which creates openings between the intestinal cells, causing the lining of the gut to become more permeable, or “leaky… If your dog has cancer, he certainly doesn’t need to eat an ingredient known to promote cancer-causing inflammation

“Gluten, which can cause leaky gut syndrome and cancer-causing inflammation, should be eliminated from your dog’s cancer-protective diet”

“But your dog doesn’t have to have wheat-sensitive enteropathy (and you don’t have to have celiac disease) to suffer from the harmful effects of gluten. A less obvious, low-grade autoimmune reaction to gluten can trigger a wildfire of chronic inflammation that affects every organ system in the body, including the brain, heart, joints and digestive tract (Hyman, 2013). It can even create an immune response that causes subclinical brain inflammation, resulting in age-related dementia (Perricone, 2010).”

The anti-gluten fad has raged in human nutrition for a while, though there are signs it is petering out. The evidence shows pretty clearly that apart from people with legitimately diagnosed celiac disease, most of the claims made for harm from gluten are simply not true. And apart from a small group of Irish setters, there is no scientific evidence for any of Dr. Dodds fear-mongering about gluten in dogs.

This topic also illustrates her deceptive use of citations in her book to create the impression of scientific support for her claims. In the last quote above she offers two citations. The first is a blog post by Dr. Mark Hyman, a widely known advocate for pseudoscience and quackery from functional medicine to anti-vaccine advocacy. He is, in short, no more scientific and no more evidence-based in his opinions and writing than Dr. Dodds is in hers, he simply performs on a larger stage. This reference is not research evidence but just another opinion.

Similarly, the second reference is for yet another opinion-based book by someone who peddles pseudoscientific nonsense, Dr. Nicholas Perricone. The reference is to a book called Forever Young: The Science of Nutrigenomics for Glowing, Wrinkle-free Skin and Radiant Health at Every Age. How’s that for hard scientific evidence to back up a dramatic health claim?

Here are some resources discussing the issues and evidence concerning gluten-associated health problems: Leaky Gut Syndrome 1, 2, 3, General Glutenophopbia 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

Raw Diets

A major advantage of raw food is that the nutrients—such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals, prebiotics, probiotics, and enzymes—have not been altered or destroyed by the heat of cooking. Keeping the food in its whole, “pristine” form also makes it much more readily bioavailable, providing our pets with more easily assimilated nutrition per serving than processed foods.

Raw food may also pose much less risk of allergic reaction than its cooked counterparts… cooking food breaks down its cellular integrity and exposes neo-antigens (new antigens) that were not there in the original raw form.

Many respected holistic veterinarians, including the author, WJD, have witnessed first-hand the health and vigor of dogs and cats fed raw diets: these animals just “shine” in all respects. While these observations are shared by a growing number of animal health care professionals as well as experienced dog (and cat) fanciers, they could be considered as merely anecdotal. Perhaps so, but we consider them experiential findings based on years of observations by many dedicated professionals in the holistic veterinary field.

I have covered the subject of raw diets extensively, and there is no real scientific evidence for any of Dr. Dodds’ claims about the benefits of this approach to feeding. But as she clearly states above, that doesn’t bother her because she believes her anecdotal experiences and those of other raw-diet proponents are so compelling that no actual scientific evidence is needed. Despite many claims to the contrary, this is yet another example of how this book is simply a rehashing of theory and opinion, not a presentation of scientifically validated practices.

Saliva Testing for Food Allergies (Nutriscan)

“NutriScan, offered exclusively by author WJD’s Hemolife testing laboratory, is the new gold standard for identifying the cause of food intolerances/sensitivities in dogs. NutriScan is not only the most scientifically accurate method; it is also the most convenient and cost-effective for you, as well as the least invasive and most comfortable for your dog (Dodds, 2014).”

“To date, Nutriscan represents the most scientifically advanced diagnostic phase of assessing functional nutrition for individual dogs. The presence (indicated by an intermediate, medium or strong reaction) or absence (indicated by a negative or weak reaction) of salivary antibodies in response to specific food extracts is an indication of the dog’s changes in gene expression when faced with these foods. NutriScan therefore depends upon the nutritional influences and factors that can alter gene expression (Fekete & Brown, 2007; Swanson, Schook & Fahey, 2003).”

