Evidence Update- PBDE Flame Retardants and Hyperthyroidism in Cats

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the proposed connection between a collection of once-common flame retardant chemicals (PBDEs) and hyperthyroidism in cats. While the notion of “toxins” as the cause of disease is often a vague and ill-founded idea promoted by advocates of alternative medicine, there are certainly some environmental toxins that clearly cause disease, and it is important that we be vigilant in evaluating and eliminating these. The case for PBDEs as the cause of hyperthyroidism rests primarily on three points:

  1. PBDEs came into common use at about the same general time as hyperthyroidism, once unheard of in cats, became a relatively common disease.
  2. There are laboratory studies supporting the potential influence of PBDEs on the thyroid hormone system in multiple species.
  3. There are some associations between PBDE levels and the occurrence of thyroid disease in cats, though not all studies consistently show this.

The hypothesis that PBDEs may play a causal role in feline hyperthyroidism is plausible and supported by some evidence, though there are also other hypotheses with similar support, and it seems likely that multiple causal factors are involved.

The subject has gotten a lot of attention recently due to an article in the New York Times which discusses the problem of hyperthyroidism in cats and the possible role of PBDEs. The article is pretty reasonable and balanced in its discussion of the subject, but it is easy to miss the nuance and take away the message that PBDEs are definitely the major culprit in this disease.

Given the renewed interest in the subject generated by this article, I thought I’d take another look at the literature and see if there was any new evidence on the subject. I found a nice study from 2016 which certainly doesn’t solve the question once and for all but which does add some additional information.

Guo WeiHong; Gardner, S.; Yen, S.; Petreas, M.; Park JuneSoo. Temporal changes of PBDE levels in California house cats and a link to cat hyperthyroidism. Environmental Science & Technology, 2016, 50, 3, pp 1510-1518

This study looked at a relative small number of cats (22 total: 11 each with and without hyperthyroidism). The investigators measured PBDE levels, as well as levels of several other environmental toxins as a control, and compared the levels between cats with thyroid disease and those without as well as between two time periods: 2008-2010 and 2012-2013. This latter comparison was done to evaluate changes in PBDE levels over time. These compounds were banned in 2004, and PBDE levels have been declining in humans as a result, so the hope was they would be declining in cats as well.

The results did, encouragingly, show that PBDE levels have been declining, though cats still have much higher levels than humans (probably because they are more likely to ingest dust from the environment, in the process of grooming themselves). They did also find higher levels in cats with thyroid disease than in those without, which might support the idea that PBDEs are part of the cause of this condition. However, they also found higher levels of the unrelated environmental toxins in hyperthyroid cats compared with normal cats. One of the features of hyperthyroidism is that cats lose weight quickly. This weight loss can lead to an increase in blood levels of many compounds since the same amount of the substances are present in a now smaller cat. Therefore, it isn’t entirely clear if the higher PBDE levels in hyperthyroid cats reflect its role in causing the disease or simply the fact that these cats have lost weight rapidly while the healthy cats have not.

The bottom line form this study is that, as in the past, there appears to be some association between PBDEs and hyperthyroidism in cats, but it is not as simple as saying PBDEs are the sole cause of the condition. It is also encouraging that PBDE levels appear to be declining in cats, as in humans, due to the gradual elimination of PBDE use following the 2004 ban. If PBDEs are, in fact, an important factor in causing hyperthyroidism, we should expect the incidence of this disease to decline as a result. If the incidence does not decline, then we will have to keep looking for other risk factors.

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For Tim Minchin Fans who are Stuck!

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Chinese Herb vs Metronidazole for Diarrhea in Dogs: An Example of the Problems with Alternative Medicine Research

Not everything that looks like science really is science. I’ve written about the faux science of some alternative medicine publications, such as the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal, which often publish articles that are held up as scientific evidence for alternative theories but which don’t qualify in any way as scientifically legitimate. And not all science is good science or reliable as evidence. This is, sadly, true of much of the veterinary literature, conventional or alternative. However, alternative medicine publications are particularly vulnerable to poor methodology and creating the appearance of reliable scientific evidence without the substance. A close reading of the literature cited by alternative practitioners to support their claims often finds that the evidence is unreliable or doesn’t actually say what they claim it does (e.g. The Evidence for Homeopathy: A Close Look).

So-called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) (which is, arguably, not traditional at all), is a particularly clear example of this problem. There is an abundance of published research on TCM therapies, especially acupuncture. Most of this is published in China or in TCM-dedicated journals, and it almost always finds exactly what the investigators hope and expect to find. When almost every single research study reports positive results, and when most contain few effective controls for bias, the odds are good that the literature represents the strength of belief among TCM proponents more than the objective truth about the method.

A recent article from the American Journal of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (AJTCVM) illustrates this problem quite well:

Fowler MP. Deng-Shan S. Huisheng X. A Randomized Controlled Study Comparing Da Xiang Lian Wan to Metronidazole in the Treatment of Stress Colitis in Shelter/Rescued Dogs. AJTCVM. April, 2017.

The AJTCVM is usually not available except to members of the TCVM organization that publishes it, but this article was recently made public. This may be related to the ongoing efforts of the TCVM community to gain recognition for herbal medicine as a board-certified veterinary specialty, but this is just speculation.

This study compares a TCVM herbal remedy to a pharmaceutical for “stress colitis.” The structure of the experiment has many of the hallmarks of traditional scientific clinical research. Unfortunately, the work as a whole does not support the authors inevitable conclusion that the Chines herb is an effective treatment. I will summarize briefly the main problems with the study.

What is “Stress Colitis?”
Unfortunately, this is a commonly used term that does not have a meaningful definition based on established pathophysiology or research evidence. Dogs often develop acute large-bowel diarrhea, with the sort of symptoms described by the authors of this study. This is associated with many possible causes, from parasites to eating unfamiliar or unwholesome substances to changes in routine that are likely a source of psychological and physiological stress. Unfortunately, the term stress colitis is a vague one that can be applied to any acute large bowel diarrhea when no specific cause has been sought or found. In this study, the authors ruled out some common parasites as the cause of diarrhea, but no actual cause was identified. Therefore, the entity they are testing treatments for is ill-defined and could easily be a hodgepodge of different causes.

This wouldn’t be a fatal weakness in itself, so long as objective and consistent criteria were used to identify the problem. However, the criteria for including and excluding patients and for determining whether or not they responded to treatment were subjective and vague as well. This leaves it entirely to the judgement of the investigators whether the dogs had “stress colitis” or not, and whether they got better or didn’t get better with treatment. Such a source of bias is a serious flaw, especially given the lack of any blinding, as I will discuss shortly.

The authors designed the study to compare the herbal product to metronidazole, a drug commonly used to treat all sorts of diarrhea, including whatever people choose to label “stress colitis.” Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence showing that this drug is actually effective for acute large bowel diarrhea from most causes, including cases for which no specific cause can be identified. The authors claim the drug is recommended in a commonly used drug handbook, but this is not correct. All the scientific evidence for the use of metronidazole in treating colitis involves chronic, not acute cases, and mostly diseases with an established cause, such as ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and giardia. In other words, the authors cite evidence regarding chronic large bowel diarrhea due to a variety of different causes as evidence for using metronidazole as a treatment for acute large bowel diarrhea of unknown cause (presumed to be related to stress). This misrepresents the evidence.

Metronidazole as a treatment for acute idiopathic large bowel diarrhea is common, but that is an entirely anecdotal practice for which there is no specific scientific support. This means the owners are comparing an untested herb supported only by anecdotal evidence against an untested medication supported only by anecdotal evidence. Not a very robust study for determining the real safety and efficacy of either treatment.

The authors also seem quite ambivalent about metronidazole. On the one hand, they want to identify it as a treatment proven to be effective for stress colitis so they can claim their herbal remedy is effective if it seems to work as well. They state that metronidazole is “typically effective” and is “the drug of choice” for stress colitis. Since the diseases is not clearly defined or understood and the drug actually isn’t proven to be an effective treatment for it (though it is widely used in this way), the implication here is false.

On the other hand, the authors clearly want to emphasize the dangers of conventional therapy so they can make the common claim that their alternative therapy is safer. So only a few sentences after claiming metronidazole is typically effective, they refer to the “poor clinical response” and “ineffectiveness” in some dogs, while then providing a scary list of potential side effects with no discussion of how frequently these actually occur or their relationship to dose or other factors.

Metronidazole does, of course, have risks that have been established by scientific research, as does any treatment with any real effects at all. Nothing works without some risk of unintended effects. However, the risks are generally seen with high doses and long-term use. And while the authors identify no known side effects for their herbal remedy, this is simply because there is virtually no research on this product, and no previous clinical studies at all in dogs. It might be safer or mare risky than metronidazole, but without appropriate research we can’t know. In this study, at least, there were no apparent significant adverse effects. One dog in each group was reported to have vomiting, but whether this was related to treatment is unclear, and there was no difference between the groups and no other possible adverse reactions noted.

Study Design Problems
This study is a classic example of how to set up a study to show what you already believe and want to show. The first author specifically says in the paper that she wanted to run the study because she believes the herb is effective, and may work better than metronidazole, based on her clinical experience. This bias can freely influence the results because there is almost no control for bias in the study. The inclusion and exclusion criteria were subjective, the response to treatment was subjectively measured, and no one was blinded to the group assignment or treatment of any of the dogs. These are not pedantic details but the fundamental core of good, objective science that is absent from this study.