A fair bit of effort in the book goes to promoting a test called Nutriscan, which uses saliva to identify dietary sensitivities in dogs. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Dodds’ company owns Nutriscan, and equally unsurprisingly the mainstream community of veterinary nutritionists and dermatologists do not accept the legitimacy of her test because she has not provided any controlled evidence to show it is an accurate and useful test. She does provide a lot of citations to support her claims for this method, but if one takes the trouble to investigate them, they do not actually turn out to be compelling evidence.

For example, the first citation is to her own article in the Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (JAHVMA) making the same claims. Apart from the fact that the AHVMA is the leading advocacy organization for veterinary pseudoscience and its journal publishes mostly unscientific ideas, it is not considered legitimate to support your opinions in a scientific publication but citing your own opinions printed elsewhere. But Dr. Dodds goes even further when, in the JAHVMA article she says, “Salivary testing for food sensitivity and intolerance in animals differs significantly from all other food allergen tests available for use in animals. It is highly reproducible and clinically relevant.” To support this, she cites two of her own presentations at AHVMA meetings and, you guesses it, her book Canine Nutrigenomics! A clearer example of the forms of science without the content would be harder to imagine.

The other citations above also fail to support the claims she attaches them to. Fekete and Brown (2007) is a review of the concept of nutrigenomics in veterinary medicine which does talk about the general principle that food compounds can affect gene expression and gives some examples, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of saliva testing for food intolerance. The second, Swanson et al. (2003) is a discussion of the potential of nutrigenomics and the importance of further research. Not only does the article say nothing to support Dr. Dodds’ claims about Nutriscan, it specifically contradicts her claims throughout the book that we already know which food have which kinds of genetic and health effects:

Genomics has begun to be applied to nutritional research, but issues specifically relevant to companion animals have not been elucidated thus far. The study of genomics and proteomics will be crucial in areas such as nutrient requirement determination, disease prevention and treatment, functional ingredient testing and others. Nutritional genomics and proteomics will definitely play a vital role in the future of pet foods.

In human medicine, where the research evidence is always more plentiful and better quality than in veterinary medicine, the gold standard for diagnosing food sensitivities is a dietary trial.  Blood testing and skin testing are also used, though they are not as reliable. In veterinary medicine, the best evidence suggests that a dietary trial is the most reliable test, and blood and skin testing have not proven very reliable. Despite this, Dr. Dodds cherry picks a lot of in vitro and lab animal studies, along with opinion pieces from other alternative medicine doctors, to suggest that there is a sound scientific basis for using antibodies in saliva to detect food sensitivities. This might be a useful test, but the evidence does not exist to demonstrate this, and Dr. Dodds’ use of these citations is misleading.

The other main source of evidence Dr. Dodds uses to support her claims about Nutriscan are uncontrolled reports from animals she has tested. This is weak evidence that can suggest hypotheses for controlled testing but cannot prove or disprove the hypothesis. One veterinary dermatologist has performed her own uncontrolled test of Nutriscan, with Dr. Dodds’ knowledge and permission, and found it entirely unreliable. Twelve samples were submitted for testing in a blind manner, from dogs with known food sensitivities based on dietary testing, dogs with environmental allergies, dogs without allergic disease, and one sample of tap water. All samples including tap water, environmental allergy dogs, and normal dogs showed reactivity to beef, corn, milk and wheat. Some samples showed reactivity to soy. In some cases, these obviously false results would have led to recommendations against diets which actually helped these dogs. While this is not a formal, controlled study, it is at least as relevant as the unblended cases Dr. Dodds promotes as evidence Nutriscan works, and it casts serious doubt on this supposed new “gold-standard” allergy test.

Here are some resources illustrating the scientific consensus concerning food sensitivity testing, which is not consistent with Dr. Dodds’ claims: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Taking Out the Laundry
Since much of the book is a laundry list of claims for and against the health value of specific foods, supplements, and other substances, it is impossible to respond to every claim. I have picked out a number of claims that are clearly false, unsupported by real evidence, or simply more nuanced and complex than Dr. Dodds suggests in her book. Many I have addressed before as they are standard tenets of the alternative medicine faith. There are plenty of others that I do have not investigated, so these may be true, false, or again uncertain and no judgment on my part should be inferred about anything I don’t specifically talk about.

All About the Bees
Health claims for bee pollen, royal jelly, and various types of honey are a common feature in alternative nutrition and supplement recommendations. In this book Dr. Dodds makes a number of these claims:

The healthful, nutrition-packed honey that can benefit you and your dog originates from wild, unfiltered, raw honey—not from the processed honey so prevalent on supermarket shelves (Mercola, 2009)!

Raw honey (not pasteurized): aids digestion, increases energy

Locally grown honey may help prevent seasonal allergies.

Bee pollen contributes to healthy intestinal function, benefits the blood…strengthens the immune system…treats hay fever and seasonal allergies…increases strength and stamina

Propolis contains a number of therapeutic properties…

Royal jelly possess a number of benefits, including…

Citing one of the worst quack physicians on the internet, Dr. Mercola, in support of these claims is not a good sign, for the claims themselves of for Dr. Dodds’ respect for legitimate science. There no experimental evidence for any significant health benefit, including prevention or treatment of allergies, from any of these substances in the dog. The evidence in humans is, as always, mixed, but these claims are not generally accepted by the science-based medical community, and there is not robust clinical research to support most of them. Here are some resources discussing these claims: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

Glycemic Index/High Glycemic Foods
The glycemic index is a measure of the tendency of a particular food to raise blood sugar in humans. It has some value in making food choices for diabetics, and diets with a lot of foods with a high glycemic index have been associated with a number of diseases in humans. There are many other factors that influence the effect of food on blood sugar and on overall disease risk, including portion size, total carbohydrate content of the diet, genetics, concurrent disease, and many others, so the glycemic index cannot be relied on in isolation, but it is a useful tool for human dietary planning.

However, we cannot simply assume that principles of human nutrition and health automatically apply to dogs. Dogs are obviously quite different from humans in terms of anatomy, physiology, and evolutionary history, and while there are many similarities due to shared evolutionary history as mammals, long-term association between our species, and intensive deliberate breeding of dogs, not all nutritional guidelines for humans apply to our canine companions. The concept of glycemic index and the role of high glycemic index foods in disease risk for dogs have not been established through sound scientific research. We don’t know which foods have a high index in dogs and which don’t because the effect of different foods on blood glucose have mostly not been evaluated in this species.

The evidence does suggest that such foods promote certain diseases in humans, including diabetes and cancer, and the same relationship may be found in dogs. As of now, however, there is virtually no research on the subject in dogs. While it is plausible that high quantities of such foods may have undesirable health effects, and some of these claims may well be true, when such claims are little more than speculation and opinion, they should not be presented as settled scientific fact. Recommendations against feeding high glycemic index foods should be acknowledged to be speculative and supported only by weak evidence.

Here are some resources on the subject of glycemic index: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

The Menacing Powers of Corn, Wheat, and Soy
Yes, this is an actual quote from Dr. Dodds’ book:

But the menacing powers of corn, wheat and soy go even further than you might imagine.

Obviously, this sort of simplistic characterization of foods as inherently good or evil is not scientific in tone, and in the case of the particular claims she makes about these ingredients they are not consistent with mainstream opinion or the evidence. Veterinary nutritionists agree that particular sources of protein and carbohydrate in canine diets are not intrinsically harmful or beneficial and that the health effects of diet are a complex set of interactions between many factors. Duck and bison are no more nor less likely to trigger food intolerance than chicken or beef, and tapioca or potatoes or green peas are no better nor no worse than corn and wheat and soy as carbohydrate and protein sources.

Here are some reliable sources of information about these pet food ingredient myths (And yes, some of these folks have some connection to the pet food industry. Dr. Dodds also sells products that she promotes in her book. Everyone has a perspective and biases, and it is facile and useless to dismiss opinions we disagree with based on our perceptions of the source’s biases when we accept the opinions of those w do agree with even though they have just as much potential bias. The measure of the reliability of a source of information is not how biased or unbiased we believe they are, nor whether or not we agree with them, it is the quality of the evidence they provide): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Organic Ingredients are Healthier/More Nutritious
I have written about the subject of organic foods several times. The evidence of extensive research does not support claims that organically produced ingredients are healthier or more nutritious than conventionally produced foods.  The assumption that they should be is an example of the Appeal to Nature Fallacy, which falsely supposes that the less manipulation of something engaged in by humans, the more “natural” and the healthier something is. It is easy to see that this assumption is false when one considers those things that are clearly unhealthy despite being entirely natural (botulism and salmonella, radioactivity, polio virus, etc.) and those which are clearly beneficial despite being arguably “unnatural” (antibiotics, polio vaccine, clean drinking water and sewage control systems, etc.).