The results of the study seem, not surprisingly, to support the beliefs of the authors. There was no difference in the resolution of diarrhea between the two groups. More than 85% of dogs in both groups got better within 10 days, and the average time to resolution of diarrhea was nearly identical at about 3 ½ days. The authors claim this shows the herb to be just as effective as metronidazole. However, remember that metronidazole has never been actually tested for treating acute large bowel diarrhea, so we don’t actually know if it is effective. What we do know is that in almost every study of acute diarrhea in dogs, most of the dogs get better no matter what we do. Several other studies have shown that more than 80% of dogs with acute diarrhea get better within 3-5 days, just as in this case, with all sorts of other treatments besides metronidazole and the herb used in this study ( e.g. 1, 2). It is very likely that most of the dogs in this study got better regardless of treatment and would have with neither metronidazole nor the herb. The absence of a placebo or no-treatment control group is a serious flaw that makes it impossible for the authors to address this very significant potential explanation for their results.

TCVM Nonsense
It is also important to remember the concept of Tooth Fairy Science. You can design a scientific study to see whether the Tooth Fairy pays out more money depending on the type of tooth lost, the age or sex of the child, and many other variables. You can even do all sorts of fancy statistics to evaluate the results. However, none of this means anything if, as is likely, the Tooth Fairy does not exist.

TCVM is a great example of Tooth Fairy Science. The herb in this study is supposed to be appropriate for cases with “excess pattern of large intestine damp heat” because is can “clear damp heat,” “move Qi,” and “warm middle Jiao.” Since all of the folk mythology of TCVM theory is implausible, untestable, mystical nonsense, the results of controlled studies of it are meaningless. That is not to say the herbs used in TCVM might not have real, and useful biological effects. But these need to be determined by real science, evaluating the chemistry, biochemistry, and pharmacology of these herbs in patients with scientifically defined diseases and measured using appropriate scientific methods. None of this is part of this paper.

The authors suggest that the herb they test has been shown to have benefits for diarrhea, though it has not been clinically tested in dogs before. However, the literature they cite shows only a handful of lab animal studies, which don’t look at anything like acute idiopathic large bowel diarrhea, and a couple of weak studies in humans for, again, quite different problems such as chronic ulcerative colitis. The reality is that despite the attempt to recreate the trappings of science, the authors are basing this study on the pseudoscientific nonsense of TCVM theory, their own personal beliefs and experiences, and anecdotal evidence, not a plausible scientific rationale demonstrated through real research. Tooth Fairy science at its finest.

Bottom Line
This paper illustrates the deep problems in the research literature associated with much of alternative medicine, including TCVM. Implausible therapies are selected according to mystical, pseudoscientific theories and anecdote and then tested inappropriately with little or no serious attempt to control for bias and error, and then the results are overinterpreted to suggest equivalence to conventional treatment or even the superiority of the alternative methods. The body of sloppy and unreliable literature that results misleads not only the public but veterinarians and other scientists into believing there is real reason to take these therapies serious.

This, in turn, supports the deceptive Trojan Horse of integrative medicine, which seeks to blur the real and important distinction between science-based medicine and alternative medicine. Real scientific evaluation of many alternative therapies, especially herbal remedies, needs to be done. This ain’t it. Unfortunately, this is typical of what happens when alternative medicine proponents set out to sue science not to test the reality of their beliefs but to generate marketing tools to sell those beliefs to other clinicians and the public.

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Evidence Update: New Study Finds no Benefit from Cold Laser for Dogs Having Surgery for Disk Disease

A hot topic in veterinary medicine these days is cold laser therapy. I’ve been reviewing the theory and research evidence for this treatment regularly from my first review in 2010 to my most recent look at the evidence in 2016. Overall, my conclusions have largely remained the same:

Lasers have significant measurable effects on living tissues in laboratory experiments, so it is plausible that they might have clinical benefits. The extensive research done in humans, however, has so far only found limited evidence to support the use of lasers in a few conditions, and high-quality controlled studies often contradict the positive findings of initial, small and poorly controlled trials.

The experimental evidence in veterinary species is mixed and low quality, and there are no high-quality published clinical trials validating laser therapy for specific indications. It is possible that high-quality research may one day validate some of the claimed benefits for laser therapy. However, at present the best that can be said about this intervention is that it appears promising for some conditions, such as wounds and musculoskeletal pain.

The growing popularity of lasers is based largely on anecdotal evidence and economic factors. Laser units are being aggressively marketed to veterinarians, often using unsubstantiated claims of clinical benefits. Laser therapy represents a potential source of income for practitioners and, of course, for laser device manufacturers. It appears likely that this profit potential contributes to an enthusiasm for laser therapy not matched by the quality of scientific evidence for its benefits to patients.

Veterinary therapies often lack robust high-quality clinical trial evidence to support their use, and this is not itself a reason to avoid these therapies. However, when employing interventions that have not yet been rigorously demonstrated to be safe and effective, we have a duty to acknowledge the limitations of the evidence. Clients should be fully informed about the uncertainties concerning the effectiveness of laser therapy and the potential for unforeseen effects. Established therapies with stronger evidence identifying their risks and benefits should take precedence over promising but unproven therapies like laser treatment. And those interested in promoting low-level laser, particularly those marketing laser equipment and training, should proportion their claims to the available evidence and assume some responsibility for developing the evidence base further so that practitioners and animal owners can make better-informed decisions about this practice.

Today I came across a new study looking at the use of cold laser in dogs having back surgery for intervertebral disk disease (IVDD). I have previously reviewed two other studies of laser for this purpose, one of which appeared to show some benefit and the other showed no effect. The new study is very similar in terms of the small sample size and the methodology, though it is generally stronger than the other two in terms of mechanisms that control for various types of bias and error.

Bennaim M, Porato M, Jarleton A, et al. Preliminary evaluation of the effects of photobiomodulation therapy and physical rehabilitation on early postoperative recovery of dogs undergoing hemilaminectomy for treatment of thoracolumbar intervertebral disk disease. AJVR 2017;78(2):195-206.

Briefly, the study classified dogs with severe neurologic symptoms caused by IVDD into groups based on the level of dysfunction. All dogs had surgical and standard medical treatment. Some also had laser therapy, some had physical therapy and fake laser treatment, and some had only standard care and fake laser treatment. The time to reach various stages of functional recovery and the amount of post-surgical intravenous pain medication each dog required were measured and compared between the groups. There were no differences in any of these measures between any of the groups. This indicates that neither laser treatment nor physical therapy added to surgery appeared to have any benefits above standard care.

The authors list a number of reasons why this negative result might have occurred even if laser therapy does actually have some benefit. The most plausible of these was the small sample size. A very large improvement due to laser could be seen even when evaluating only a relatively small number of patients, as in this study. However, if laser has some benefit and it is fairly small, it might not be possible to detect it in such a small study. Of course, the most likely explanation for the failure to find any benefit is simply that there is none.

Overall, these three studies do not provide much encouragement for using laser in dogs with IVDD. Only one of the three appeared to show any benefits, and that study lacked most standard controls for bias. The negative findings of the other two studies, especially the current study, which was the strongest of the three in terms of methodology, strengthens the view that laser therapy is not helpful for dogs having surgery for IVDD.

Of course, it is always possible that different laser treatment (different doses, duration of treatment, equipment, etc.) could be helpful, or that laser is useful for other conditions. We can, as always, only make provisional conclusions based on existing and imperfect evidence. With the evidence we have now, however, it seems likely that laser will not be helpful for dogs with IVDD that are severely affected enough to need surgery.

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Do Vaccines Cause Autism in Dogs?

Before training as a veterinarian, I studied animal behavior. I worked with primates, and one of the most fascinating aspects of these animals was the deep similarity between their behavior and that of humans. Such similarities shouldn’t be surprising, of course, because we share many of the mechanisms that produce our behavior. Evolution has produced brains and sense organs and various anatomical and physiological systems for generating behavior, and many of these systems are shared between species. The more closely related, in evolutionary terms, the species are, the more such behavior-generating mechanisms they share, and the more similar their behavior is likely to be.

This, of course, applies to all species, not just between humans and other primates. It is not difficult to find great behavioral similarity among mammals, even between relatively distantly-related groups such as human and our canine and feline companions. The similarities may be fewer and the differences more noticeable, but we still share much of our basic biology, including the mechanisms that generate behavior, and we exhibit many behaviors that appear similar in form and function.

One major challenge in studying animal behavior is how to choose our terminology. Many of the words describing behavior in humans contain explicit or implicit information about mental states. If I say someone is angry or afraid, I am describing their feelings and internal experience directly, and presuming it conforms to general human patterns. But if I say someone is “cowering from her” or is “pummeling his face,” these descriptions of behavior contain implied mental states, of fear and anger respectively. So when we describe the behavior of animals, how do we handle the explicit or implicit attribution of mental states that we cannot verify are present or the same as those in humans when animals cannot verbalize their feelings and agree on appropriate descriptive terms? Should we avoid assuming mental states like our own, and if we should how do we accomplish this using language that so often contains implicit attribution of such mental states?

There is no simple solution to these questions. We can try to describe all behaviors mechanically, in terms of specific body movements, but that is cumbersome and arguably misses important and obvious attributes of the behavior. A dog and cat may both wag their tails, but the likely response if you persist in doing whatever you did to start the tail wagging is likely to be very different. The dog might well lick your face while the cat might as likely scratch it! Saying that the dog “wagged his tail playfully” and the cat “flicked her tail irritably” implies mental states we cannot absolutely verify, but these descriptions are a lot more useful and predictive of future behavior.