There may be some advantages to organic food production in terms of environmental resources, pesticide use, and other factors, but there is no reason to believe that seeking dog foods with organic ingredients benefits your pet or that foods with conventionally produced ingredients present any health risks. Here are some resources discussing the evidence concerning health effects and nutrient content of organically produced foods: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Artificial Preservatives
Just as Dr. Dodds likes to laud the supposed health benefits of “natural” things like organically produced foods, so she also likes to imply negative health effects from things she deems “artificial.” This is simply the Appeal to Nature Fallacy again, and while human-made substances certainly can have negative health effects (just like natural substances), this cannot simply be assumed. While she is rarely specific about these supposedly dangerous substances, there are a few she mentions by name, though no evidence is provided to support the allegations of harm.

BHA and BHT have been used as preservatives in human and animal foods…for more than 30 years. While many countries have banned them from use in human foods, they are still allowed in pet foods…[and] have been indicated as carcinogenic in animal experiments and are suspected of contributing to cancer and tumor growth.

The purpose of these compounds is to function as anti-oxidants and prevent spoilage, which is itself a potential health risk. Extensive research has been done to investigate any dangers from these compounds, and the research generally does not support a significant risk at levels of exposure likely to be seen with use as a food preservative. In fact, there is even tenuous evidence that these compounds may be protective against cancer under some circumstances. It is never possible to exclude all possibility of risk, of course, but avoiding potentially beneficial products without any evidence of risk is not a rational way to make decisions about food safety.

Here is some of the evidence concerning these compounds: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Ethoxyquin is another preservative implied to have negative health effects despite a lack of evidence for the truth of such claims. Much is made of the fact that it is permitted in the U.S. but not in Europe, suggesting real risks have been identified but the FDA has somehow failed to acknowledge them. There is no reason to think, however, that European regulatory decisions are any more evidence-based than those made in the U.S., or more effective in protecting public safety. It is easy to find examples of the opposite being true, such as the case of thalidomide, a drug approved for use in pregnant women in Europe, but not in the U.S., in the 1950s and 1960s which turned out to cause significant birth defects. In any case, the evidence does not support claims that ethoxyquin is harmful at levels used in pet foods: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Fluoride Causes Cancer
Fluoride has been a focus of fear since its introduction in municipal water supplies for prevention of dental disease in the 1950s. Despite all of this fear, the evidence is clear that the benefits of water fluoridation far outweigh the risks. Dr. Dodds suggests in her book that fluoride is a significant risk factor for the bone cancer osteosarcoma:

Fluoride likely contributes to osteosarcoma

…exposure to high levels of fluoride can certainly be considered a risk factor for osteosarcoma. The dangers may be particularly high in large breed puppies that are rapidly forming new bone (EWG, 2009; EWG, 2009a).

Fluoride found in bone meal, meat meal or meat byproduct meal could be contributing to skyrocketing cases of canine osteosarcoma, especially for dogs who eat the same fluoride-containing kibble day-in and day-out. Be sure to remove all foods containing bone meal or animal by-products from your dog’s diet, and switch to low-fluoride or fluoride-free bottled water.

Despite the “could be” above, Dr. Dodds pretty clearly believes fluoride is contributing to osteosarcoma in dogs and recommends avoiding it. Her references, as usual, do not provide any scientific evidence for this suggestion. Rather than research, she cites opinion pieces by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that promotes fear of GMO, childhood vaccines, and other pseudoscientific positions as well as legitimate environmental concerns. More reliable sources do not support a causal link between fluoride in food and water and bone cancer risk: 1, 2, 3, 4

The Beat Goes On
The list of unsupported or outright untrue health claims for specific substances in Dr. Dodds’ book is lengthy, and I cannot possible address them all. The following is a list of some of these substances and brief collections of resources discussing the evidence concerning them:

  1. Menandione (synthetic Vitamin K)- I’ve already discussed this in a previous article.
  2. A1 vs A2 cow’s milk- 1, 2, 3
  3. BPA- 1, 2
  4. Coconut oil; Another I’ve discussed before.
  5. Resveratrol- I’ve written several articles on this promising but still unproven compound.
  6. White bean extract- 1
  7. Avocado-soybean unsaponifiables- No benefit seen in horses and unclear benefits in humans. There are some promising results from an artificial model study in dogs, but there is no clinical trial evidence from the real world.
  8. Deer Antler velvet- Similarly, in humans there is some promising preliminary evidence, but the real risks and benefits are unclear. One study in dogs did show some evidence of benefit for arthritis, but the outcomes measures were inconsistent (some positive and others not), and there were a couple of mysterious unexplained deaths in the treatment group which raise the possibility of adverse effects which need further investigation.
  9. Glucosamine/Chondroitin- Naturally, Dr. Dodds still recommends this supplement despite abundant evidence suggesting it has no real benefit.
  10. Green-lipped mussel- Evidence is inconsistent in both human studies and veterinary studies.
  11. Fish oil- One of the few supplements with some pretty good supporting evidence, though there is still some uncertainty about dose, form, and the range of indications for which it is useful.
  12. SAME-e for arthritis- Some supporting evidence in humans though overall weak data, and little veterinary research.
  13. Spirulina- Despite the bold claims, they are based entirely on in virtro and animal model research, not clinical evidence.
  14. Vitamin C- Dr. Dodds disputes the mainstream consensus that additional dietary Vitamin C is not beneficial to dogs able to produce sufficient quantities of this vitamin on their own, but her claims don’t seem consistent with the evidence.
  15. Curcumin/Turmeric- I’ve discussed this one before.
  16. Zeel- Previously discussed.
  17. I’M Yunity and hemangiosarcoma- Previously discussed.
  18. Tryptophan in turkey makes you sleepy- Just a myth she passes along uncritically. 1, 2 
  19. “Sugar-high” in kids- Another myth, which she uses to support claims about high-glycemic index foods despite the fact that it is not true. 1, 2
  20. Antioxidant and brain aging- Discussed previously several times: 1, 2, 3, 4
  21. Coenzyme Q10 and heart disease- Also previously discussed: Like most dietary supplements, coenzyme Q10, also known as ubiquinone, is recommended for a wide range of apparently unrelated conditions. It is recommended in humans for cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, migraines, diabetes, and many others, as well as a general tonic and, of course, the inevitable “boosting” of the immune system. In dogs and cats it has primarily been recommended for treatment or prevention of heart disease and age-related cognitive dysfunction. There is controversy about many of the recommended uses in humans, with mixed and generally low-quality clinical trial evidence for most uses. And, as you will no doubt have anticipated by now, there is virtually no reliable research on its use in pets. One small experimental study failed to find evidence of decreased Coenzyme Q10 levels in dogs with congestive heart failure. There appear to be no clinical trials for any specific indication, and the recommendations for this supplement are again based entirely on theory, anecdote, and pre-clinical research or clinical research conducted in humans.

22. Abdominal Epilepsy- This is a stark example of a real medical issue that Dr. Dodds either does not understand correctly or chooses to misrepresent in order to support her beliefs.

…did you know that imbalances in intestinal flora can also produce seizures? The condition is known as “abdominal epilepsy,” and it occurs due to the gut-brain connection. Abdominal epilepsy occurs when an unhealthy microbial environment in the gut creates toxins that cross into the brain…Many veterinarians misdiagnose—and thus mistreat—this type of seizure because rather than looking in the gut, they only look at the patient “from the neck up.” If your dog suffers from seizures in combination with ulcerative colitis, manic itching or GI trouble (e.g., constipation and/or diarrhea) he may have abdominal epilepsy.

While abdominal epilepsy is a real condition, it is not a type of seizure due to “unhealthy” gastrointestinal flora or “toxins.” It is a type of epilepsy that affects the region of the brain associated with autonomic functions, and it manifests as GI symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. It is recognized in children and in dogs, though it is quite rare, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the kinds of positive and negative nutritional claims made in the chapter in which it is mentioned. It is also a classic example of the alternative practitioner claiming conventional clinicians are ignorant of a key and important cause of disease or don’t bother to look at the entire patient. Veterinary neurologists routinely evaluate the entire patient and their state of health when investigating neurologic problems. They do not simply look at their patients only “from the neck up,” and it is dishonest to suggest this.