Some people object to at least some use of terms connoting mental states to dogs and cats because we cannot know their feelings with certainty, and because there are obvious cognitive differences between humans and our pets that influence the kinds of mental states we think it likely dogs and cats can have. There is, of course, a matter of degree in this. If we say “the dog is afraid” or “the cat is mad,” some people might object, but most would accept these terms as roughly appropriate. However, if say “the dog is skeptical” or “the cat is devout,” few people would accept those as legitimate because they imply thought processes we think our pets are unlikely to be capable of. There is, not surprisingly, a large grey area between these extremes.

There are pros and cons to using descriptions for feelings and behaviors in our pets that are commonly used to describe such feelings and behaviors in people. On one hand, we risk anthropomorphism, the attribution of human feelings and motivations to non-human animals. For example, people often describe their dog as looking “guilty” when he or she is punished for peeing in the house. It is unlikely, however, dogs, understand the kinds of obligations and social conventions required to feel guilty for violating a promise not to pee in the house. Thinking the dog can have this level of comprehension and the feeling of remorse can often lead owners to imagine intentions, a deliberate desire to defy the owner, that the dog also probably doesn’t have, which can negatively influence their bond with the pet and the way they try to alter the undesirable behavior.

Similarly, when a cat pees in the house while an owner is on a trip, the owner will often say the cat did it “because he was mad at me.” This generates a very different owner response than if we describe the behavior as “inappropriate urination associated with routine change: or something more emotionally neutral.

On the other hand, because humans share evolutionary relationships and many of the basic mechanisms of behavior with other animals, it is perfectly reasonable to assume significant similarity in the genesis of behavior and internal experiences. The presumption that humans are fundamentally, qualitatively different in every way from all other animals in their mental states or behavior is scientifically implausible, as well as being arrogant and self-serving.  Mental similarities that correspond to similarities in behavior are a likely and parsimonious way of studying and characterizing animal behavior.

All of this is by way of introducing the real subject of this post, the question of whether dogs can fairly be described as “autistic” and, if so, whether we can blame this on vaccination

So Can Dogs Get Autism?
This question was recently brought to my attention by some fellow skeptics who pointed me towards a dramatic and inflammatory article on an anti-vaccine web site.

Autism Symptoms in Pets Rise as Vaccination Rates Rise from The Vaccine Reaction Web Site

As the title suggests, this article makes several claims about canine behavioral disorders and vaccines, which I will address individually:

  1. Pets, especially dogs, exhibit behavioral disorders that share some features of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and may also share some underlying causal mechanisms
  2. Vaccines in dogs cause a wide range of diseases, and among these is the appearance of abnormal behaviors following vaccination for rabies. These behaviors resemble autism in children.
  3. Vaccination are required by law and given by veterinarians even when they are clearly not necessary. This is both very profitable and likely associated with the increase in autism-like behavioral pathologies in dogs.

Dogs Get Autism (or something like it)
This seems to be the claim from this article that has struck skeptics as the most ridiculous or bizarre. The idea that dogs can get autism seems ridiculous on the face of it. However, part of the trouble here is the kind of issue of terminology I discussed earlier. ASD is challenging to define and identify in humans. Some of the characteristic symptoms relate to verbal and specifically human social behaviors. Since dogs cannot develop language and, obviously, are not human beings, they cannot be autistic if the word is strictly defined in terms of behaviors unique to the human species. Similarly, dogs cannot have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, dementia, or any other psychopathology defined by behaviors or behavioral deficits unique to humans. Carried to a logical extreme, if one cannot be definitively said to experience fear, anger, sadness, or other emotions without verbally acknowledging these feelings or exhibiting them in characteristically human ways, then dogs cannot be described as having any of these feelings either.

However, dogs do share anatomic and physiologic mechanisms for generating their behavior that are homologous (meaning derived from the same evolutionary precursors and processes) to those which generate our behavior. And dogs do exhibit behaviors that look very much like fear, anger and sadness, as well as constellations and patterns of behavior that look very much like OCD, Panic Disorder, dementia, and ASD. Whether or not we choose to use the same descriptive terms for these behaviors depends more on our purposes and our concerns about the impact of this terminology on how others receive our arguments than on the question of whether the behaviors and their biological antecedents are related, which they very likely are.

The claim that dogs exhibit ASD-like behaviors is supported by citing the work of Tufts University veterinarian and behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman. Dr. Dodman has published both research articles and popular books about animal behavior, and he frequently makes direct and explicit comparisons between clinical behavioral pathologies in humans and similar patterns of behavior in animals. The specific article cited in the Vaccine Reaction piece was a popular piece by Dr. Dodman in the magazine Psychology Today, Can Dogs Have Autism? Dr. Dodman addresses this question in a more academic manner through a number of scientific reports (e.g. 1, 2). He has also studied a number of other behavioral pathologies in dogs and other species which he suggests may have meaningful similarities to OCD and Tourette’s syndrome.

I have mixed feelings about Dr. Dodman’s use of human diagnostic terminology in reference to behavior problems in non-human animals. I agree that there are striking similarities in some of the patterns of behavior he identifies, and I think investigating potential shared causal mechanisms is worthwhile. To the extent that animal models of human disease share manifestations and causal mechanisms, identifying them can improve our understanding of these diseases in humans as well as the model species. This is a standard part of medical research, and there is no fundamental reason it shouldn’t be applied to behavioral disorders.

I also think that by communicating with the general public about this kind of research can generate better public understand and support for the research and for science generally, which is desperately needed now more than any time in the past century. Dr. Dodman has had great success in sharing his passion and the subjects of his research with the public, and I think that is worthwhile even if not every hypothesis he comes up with ends up being correct.

However, I also recognize the dangers of labeling non-human behavioral disorders with diagnostic labels developed for use in people. Even when there are shared features and casual mechanisms involved, there are also meaningful differences between the human disorders and those seen in other species. A key feature in many cases of ASD, for example, involves abnormalities in language development. This is a core aspect of human behavior, and a large part of the real-world problems an ASD diagnosis creates for patients and their families. Identifying tail-chasing in bull terriers as “autism” runs the risk exaggerating or oversimplifying the similarities between the disorders, which can interfere with full and accurate understanding of them. Such use of language can also be misinterpreted as demeaning to human ASD patients. Comparisons of stigmatized human groups to animals has long been a powerful weapon against these groups, and while I have no concern that Dr. Dodman has any such ill intent in his use of human diagnostic terms, I can see how his legitimate scientific background could appear to legitimize misuse or misinterpretation of his work by others.

That is, in fact, what has occurred in the Vaccine Reaction article. While the reference to Dr. Dodman’s work on ASD-like behavior in dogs is generally accurate, it is juxtaposed to completely inaccurate claims about vaccines, including the claim that they are a causal agent in ASD. This implies that Dr. Dodman’s work supports a link between vaccination and ASD or other behavioral pathology, which it most absolutely does not.

On balance, I don’t believe the claim that dogs can get autism is as unreasonable or prima facie ridiculous as it seems to some people. I think he has some evidence to support meaningful similarities between some canine behavioral pathology and ASD, and I think further investigation of these similarities could possibly lead to better understanding of the causes and mechanisms of ASD. However, I also believe that there are important differences between canine and human cognition and behavior that mean humans and dogs cannot both be “autistic” in precisely the same sense. An animal model of a human disease is, for all its usefulness, a model, not the disease itself, and there are always differences that matter.

I see both the advantages and disadvantages to using a shared term to describe similar, and potentially causally related, behavioral disorders in humans and dogs. To some extent, it may be fair to say that dogs get autism, but when exploring the meaning of this label more fully we must acknowledge and bear in mind the differences between the species as well so we aren’t misled by a simplistic or excessive concept of equivalence between human and canine behavioral disorders.

Vaccines Cause All Sorts of Diseases, Including Rabies-like Behavior or Canine Autism
My response to this claim is far less complex and nuanced: bullshit!

To expand on that further would require rehashing lots of subjects I’ve written about before. Instead, I will say only that while vaccines can cause both minor and serious adverse effects, they do so rarely, their benefits far outweigh their risks in most cases (for core vaccines, such as rabies, for example), and there is no such thing as “Rabies Miasm,” “Chronic Rabies” or “Canine Autism” that can be blamed on rabies vaccination. Here are some posts dealing with these and other anti-vaccine claims in more detail:

Rabies Vaccines & Aggression in Dogs-Pure Pseudoscientific Fear Mongering

Thimerosal–Should I worry about mercury in vaccines for my dog or cat?

“One and Done” Approach to Rabies Vaccination is Misguided and Dangerous

What You Know that Ain’t Necessarily So: Vaccination & Autoimmune Diseases

Antibody Titer Testing as a Guide for Vaccination in Dogs and Cats

What’s the Right “Dose” of a Vaccine for Small-Breed Dogs? (and a follow-up post)

Pox Parties for Dogs: Brought to You by Veterinary Homeopaths

Routine Vaccinations for Dogs & Cats: Trying to Make Evidence-based Decisions

One additional point does need to be made, however.


The evidence for this conclusion is overwhelming (e.g. 1, 2, 3). I contacted Dr. Dodman after seeing his work used to imply a causal relationship between autism and vaccines, and he was unequivocal in his response. He does not believe that vaccines are a cause of autism, in humans or in dogs, and he rejects any suggestion that his work might support this false claim.

More Vaccines = More Autism in Dogs
Bullshit redux. It is not even clear that dogs are being vaccinated more than in the past. Recent changes in our understanding of the average duration of immunity and other variables have led many vets to change vaccination practices, so quite a few of us are actually vaccinating less than we used to. There certainly are too many vets who haven’t kept up with the science in terms of vaccinating more than is necessary to provide protective immunity for some diseases, and revenue is likely one of many factors in this. Between changes in vaccination protocols and hesitancy about vaccination on the part of pet owners, it is as likely that vaccination rates have declined rather than increased in the last decade. However, I am not aware of any reliable data on this subject, and none was provided in the Vaccine Reaction article. Regardless of whether vaccination of dogs is increasing or declining, there is no evidence that vaccines are related to behavioral pathology in dogs, ASD-like or otherwise, and this is just another of the many false claims made in the article.

Bottom Line
There are behavioral disorders in dogs that share symptomatic and possibly causal features of behavioral disorders in humans. While the use of human diagnostic terminology in dogs is problematic, it is not unreasonable to suggest dogs may have behavioral syndromes similar in symptom pattern and causal factors to autism and other human disorders. Animal models of human disease are an established and useful element of medical research, and this can be reasonably applied to behavioral disorders if done judiciously. Dogs clearly do not get autism as it is defined and exhibited in humans, but they may well have related disorders that can provide insight into the causes and treatment of autism in humans.

Regardless of whether or not we choose to call similar or related disorders in dogs and humans by the same name, we can at least be confident of one key fact:


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Latest Integrative Nonsense from the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal- Spring 2017

Alternative medicine practitioners have had a lot of success marketing their methods to the mainstream veterinary profession by obscuring or downplaying the most egregiously unscientific and ridiculous of their beliefs and practices when speaking outside of their own groups. They will often claim an acceptance of scientific evidence, though not to the extent that it overrides their personal experiences or anecdotes. And they will employ the term “integrative medicine” to suggest that they consider all therapies, conventional or alternative, equally and fairly before selecting the right method for each patient. The outwardly reasonable marketing of such integrative medicine can be very effective at convincing reasonable, mostly science-based animal owners and veterinarians to take seriously methods that, when understood fully, are deeply unreasonable and incompatible with science.

However, when speaking amongst themselves, such practitioners often feel free to reveal how they really feel about science and conventional medicine and to speak more honestly about the ideas and beliefs underlying the alternative methods they integrate with scientific medicine. One of the regular functions of this blog is to put such more thorough and honest comments on display so that people considering integrative alternative medicine into their veterinary practice or their care of their own pets can have a fully informed understanding of what they are being offered.

Having collected quite a bit of such material, I have created a new thematic post to collect all of it, which you can find here: Alternative and Integrative Medicine Revealed

The Latest Pseudoscientific Nonsense from the IVC
Today’s selection comes from the latest issue of the faux journal IVC (Integrative Veterinary Care Journal).  I’ve written about IVC before, and it’s a rich source of the kind of honest anti-science sentiment that pervades alternative veterinary medicine but is seldom publicly expressed. In the latest issue, the nonsense begins right up front, with the editorial by Christina Chambreau, a homeopathy I’ve written about before as well.

…it was a huge relief when I learned that holistic modalities are very successful replacements for surgery and drugs…

Pretty clearly an “alternative” rather than an “integrative” view. Despite claims to meld  science-based and alternative therapies, many so-called holistic vets firmly believe alternative methods are frequently safer and more effective than conventional medicine and will replace science-based treatments with alternatives rather than integrating them.

Understanding the energetic basis behind holistic approaches is especially important for these serious ailments. Dr. Janet Gordon palm delves into the physics of Newtonian and Quantum sciences to remined us that our goal is bigger than merely resolving symptoms – it’s to guide the cells back to optimal health and harmonic resonance.”

This refers to a bizarre article on “energy medicine” which I will address shortly. It makes sloppy and disingenuous use of a grade-school conception of quantum physics to justify quasi-religious mystical beliefs that have nothing to do with actual physics. This kind of dressing up of spiritual beliefs in scientific clothing is a key feature of the integrative medicine marketing strategy which allows practitioners to conceal from colleagues and clients that they are effectively selling faith healing instead of medicine. Dr. Chambreau continues this nonsense as a means to promote her favorite useless therapy, homeopathy.

Dr. John Saxton shows us the effectiveness of homeopathy to rebalance the quantum field…

Faux Physics for Neurologic Disease
The article Dr. Chambreau first refers to in her editorial introduction is a classic example of the bizarre misuse of poorly understood metaphors from quantum physics to justify quasi-religious medical nonsense. Quantum physics is a field most of us can only access through metaphor, but a real understanding of its principles and implications requires a facility with higher mathematics very few veterinarians or pet owners are likely to have. Unfortunately, not understanding what she’s talking about doesn’t restrain Dr. Gordon Palm from making ridiculous claims about quantum physics supporting her personal spiritual and therapeutic beliefs.

Conventional medicine is based on Newtonian science, in which the body is a veritable solid object surrounded by space. Current quantum physics shows that the body is more space than solid matter. Your choice of science will influence your treatment plans…The conventional approach focuses on treating physical symptoms rather than the energetic root causes.

The distinction between Newtonian and quantum physics is used here to imply a distinction between physical symptoms and non-physical causes, a version of the philosophy of dualism. This is a philosophical and religious concept, not a scientific fact supported by the evidence and logic of quantum physics.

We are primarily energetic electromagnetic beings, and secondarily physical beings.

Environmental and ingested pollutants, electromagnetic field radiation (EMFs) genetically modified organism (GMO) grains…disturb the normal resonance frequencies of healthy tissue.

Apart from the evidence-free claims about negative health effects from GMOs and EMF, the distinction given here between “electromagnetic” and “physical” is false because electromagnetic phenomena are part of the physical universe. She is essentially using “electromagnetic” and a substitute for “spiritual” so that she can claim magical therapies with no real physical effects still treat disease. This spiritualism is even more explicit in the following section:

Regardless of a patient’s primary complaint, all enlightened veterinarians would agree that the most important tool we can apply to affect outcome and healing success is the power of our intentions. Literally falling in love with the animal can be transformative. He receives our positive vibrations through our body language and the relaxation of our energy.”

This is an example of the quasi-religious, mind-over-matter doctrine which suggests that we influence the outcome of disease by our thoughts and mysterious “energy.” Some lip service is given to the more plausible idea that our body language influences stress levels in our patients, but that is a shallow scientific camouflage for the underlying idea that our thoughts have magical influence over physical health and disease in our patients.

Dr. Gordon Palm goes on to list a variety of alternative therapies for neurological diseases none of which have been scientifically demonstrated to be safe and/or effective. These include:

Ozonated fluids- discussed on this blog here

Essential Oils- discussed here

Tuning forks for balancing chakras- too ridiculous to bother discussing

PEMF- discussed here

Homeopathy- thoroughly debunked over and over again

Veterinary orthopedic Manipulation- discussed here

Cold Laser- the only halfway reasonable option mentioned, discussed here

This is not the integration of scientifically validated alternative therapies with conventional medicine. This is the use of the word “quantum” and some vague hand-waving to create the poor-quality illusion that a collection of quasi-religious beliefs and unproven or disproven therapies should be taken seriously as options for animals with serious neurologic disease. That is the reality underlying much of the claims of “integrative medicine.”

Bottom Line
The rest of the IVC issue continues the trend, discussing the worthless nonsense of homeopathy as if it could be a legitimate treatment for seizures and other neurologic conditions, recommending the mythical mumbo-jumbo of Traditional Chinese Medicine, pushing the nonsense of Standard Process glandular supplements, an generally showcasing the underlying truth of the integrative medicine concept, as a Trojan Horse for smuggling unproven and unscientific alternative therapies into mainstream practice without going to the trouble of demonstrating scientifically that they have any value.

Posted in General | 4 Comments

Alternative & Integrative Medicine Revealed

Alternative medicine practitioners have had a lot of success marketing their methods to the mainstream veterinary profession by obscuring or downplaying the most egregiously unscientific and ridiculous of their beliefs and practices when speaking outside of their own groups. They will often claim an acceptance of scientific evidence, though not to the extent that it overrides their personal experiences or anecdotes. And they will employ the term “integrative medicine” to suggest that they consider all therapies, conventional or alternative, equally and fairly before selecting the right method for each patient. The outwardly reasonable marketing of such integrative medicine can be very effective at convincing reasonable, mostly science-based animal owners and veterinarians to take seriously methods that, when understood fully, are deeply unreasonable and incompatible with science.

However, when speaking amongst themselves, such practitioners often feel free to reveal how they really feel about science and conventional medicine and to speak more honestly about the ideas and beliefs underlying the alternative methods they integrate with scientific medicine. One of the regular functions of this blog is to put such more thorough and honest comments on display so that people considering integrative alternative medicine into their veterinary practice or their care of their own pets can have a fully informed understanding of what they are being offered.

Having collected quite a bit of such material, I have created a new thematic post to collect all of it, which you can find here.

Science Through the Looking Glass- The Integrative Veterinary Care Journal

The University of Florida’s Integrative Medicine Service: Good Science or a CAM Trojan Horse?

UT Integrative Veterinary Medicine Fellowship: A Case Study in Alternative Medicine Propaganda

Integrative Medicine or Bait-and Switch?

Integrative Veterinary Cancer Care: Are Claims without Evidence Dishonest?

Dr. Nancy Scanlan Shows us How to Talk Sciency Without Actually Accepting Science

What Do Holistic Vets Say About Science and Evidence-based Medicine?

The Dangerous Allure of Alternative Therapies for Pets with Cancer

Dr. Barbara Royal Reminds us that the AHVMF Opposes Science-Based Medicine

The 2012 AHVMA Annual Conference: An illustration of Conflicts between Science-Based Medicine and Holistic Veterinary Medicine

The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation: Science or Salesmanship?