23. Vaccines and autoimmune disease- I have discussed this previously: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Bottom Line
While Dr. Dodds’ book is a mixture of fact and fiction, science and pseudoscience, plausible ideas and outright nonsense, overall the work is deeply misleading. It has little at all to do with nutrigenomics or epigenetics, despite the title and claims to the contrary, and it uses real science primarily to give an aura of legitimacy or authority to claims which are unproven or outright false. References are employed in a manner that suggests an academic research summary with conclusions based on scientific evidence. The reality is that the book is a collection of opinions, some plausible and some not, supported in most cases by very little evidence and in some cases clearly contradicted by this evidence. The references employed are often simply other people’s opinions or, in some cases, Dr. Dodds’ own opinions reprinted elsewhere.

The recommendations made for and against specific feeding practices and dietary supplements are mostly typical for proponents of alternative medicine, and they stem from ideology and philosophical beliefs rather than scientific evidence. Occasionally, such claims turn out to be true, in the manner of a broken clock which happens to be right twice a day but this has little to do with the underlying principles. And while there are a few evidence-based claims here and there in the book, and some recommendations I would agree with, overall Canine Nutrigenomics is misleading, misguided, and in conflict with the best evidence and expert consensus in veterinary nutrition.






Posted in Book Reviews | 31 Comments

Why We’re Often Wrong: Can We Trust Clinical Experience?

This is an article I originally posted on a preliminary SkeptVet website which I no longer update since it has been replaced by this blog. I have copied it here since the links to the prior site no longer function.

Acquiring clinical experience is a major part of improving one’s medical knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, extensive practical experience can often lead to the erroneous the belief that we can reliably determine the safety and efficacy of a particular therapy based on our personal experiences or those of other doctors, especially specialists or experts. “I’ve used it, and I know it works/doesn’t work” is the most common response by doctors or clients to the suggestion that research evidence contradicts what we believe about a given medical practice. Another common response from experienced veterinarians is “I don’t need to run Test X. I know what this is because I’ve seen a hundred cases like it.” Such personal experiences are very compelling, but science is built on the premise that our imperfect brains can make mistakes and that careful use of appropriate research techniques can compensate for our limitations. Here are a few reasons to be skeptical of one’s own clinical impressions and those of “experts” and to look for guidance in good quality research evidence when it is available. (much of this has been adapted from “Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work” by Barry Beyerstein, Ph.D.)

1. Self-Limiting Disease Many diseases are self-limiting. If the condition is not chronic or fatal, the body’s own recuperative processes usually restore the sufferer to health. Thus, to demonstrate that a therapy is effective, its proponents must show that the number of patients improved exceeds the number expected to recover without any treatment at all. Without detailed records of successes and failures for a large enough number of patients with the same complaint, someone cannot legitimately claim to have exceeded the norms for unaided recovery.

2. Waxing and Waning Chronic Disease (also known as Regression to the Mean) Such conditions as arthritis, allergies, and gastrointestinal problems normally have “ups and downs.” Naturally, clients tend to seek therapy during the period or greatest clinical symptoms. In this way, a treatment will have repeated opportunities to coincide with upturns that would have happened anyway.

3. Placebo Effect Through suggestion, belief, expectancy, cognitive reinterpretation, and diversion of attention, people given biologically useless treatments often experience measurable relief. Some placebo responses produce actual changes in the physical condition; others are subjective changes that make patients feel better even though there has been no objective change in the underlying pathology. Of course, in veterinary medicine, the effect is mostly “by proxy,” in which the owner’s beliefs and desires lead to a report of improvement in the pet’s symptoms when none has actually occurred.

4. Multiple Concurrent Therapies If improvement occurs after a pet has had several interventions, and probably other unremarked changes in the owner’s treatment of the sick pet, one or another of the changes often gets a disproportionate share of the credit or blame. Frequently, the latest in a series of interventions or the newest thing tried is credited with improvement even though many things were done.

5. Misdiagnosis Scientifically trained veterinarians are not infallible. A mistaken  diagnosis, followed by an irrelevant intervention, can lead to a glowing testimonial for curing a condition that would have resolved by itself. In other cases, the diagnosis may be correct but the time frame, which is inherently difficult to predict, might prove inaccurate.

6. Human Psychology Even when no objective improvement occurs, people with a strong psychological investment in the pet can convince themselves the treatment has helped. And doctors, who want very much to do the right thing for their patients and clients, have a vested interest in the outcome as well. A number of common cognitive phenomena can influence one’s impression of whether a treatment helped or hurt a patient. Here’s a brief list of common cognitive errors in medical diagnosis. Any of these sound familiar.