Holistic Veterinary Medicine: A Variety of Faith Healing

CAM Vets Attacking Conventional Veterinary Medicine

The Marketing of Veterinary Homeopathy

What “Experts” in Homeopathy are Supposed to Believe

The Problem of Negative and Inaccurate Advertising of Alternative Veterinary Medicine

Integrating Myths and Nonsense with Standard Advice for Allergic Pets

The Latest Integrative Nonsense from the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal- Spring 2017 Issue

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Does Injection at Acupuncture Sites Work Better Than Needling Alone?

I’ve recently seen a couple of patients who were treated by Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) vets at other hospitals. The records from these vets include the usual pseudoscientific nonsense describing their conditions, such as “Rebellious Spleen Chi” or “Kidney Qi Deficiency.” And these patients have typically been given the usual untested and unregulated herbal remedies TCVM vest use, despite the serious risks these can present (in fact, a local woman was recently killed by a toxic herbal tea from a TCM apothecary shop). And of course, these patients received acupuncture treatment. However, these particular vets seem especially fond of a twist on the usual acupuncture practice that I’ve seen a few times before—the injection of Vitamin B12 into supposed acupuncture points.

I’ve discussed previously the general unreliability of the pre-scientific religion and folklore that make up TCVM theory. I’ve also investigated the evidence concerning acupuncture in exhaustive detail as part of my certification in veterinary medical acupuncture. While there is some limited evidence for possible clinical benefits to a very few needling practices, especially involving electrical stimulation of peripheral nerves, in general the value of acupuncture is probably slight, if any, and the use of TCVM to guide it is worthless. My focus here, then, is whether there is any advantage to injecting vitamins or other substances into purported acupuncture points (which quite likely don’t exist as discrete, consistently identifiable locations anyway; 1, 2).

The Evidence
There is, of course, some research literature comparing acupuncture injection to dry needling. Whether it makes sense to do such studies given the uncertainty about the theory and clinical effects of acupuncture in general is a serious question. In any event, such studies are not going to be very convincing when they only compare injection to standard acupuncture without some form of non-acupuncture or sham acupuncture control group. Often, such studies lack such controls, and so they may well only be comparing one placebo to another.

Another problem with the acupuncture injection literature is the choice, in some studies, to inject pharmaceuticals at proposed acupuncture points. By itself, again without proper control groups for comparison, this is more a comparison of drugs versus acupuncture than acupuncture injection versus plain acupuncture.

Finally, most of the acupuncture injection literature suffers from the usual weaknesses of acupuncture studies, not only lack of appropriate control groups but inadequate blinding, randomization, statistical analysis, or other flaws that leave the studies vulnerable to bias.

Here are a few examples:

Wade C, Wang L, Zhao WJ, et al. Acupuncture point injection treatment of primary dysmenorrhoea: a randomised, double blind, controlled study. BMJ Open. 2016 Jan 5;6(1):e008166. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-008166.

This one compared three groups:

Vit K injection at acupuncture point on both legs and saline in the buttock
Saline near but not at acupuncture point in both legs and Vit K in the buttock
Saline at acupuncture points on both legs and in the buttock

The goal was to measure changes in discomfort associated with menses. There was some blinding, in that patients and doctors didn’t know what they were injecting, but of course the doctors knew whether or not they were making the injection at an acupuncture point, so at least one group was not blinded for the doctors.

As usual, all groups reported less discomfort that before treatment, so placebo effects were certainly at work. The authors make much of the fact that there was a statistically significant difference between the group getting Vitamin K at acupuncture sites and the other groups. However, the differences between this group and the other two were from 1.1-1.8 points on an 11-point pain scale. By comparison, the control groups both improved by 4.5-5 points on this scale from baseline during the hour after treatment. This means the placebo effects were 4-5 times greater than any effect from the treatment itself, which doesn’t exactly suggest a meaningful real-world treatment effect.

Chen CY, Lin CN, Chern RS, et al. Neuronal Activity Stimulated by Liquid Substrates Injection at Zusanli (ST36) Acupoint: The Possible Mechanism of Aquapuncture. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014;2014:627342. doi: 10.1155/2014/627342. Epub 2014 Mar 6.

This one starts with the assumption that injection of drugs at acupuncture sites is more effective than acupuncture alone due to some kind of synergistic effects (an unproven assumption, like so many in alternative medicine). The study aims to identify the mechanism of this assumed effect.

The study compared injection of saline, Vitamine B1, Vitamin B12, and bee venom to plain needling at an acupuncture point. The outcome measured was the activity of a gene in the spinal cord (the study was done in rats). The assumption here was that greater gene activity meant greater stimulation at the acupuncture point, though what clinical relevance this would have is not obvious or addressed by the authors.

The results indicated no difference between the various treatments with the exception that bee venom appeared to generate more gene activity in the spinal neurons than the other forms of stimulation. The grand conclusion, then, would be that acupuncture injection is generally no different than plain needling except if you use something specifically designed by nature to irritate nerves like bee venom! It’s hard to see, though, how this sort of research justifies the practice of acupuncture injection in real-world patients.

There are a moderate number of similar studies that have the same sorts of limitations, but none that provide clear, high-quality data suggesting that acupuncture injection has significant clinical advantages over dry needling. Reviews of the acupuncture injection literature for specific medical conditions are typically inconclusive due to the lack of good-quality research. For example:

Wang LL, Guan L, Hao PL, et al. Acupuncture and vitamin B12 injection for Bell’s palsy: no high-quality evidence exists. Neural Regen Res. 2015 May;10(5):808-13. doi: 10.4103/1673-5374.156987.

“Because of study bias and methodological limitations, [our] conclusion is uncertain…”

Wang M, Gao YH, Xu J, et al . Zusanli (ST36) acupoint injection for preventing postoperative ileus: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Complement Ther Med. 2015 Jun;23(3):469-83. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2015.03.013. Epub 2015 Apr 13.

“ST36 acupoint injections with various agents may have a preventive effect for POI. Safety is inconclusive as few of included trials reported adverse events. Due to the poor methodological quality and likely publication bias further robust clinical trials are required to arrive at a definitive conclusion.”

Bottom Line
Even overlooking the uncertainties about the meaning of Traditional Chinese Medicine theories and metaphors, the existence of acupuncture points as discrete and definable entities, or the clinical effects of acupuncture per se, there is little evidence to support the idea that injection of various substances at acupuncture points has significant advantages over needling alone at these points. Of course, the injection of drugs at acupuncture points may have greater effects than needling alone, but this is more likely due to the pharmacological effects of the drugs themselves, having little or nothing to do with the identification of the injection site as an acupuncture point.

Posted in Acupuncture | 2 Comments

Should Herbalism Be a Recognized Specialty in Veterinary Medicine?

As regular readers will know, herbal medicine is the area within complementary and alternative medicine I am most sympathetic to. Plants obviously contain chemical compounds that can have significant physiologic effects, for good or ill. And many conventional medicine have been derived from such plant compounds. The idea, then, that the medicinal use of plants and plant-derived substances might have real value is plausible, even likely, in my opinion. So far, very few uses of herbal remedies have been scientifically validated (as distinct from isolated and purified compounds derived from plants and used as drugs). However, I believe there is significant potential in plants as sources of medicines, and I support rigorous scientific research in this area.

Unfortunately, herbal medicine as a discipline is often not focused on scientific evaluation of the potential risks and benefits of herbal remedies. Instead, it tends to be uncritically accepting of truly alternative theories about health and disease and of traditional or anecdotal evidence alone as the foundation for the selection and use of plant products as medicines. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM or TCVM for the veterinary variety), the Indian folk tradition of Ayurveda, and other dominant approaches in herbalism often reject scientific principles or evidence in favor of mystical folk models of health and disease, and such herbalists often view scientific evidence only as a tool for gaining wider acceptance of their practices, not for determining which are effective and safe and which are not. As is true in so many areas of CAVM, herbal medicine practitioners tend to find science useful only insofar as it supports their beliefs, but they tend to reject negative findings or the failure to find good evidence for their practices and persist in these beliefs and practices based on personal experience, tradition, and anecdote regardless of what science says.

There are also other serious problems with the area of herbal medicine as it currently exists. There is virtually no regulation and very little scientific investigation of herbal products. When sampled, many herbal products turn out not to contain what they are supposed to contain, and contamination with toxic heavy metals, potentially poisonous plant chemicals, and even conventional pharmaceuticals appears to be common (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). There is evidence that these unregulated and untested remedies cause significant injury and illness (6, 7, 8).

So while I think there is significant medical potential in plants and their incredible array of natural compounds, the herbal medicine industry (and make no mistake, it is a multi-billion dollar industry: 9, 10) as it currently exists is largely unscientific and insufficiently regulated and herbal remedies and supplements have very few proven benefits and some serious risks. The unfortunate tendency of herbalists is to rely on tradition, anecdote, and unscientific folk theories about health to guide their use of untested plant remedies and to utilize science primarily as a marketing tool rather than a necessary means of developing safe and effective herbal treatments. There are certainly individual exceptions, but this is the general character of the industry.

I was therefore both interested and concerned when I recently learned that the American College of Veterinary Botanical Medicine (ACVBM) is in the process of seeking recognition as a veterinary specialty organization. The American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS) is the unit of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) that recognizes areas of specialization in veterinary medicine and the organizations that certify individual veterinarians as specialists in these areas. Similar organizations perform his function in other countries (such as the European Board of Veterinary Specialisation (EBVS) Australasian Veterinary Boards Council (AVBC)) and in human medicine (e.g. American Board of Medical Specialties  and the European Union of Medical Specialties).

What is a Medical Specialty?
The purpose of official recognition for medical specialties is so that patients and pet owners can know which clinicians are likely to have a high-level of training or expertise in a particular medical area. In human medicine, specialists are often very highly focused on narrow subjects. After more than a decade of education and training, for example, surgeons may only perform a few procedures on one part of the body. While there are some problems with excessive specialization, it is clear that medicine is far too large a body of information, tools, and techniques for any one person to master it all. Specialists do fewer things, and they tend to do them better than more generally trained and experienced doctors.

In veterinary medicine, specialization is less common than in human medicine due to economic factors. Because specialists, and their additional training and experience, are more expensive than general practice vets, many vets without board certification in a specialty will still commonly work in areas that have recognized specialists. I do cardiac ultrasounds, treat cancer with chemotherapy, perform a wide range of surgical procedures, and manage chronic skin conditions despite the fact that there are recognized specialists in the areas of veterinary cardiology, oncology, surgery, and dermatology. There are pros and cons to choosing a specialist or a generalist to treat your pet for particular health issues, but there is no question that specialists have deeper knowledge and greater experience and expertise in their specialty disciplines than I or other general practitioners have.

The concept of expertise is, unfortunately, under some attack generally these days, especially in the U.S. (e.g. 11) There seems to be a feeling that anyone can be an expert, or declare themselves to be, by virtue of their independent study or experience without going through a recognized educational and training program. This applies more in areas in which the subject and outcomes are not clear and distinct. Few people would attempt to fly a jet or perform open heart surgery without the appropriate specialized training because the consequences of inadequate skill and expertise are obvious and dramatic. However, people with little or known scientific or medical training often feel equipped to doubt or deny the consensus among true specialists in areas like climate change or medicine.

In CAVM, the concept of specialization is especially problematic in a different sort of way. Homeopaths, Chinese Medicine vets, even psychics and astrologers will often declare themselves to be “experts” in their fields and deny the legitimacy of criticism from others, regardless of the credentials of critics or the evidence presented, if their critics do not have the same training and experience in these fields. However, if homeopathy and TCVM are just sets of made-up ideas without scientific validity, what is the value of expertise in these subjects?

The analogy I often use is that of the Catholic priest as an expert in Catholicism. There is no question a priest has superior knowledge and experience in the details of the Catholic faith, so in some sense he is an expert. However, if you are a Jew or a Muslim or an atheist, this expertise is not very meaningful, and it is unlikely to convince you that the priest is right about the details of religious controversies. Similarly, while I agree homeopaths know more about homeopathy than I do, I know enough to understand the subject of their expertise is an unscientific fantasy, so I have no obligation to defer to their views on the controversies about it.

Should Herbalism Be a Recognized Veterinary Specialty?
All of this is intended to provide a context for answering the question, “Should herbalism be recognized as a veterinary medical specialty?” This has to be answered both generally and in terms of the specific application of the ACVBM for recognition as a specialty organization by the ABVS.

In general terms, I think specialty status for herbal medicine is not warranted because the evidence base for the area is too limited and it is still plagued with deep-rooted unscientific concepts and practices. In theory, such an area could be a legitimate scientific specialty if the attitude towards science changes and the evidence base is properly developed, but that is not yet the case. No herbalism specialty is recognized in human medicine or veterinary medicine in the US, Europe, or Australia, which would make recognition of the ACVBM unprecedented.

In terms of the specific application, it is clear after reading it and investigating the provenance and the leadership of this organization that recognition of the ACVBM as a specialty organization would be a serious mistake. I will discuss why in detail below, but this organization is dominated by TCVM vets and key figures in the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA), a deeply anti-science organization that promotes every imaginable alternative practice, from herbal medicine to homeopathy and faith healing. Most of the leadership practices multiple varieties of CAVM, not only herbal medicine, and many have made worrying comments about science and conventional medicine that suggest they fundamentally don’t accept the principles and practices of science-based medicine. This application is less about making herbalism a scientific specialty within veterinary medicine than it is about getting a foot in the door to obtain the AVMA’s imprimatur of mainstream legitimacy for alternative veterinary medicine of all sorts without demonstrating the truth of their theories or the safety and efficacy of their methods through sound scientific research.

The ACVBM Application for Specialty Status
The ABVC is the AVMA organization that recognizes veterinary medical specialties. It consists of representatives from the existing specialty groups and non-voting members from a couple of other organizations. The ABVS has a detailed description of the standards for obtaining specialty recognition. Unfortunately, and in keeping with the general approach of the AVMA to support veterinarians in virtually anything they choose to do but to assiduously avoid setting standards for veterinary medicine, these criteria go into great detail about the mechanisms and procedures for functioning as a specialty board but make little mention of science or any criteria for judging the legitimacy of a proposed specialty area. Obviously, any organization can follow a template for governance and for administering examinations and such, so being able to meet these standards says nothing about the legitimacy of the subject area. The few sections that seem to address this more important issue are these:

The AVMA American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS) is the umbrella organization for veterinary specialties within the United States. It is composed of one voting representative from each of the AVMA-recognized veterinary specialty organizations, plus non-voting liaisons from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges and the AVMA Council on Education.

For a veterinary specialty organization (or their independent certification board) to be recognized by the AVMA, they must:

Demonstrate that improved veterinary medical services will be provided to the public.

Serve a clearly defined need within the profession.

Represent a distinct and identifiable specialty of veterinary medicine, one that is supported by a base of scientific knowledge and practice that is acceptable to the profession and the public. [emphasis added]

Let’s take a look at the ACVBM application and some of the problems and questions it raises, including the extent to which it might or might not meet the ABVS criteria for recognition.

Would Recognition Improve Veterinary Medical Services to the Public?
The ACVBM medicine asserts that “improved veterinary medical services” will be available to animal owners by the recognition of ACVBM based on the assumption that herbal medicine is a safe and effective tool for improving patient care. Unfortunately, this is not a scientifically demonstrated assertion. The debate about the research evidence for herbal remedies is a complex one, and the devil is in the details. There are many published research studies that appear to show benefits to herbal remedies and supplements. However, there are many published studies support the same claims for homeopathy, but a detailed examination of the literature shows that homeopathy almost certainly has no real benefits at all (12, 13). The ability to cite lots of papers does not by itself show a robust scientific support for a specific medical approach.

While I have not examined the herbal literature in as much detail as that pertaining to homeopathy, I have studied the main textbook for veterinary herbal medicine and looked at many of the specific studies cited in the ACVBM application. The evidence is generally weak and inconsistent, it often does not support the claims it is cited by the ACVBM to support, and overall the body of robust, consistent scientific evidence supporting herbalism that the ACVBM claims does not exist. There is good evidence for a few specific remedies used for a few specific conditions. But there is no evidence to support most of the theoretical foundations on which most herbalists rely. TCVM as a diagnostic and therapeutic system, the concept of “tonics,” the general principle that mixtures of plant compounds given in raw form are safer and more effective than isolated compounds used as drugs, and many other key concepts herbalists rely on run counter to established science or are, at best, unproven beliefs.

So the claim that giving greater legitimacy to the group would enhance the care provided to the public rests on shaky ground. You cannot improve care by calling pseudoscience a specialty, and much of the popular approach to herbalism, especially the dominant approach of TCVM, is pseudoscience.

Is Herbalism Supported by Scientific Knowledge and Practice?
I have already answered this question to a certain extent. There is much scientific evidence relating to specific compounds or remedies, but the vast majority of herbal remedies remain untested outside of lab animals. And the concepts upon which diagnosis and prescribing by herbalists rests are not only not yet validated but typically inconsistent with a scientific understanding of health and disease. However, I want to explore in more detail why the claims to a scientific approach made in the ACVBM application appear disingenuous and generally untrue.

For one thing, the ACVBM claims it would become the specialty responsible for pharmacognosy, the practice of identifying medicinal compounds in plants. This is currently the domain of pharmacology, a recognized specialty area (under the American College of Clinical Pharmacology (ACCP)). The organization also claims it should take over the use of plant-based remedies and supplements for their nutritional effects, an area currently thought to fall in the territory of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). Finally, they claim that their diplomates would be in a better position than specialists in these areas or than diplomates of the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology (ABVT) to recognize and manage the potential toxic effects of plant remedies and their interactions with conventional medicine.

However, while botanical medicine overlaps many other specialties, the depth of knowledge required of a specialist in phytopharmacology and phytomedicine is not covered by any of these. Even the pharmacology College, which might be the closest relation of all the specialties, would concentrate on only a subset of the mechanisms by which herbs work. There are tens of thousands of medicinal plants described in the herbal medicine literature, likely overshadowing the conventional drug pharmacopeia by orders of magnitude. Pharmacology focuses on isolation of a single constituent to characterize and use therapeutically. By contrast, herbalists advocate for the complex actions initiated when a plant or plant extract containing hundreds of compounds – both nutritional and pharmacologic – are in play.

American College of Veterinary Clinical Pharmacology: An important basis of herbal medicine is the pharmacology and mechanisms of actions of plants and plant extracts, however they differ from drugs in their complexity, and in the underlying ethnomedical knowledge base used to prescribe them.. The botanical medicine diplomate can provide context to client and referring veterinarian inquiries, both ethnobotanical and scientific.

American College of Veterinary Nutrition: Functional foods including herbal medicines are being employed in therapeutic diets and products in veterinary medicine. The herbal medicine diplomate will be able to advise on suitable herbs to meet therapeutic needs in product development in the pet food industry and also provide advice on the addition of herbs to diet plans and critical care nutrition to benefit the patient therapeutically.