7. Cognitive Dissonance When experiences contradict existing attitudes, feelings, or knowledge, mental distress is produced. People tend to alleviate this discord by reinterpreting (distorting) the offending information. If no relief occurs after committing time, money, and “face” to a course of treatment internal disharmony can result. Rather than admit to themselves or to others that their efforts have been a waste, many people find some redeeming value in the treatment.

8. Confirmation Bias is another common reason for our impressions and memories to inaccurately represent reality. Practitioners and their clients are prone to misinterpret cues and remember things as they wish they had happened. They may be selective in what they recall, overestimating their apparent successes while ignoring, downplaying, or explaining away their failures. Or they may notice the signs consistent with their favored diagnosis and ignore or downplay aspects of the case inconsistent with this.

9. Anchoring This is the tendency to perceptually lock onto salient features in the patient’s initial presentation too early in the diagnostic process, and failing to adjust this initial impression in the light of later information. This error may be severely compounded by the confirmation bias.

10. Availability The disposition to judge things as being more likely, or frequently occurring, if they readily come to mind. Thus, recent experience with a disease may inflate the likelihood of its being diagnosed. Conversely, if a disease has not been seen for a long time (is less available), it may be underdiagnosed.

11. Commission Bias results from the obligation toward beneficence, in that harm to the patient can only be prevented by active intervention. It is the tendency toward action rather than inaction. It is more likely in over-confident veterinarians. Commission bias is less common than omission bias.

12. Omission Bias the tendency toward inaction and rooted in the principle of nonmaleficence. In hindsight, events that have occurred through the natural progression of a disease are more acceptable than those that may be attributed directly to the action of the veterinarian. The bias may be sustained by the reinforcement often associated with not doing anything, but it may prove disastrous.

13. Diagnosis Momentum Once diagnostic labels are attached to patients they tend to become stickier and stickier. Through intermediaries (clients, techs, other vets) what might have started as a possibility gathers increasing momentum until it becomes definite, and all other possibilities are excluded.

14. Feedback Sanction Making a diagnostic error may carry no immediate consequences, as considerable time may elapse before the error is discovered, if ever, or poor system feedback processes prevent important information on decisions getting back to the decision maker.

15. Gambler’s Fallacy Attributed to gamblers, this fallacy is the belief that if a coin is tossed ten times and is heads each time, the 11th toss has a greater chance of being tails (even though a fair coin has no memory). An example would be a vet who sees a series of patients with dyspnea, diagnoses all of them with a CHF, and assumes the sequence will not continue. Thus, the pretest probability that a patient will have a particular diagnosis might be influenced by preceding but independent events.

16. Posterior Probability Error Occurs when a vet’s estimate for the likelihood of disease is unduly influenced by what has gone on before for a particular patient. It is the opposite of the gambler’s fallacy in that the doctor is gambling on the sequence continuing.

17. Hindsight Bias Knowing the outcome may profoundly influence the perception of past events and prevent a realistic appraisal of what actually occurred. In the context of diagnostic error, it may compromise learning through either an underestimation (illusion of failure) or overestimation (illusion of control) of the decision maker’s abilities.

18. Overconfidence Bias A universal tendency to believe we know more than we do. Overconfidence reflects a tendency to act on incomplete information, intuitions, or hunches. Too much faith is placed in opinion instead of carefully gathered evidence. The bias may be augmented by both anchoring and availability, and catastrophic outcomes may result when there is a prevailing commission bias.

19. Premature Closure A powerful error accounting for a high proportion of missed diagnoses. It is the tendency to apply premature closure to the decision making process, accepting a diagnosis before it has been fully verified. The consequences of the bias are reflected in the maxim: ‘‘When the diagnosis is made, the thinking stops.’’

20. Search Satisfying Reflects the universal tendency to call off a search once something is found. Comorbidities, second foreign bodies, other fractures, and coingestants in poisoning may all be missed. Also, if the search yields nothing, diagnosticians should satisfy themselves that they have been looking in the right place.

21. Yin-Yang Out When patients have been subjected to exhaustive and unavailing diagnostic investigations, they are said to have been worked up the Yin-Yang. The Yin-Yang Out is the tendency to believe that nothing further can be done to throw light on the dark place where, and if, any definitive diagnosis resides for the patient, i.e., the vet is let out of further diagnostic effort. This may prove ultimately to be true, but to adopt the strategy at the outset is fraught with the chance of a variety of errors.


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