American Board of Veterinary Toxicology: Toxicologists are familiar with toxic principles of plants. Many of the plants that are considered toxic by toxicologists are also considered therapeutic by botanical medicine specialists, who are necessary to provide this complementary information on plant use and abuse. Herbal medicine specialists will be more informed on dosing that “makes the medicine or the poison”.

However, the basis on which the ACVBM claims it can replace the role of these specialties is a claim of special knowledge specifically derived from areas outside of the realm of science. The claim is essentially that by knowing the folk theories and practices of traditional herbalism, ACVBM diplomates would know more about the safety and use of plant products than specialists who focus on the scientific evaluation of these. The presumption is that folk knowledge is equivalent, if not superior, to scientific knowledge when evaluating the safety and efficacy of herbal remedies. This reveals one of the fundamentally anti-scientific principles that makes much of modern herbal medicine unreliable and unscientific:

[Our vision is to] enhance the integration of scientific, clinical, and traditional knowledge into veterinary medicine practice [emphasis added; This explicitly places folk beliefs on an equivalent level with scientific knowledge.]

An important basis of herbal medicine is the pharmacology and mechanisms of actions of plants and plant extracts, however they differ from drugs in their complexity, and in the underlying ethnomedical knowledge base used to prescribe them. [emphasis added; This reveals the often unmentioned fact that traditional theories and historical practices, rather than scientific evidence, generally guide the prescription of herbal remedies.]

The effective use of herbal medicine often requires knowledge of their ethnobotanical medical uses – or familiarity with the culture and medical system that popularized the use of a medicinal plant. [This assumes such traditional folk knowledge is a reliable guide to the medical use of plants, which is unproven and contradicted by the evidence of history, in which traditional folk medicine has never achieved anything like the effectiveness of science-based medicine.]

The herbal medicine diplomate must have an expanded understanding in the areas including, but not limited, to principles of herbal medicine (whether ethnomedical or scientific principles are being used in decision-making)…

The uniqueness of this new specialty is that it is using treatments outside of the established pharmacological research model, yet still having a strong rational basis in pharmacology. [Unfortunately, it is clear that herbal treatments are often outside the science-based model, but it is not at all clear that most have a rational basis in pharmacology.]

Veterinarian herbalists understand the dosing of herbs because of the variability of the plant medicines and clinical and patient related factors affecting dosing of botanical medicines. The herbal medicines are variable in form and concentrations and bioavailability; knowing how to relate research to the form of herb is important for efficacy and safety. This is distinct from use of drugs with more consistent formulations, but also distinct from the science of clinical nutrition where food ingredients are generally safer than herbal drugs. [Herbs are quite variable in the compounds they contain from batch to batch, which is part of why isolation and standardization of such compounds into drugs has been so much more effective than the historic folk-based empirical use of raw plants. Herbalists only know more about these issues in the sense that they trust traditional wisdom and practice to guide them even without scientific research into the risks and benefits of specific remedies.]

For instance, there are many plants used as traditional “tonics”, intended to invigorate normal organ functions. While some of these traditional tonics and alternatives have recognized activities, such as antioxidation or microbiome support, some are still not well enough understood to classify them in a physiologic or pharmacologic sense. [The concept of a general “tonic” is an unproven folk belief.]

The Role of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the ACVBM
It is clear from the application itself, and even more so from the personnel composing the organizing committee of the ACVBM, that the dominant approach which will be promoted by this group as a specialty board will be TCM. Nearly all of the members of the organizing committee have an affiliation with the Chi Institute, a private school teaching Chinese Veterinary Medicine, include Dr. Husheng Xie, the founder of this company. Most have studied TCVM there, and many are instructors in this method. All but three explicitly advertise their use of TCVM in their own practice. There is no question that TCVM is the foundation for herbal prescribing favored by the leadership of the ACVBM, and it is specifically mentioned several times in the descriptions of the subject matter potential diplomate will need to master. This is much of what is meant by “traditional knowledge” in the ACVBM document.

The problem with this is that TCM is an alternative system for understanding health and disease which is entirely independent from, and inconsistent with, the scientific understanding. It views disease as arising from imbalances of mystical forces, such as Chi or Yin and Yang, and metaphorical humors such as Wind, Damp, Heat, and so on. Diagnoses such as “rebellious Chi” or “Excess Wind” are made based on behavioral and historical information, tongue color and texture, pulse quality, and other unvalidated traditional means. These diagnoses are then used to guide acupuncture treatment and the use of herbs, which are categorized in their effects by taste, appearance, and historical use rather than any scientific analysis of their components or physiologic effects. TCVM is not a specialty area within scientific veterinary medicine, it is an alternative to it. It would make no sense to legitimize this practice by calling it Veterinary Botanical Medicine.

There are, of course, other herbalist approaches represented in the leadership of the ACVBM. Some also promote Western Herbalism, and this is mention along with Chinese medicine in the application. However, this is simply a different, but equally unscientific, set of folk traditions about the use of plants to treat disease, and again not a scientifically legitimate therapeutic approach. Some members of the committee do also advocate a conventional scientific understanding of plants as potential medicine, but even they rely primarily on traditional means of selecting and using herbal remedies, viewing science as following rather than leading the way in developing herbal medicine.

The ACVBM as a Trojan Horse for Alternative Medicine
The background, writings, and practices of the members of the ACVBM organizing committee quickly makes it clear that this effort involves more than strictly herbal medicine. As I mentioned, almost all of the members practice acupuncture and Chinese Medicine generally, not simply the use of Chinese herbal products. Nearly all of them are also members of the American Holistic Veterinary Medicine Association (AHVMA). This organization promotes all CAVM practices, not only herbal medicine, and they have been on the forefront of defending and promoting homeopathy, energy medicine, faith healing, and many other pseudoscientific or unscientific practices. Many are also affiliated with the College of Integrative Veterinary Therapies (CIVT), which teaches courses not only in Chinese and Western folk herbalism but acupuncture, alternative nutrition, homeopathy and homotoxicology, and other alternative approaches. A majority even list homeopathy as part of their practice. These are not merely individuals with expertise in botanical medicine but committed advocates and practitioners of a wide range of alternative and unscientific methods.

Finally, in their teaching and advocacy of alternative therapies, a number of the leaders of the ACVBM have expressed views about science or scientific veterinary medicine that appear to contradict the claim of the ACVBM application that scientific evaluation and use of herbal remedies will be a focus of the group. I have listed the members of the committee, some of their professional affiliations, some of the CAVM methods they advocate, and some of the comments they have made that should concern the ABVS. I don’t mean to suggest that these individuals are not smart, educated, caring veterinarians, as they most certainly are. However, I believe they share an ideological approach to veterinary medicine that is at odds with science and, therefore, ultimately not in the best interests of patients or the profession. I also believe that their purpose in seeking specialty recognition for the ACVBM is to obtain the appearance of a scientific legitimacy to herbal medicine, and to a wider array of alternative medicine practices, that has not been earned through rigorous scientific evaluation.

Bottom Line
I believe there is great potential in plants and plant-derived compounds to provide safe and effective medicines for veterinary patients. However, current dominant views and practices in herbal veterinary medicine, especially those from the folk traditions of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and traditional Western herbalism, are unproven and frequently unscientific. Herbal remedies are frequently mislabeled or contaminated with potentially harmful ingredients, and without greater research and regulation, they are unpredictable and sometimes dangerous to patients.

The ACVBM is led by a group of veterinarians with a long history of supporting and advocating alternative medicine generally, not only herbal medicine. Many belong to the AHVMA, practice homeopathy or other unscientific and unproven or clearly ineffective therapies, and several have expressed views about science and conventional medicine inconsistent with status as board-certified veterinary specialists. There are members who I believe have a genuine commitment to scientific evaluation of herbal remedies, but they are a small minority and they are, at the least, willing to accede to the promotion of unscientific ideas in CAVM.

The recognition of ACVBM as a specialty board would be a mistake. It would create, in the eyes of other veterinarians and animal owners, the appearance of scientific legitimacy to unproven and inherently unscientific herbal medicine theories and practices. And it would undoubtedly be a foothold for the spread of even more dramatically unscientific alternative medicine practices under the color of specialized expertise. Herbalism has not been recognized as a legitimate medical specialty in human or veterinary medicine in Europe, Australia, or the United States because the evidence does not exist to validate most of the theories and practices involved. The purported expertise this certification would recognize is largely a mastery of ideas and information not consistent with nor validated by scientific methods. Scientific evaluation of plant medicine should continue as part of the normal course of medical and pharmacologic research.

Sample Letter to ABVS
Below I have copied a letter I will send to the ABVS opposing recognition of the ACVBM as a specialty organization. I encourage anyone else who shares my concerns to contact the ABVS as well, and you are welcome to use any or all of the text of my letter or the information posted here. Comments from the public will be accepted until September 1, 2017.

American Board of Veterinary Specialties
c/o Mr.David Banasiak
1931 N. Meacham Rd, Suite 100
Schaumburg, IL, 60173

Dear Mr. Banasiak:

I am writing to oppose the recognition of the American College of Veterinary Botanical Medicine (ACVBM) as a veterinary specialty organization. The ACVBM does not meet the core criteria set forth by the ABVS, and recognition would not be in the best interests of animal owners nor the veterinary profession.

Botanical medicine is not recognized as a medical specialty, in human or veterinary medicine, in the U.S., Europe, Australia, or most other scientifically advanced nations because the research evidence concerning herbalism and botanical remedies does not support this status. Prescribing practices are largely untested and based on folk medicine beliefs and traditions, and most herbal products are untested and un-regulated. Very few herbal therapies have been validated by the type of high-quality clinical trial evidence typically required for pharmaceutical medicines. Problems with mislabeling and contamination by toxic adulterants and pharmaceuticals is frequently reported for herbal products, with documented harm to patients. While there is great potential for medicinal use of plant-derived compounds, this potential can best be realized through pharmacognosy and other conventional forms of scientific research under the auspices of clinical pharmacology, toxicology, and other existing medical specialties.

The primary distinction the ACVBM offers between its approach and current conventional research and application of herbal remedies is the use of “traditional knowledge” to guide herbal prescribing. This means that the theories and practices of folk medicine traditions are considered sufficient to guide the use of herbal medicines, even when controlled research evidence is unavailable or contradicts traditional theory and practice. Almost none of this “traditional knowledge” has been validated by controlled research, and much of it is incompatible with established scientific principles and knowledge.

Illustrating the reliance of the ACVBM on unscientific principles is the affiliations and practices of the members of the ACVBM Organizing Committee. Nearly all are affiliated with the Chi Institute or other Chinese Medicine organizations, and most are practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is an alternative system for understanding health and disease which is entirely independent from, and inconsistent with, science-based medicine. It views disease as arising from imbalances of mystical forces, such as Chi or Yin and Yang, and metaphorical humors such as Wind, Damp, Heat, and so on. Diagnoses such as “Rebellious Chi” or “Excess Wind” are made based on behavioral and historical information, tongue color and texture, pulse quality, and other traditional means. These diagnoses are then used to guide the use of herbal products, which are categorized in their effects by taste, appearance, and historical use rather than any scientific analysis of their components or physiologic effects. TCVM is not a specialty area within scientific veterinary medicine, it is an alternative to it. Recognizing the ACVBM would effectively identify TCM herbalism as a legitimate scientific medical practice without appropriate evidence to support this status.

Additionally, a majority of the ACVBM leadership is also affiliated with the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA), and many have served in the leadership of this group. The AHVMA promotes and defends every type of alternative medicine, from herbalism and acupuncture to homeopathy and faith healing. Most of the Organizing Committee members promote or utilize numerous alternative therapies other than herbal medicine, and many have been publicly critical of conventional and evidence-based medicine and have recommended greater reliance on traditional knowledge and personal experience. These views do not support a rigorous scientific standard for developing safe and effective therapies and would not promote more evidence-based and higher-quality patient care.

The best way to develop the potential of plant-based medicines is to continue rigorous scientific research into herbal remedies, based on established scientific principles and methods. This progress can best be accomplished through the existing veterinary specialty areas. Traditional use may suggest testable hypotheses, but it is not a reliable guide for prescribing. Recognition of the ACVBM would be counterproductive in encouraging folk medicine-based approaches and in giving the ABVS imprimatur of scientific legitimacy to theories and practices which do not merit it. This would mislead veterinarians and animal owners and encourage the promotion of unscientific alternative practices.

Members of the ACVBM Organizing Committee:

Signe Beebe
CAVM Affiliations- Chi Institute, AHVMA, several TCM and integrative medicine organizations
Other CAVM Methods- TCVM, Reiki, IV vitamin C for cancer, prolotherapy

Ihor Basko
CAVM Affiliations- AHVMA
Other CAVM Methods- TCVM, homeopathy, alternative nutrition
In response to an article I wrote critical of the AHVMA-

“If you were a legitimate blog looking for the Truth and not a shill for the pharmaceutical companies, you would have researched both sides of any issue.”

“Keeping comments and ideas one sided and supported pharmaceutical and commercial pet food monopolies which have been raking in the money for many decades. Threatened financially and ideologically, they must resort to political tactics of attack, shock and awe using headlines inspired by the National Inquirer or some other ladies gossip rag.”

Shauna Cantwell-
CAVM Affiliations- Chi Institute, AHVMA
Other CAVM Methods- TCVM, electrotherapy, chiropractic, homeopathy/homotoxicology
In a CE lecture, Dr. Cantwell suggests that “clinical wisdom” is ahead of science and sufficient to act on while we watch for science to catch up to our knowledge.

“…the question remains as to whether clinically the data support effectiveness, and whether the right questions are being asked to produce illustrative data. Evidence-based medicine is the integration of the best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient needs. Research in this field has yet to catch up with clinical wisdom.”

Cynthia Lankenau-
CAVM Affiliations- Chi Institute, CIVT, AHVMA
Other CAVM Methods-TCVM, chiropractic, homeopathy/homotoxicology, Reiki, Shamanism
“I am very encouraged by the acceptance in some corners of the conventional world, enough to truly hope and believe that every veterinary college in the future will offer training in all alternative modalities, minimize drug use, and truly practice wellness maintenance medicine.  But I see two problems both created from greed.  I am nervous that when the conventional world realizes the loss of income from animals being truly healthy, they might wage an aggressive smear campaign.”

Rob Silver
CAVM Affiliations- AHVMA , Chi Institute
Other CAVM Methods- TCVM, homeopathy

Recommends, “a patient-specific prescription of Chinese herbs, based on tongue, pulse and behavioral assessments.”

“Chinese medicine assigns emotions to each of the Zang-Fu organs. The practitioner can assess aspects of those organs disharmony by observing their patient’s emotional expressions and through conversation. Animals speak to us of their emotional landscapes by means of their behaviors. Some emotions and behaviors are fairly easy to assess. Anger, as an expression of liver imbalance, for instance, can manifest as an act of aggressiveness in a dog or cat….There are a number of Chinese prescriptions that can help to address these Zang imbalances.”

Steve Marsden-
CAVM Affiliations- AHVMA, CIVT
Other CAVM Methods-TCVM, homeopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy
Examples of prescribing style:

“When we want to both tonify Blood and pull off fluid, Dang Gui Shao Yao San is a consideration”

“Given the overt Blood deficiency and history of chronic vomiting, I’d wonder about adding in Yi Guan Jian.”

“I agree with your Damp Heat assessment, and would suggest starting with Si Miao San…I hear what you’re saying about coolness. However, long term damage to Blood and Yin by Damp Heat can create Blood deficiency, and with that a superficial chilliness. If you’re quite sure, however, that he’s too cold, then I’d wonder about Chu Shi Wei Ling Tang. This augmentation of Wei Ling Tang might address the skin condition, even as the Wei Ling Tang at its core addresses long term IBD and even the insulin resistance characteristic of Cushings. So, for a Cold, dog (with, for example a cold tongue and overt sun-seeking), it would be my first choice.”

“Homeopathic Ferrum metallicum 30C can be helpful in animals vomiting their food undigested hours after eating.”

Hubert Karreman-
CAVM Affiliations-none found
Other CAVM Methods- numerous (see comment)

In a newsletter, Dr. Karrman provides this view of CAVM:

“My opinion is that we should use whichever mode of treatment that we feel intuitively drawn to.”

“A short listing of CAVM groupings with specific some examples follow: food therapy – preventive nutrition, therapeutic nutrition, glandular therapy and orthomolecular medicine; manual therapy – massage, acupressure, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic, and physical therapy; biological therapy – hyper-immune plasma, hyper-immune eggs, serum therapy, bee sting therapy, and pharmaceutically reared leeches and maggots; botanical therapy – western herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, essential oils and aromatherapy; energy medicine –  Christian laying-on of hands, classical homeopathy, homotoxicology, Bach flower remedies and non-traditional homeopathy. This is not a complete list of course and there are combinations of treatment, like injecting homeopathic remedies at acupuncture points.

In approaching cases and coming up with possible solutions, I like to use hands-on touch to sense where problems may be, careful observation, heightened sense of smelllisten for subtle sounds (with a stethoscope) and intuition to pin point problems. Then I choose from whichever CAVM treatment seems best for each case. Anyone can do this. And while it’s satisfying to be part of a successful outcome, I don’t feel it’s actually me that gets the patient better – that is up to Holy Spirit. I am just a channel for healing to hopefully occur. You can be, too. Using natural therapies honors God’s creation.”

Constance DiNatale-
CAVM Affiliations-Chi Institute, AHVMA
Other CAVM Methods- TCVM, homeopathy, chiropractic

Barbara Fougere-
CAVM Affiliations- AHVMA, Chinese Medicine organizations, CIVT
Other CAVM Methods- TCVM, homeopathy, chiropractic
“The greatest joy of being involved in naturopathic oncology is that our toolbox is so much larger than the one other veterinarians draw upon. It is empowering to know that there is always something more than can be done to help our patients, and even more phenomenal to be able to improve their health well beyond expectations, and create “spontaneous remissions”—something that the veterinary paradigm says is impossible…”

“The diagnosis of cancer is important, but the definitive diagnosis is not central to our approach…We need to address all aspects of health and well-being, including physical factors…environmental factors, spiritual aspects, and even genetic factors.”

“From a naturopathic perspective, cancer arises from an imbalance or accumulation of toxicity…”

“Ideally, herbs are prescribed according to the patient’s vitality, energetics, symptoms, concurrent treatments, prognosis, and diagnosis.”

“Detoxification is an herbal medicine principle in cancer treatment, because cancer is thought to be the end result of accumulated toxins in the body.”

Susan Wynn
CAVM Affiliations- Chi Institute, AHVMA, CIVT
Other CAVM Methods- TCVM
Comments- Dr. Wynn seems to be one of the few members who seems to have a consistent and real regard for the value of scientific evaluation of alternative therapies, including herbal medicine, though she still gives significant deference to traditional practices.

Joyce Harman-
CAVM Affiliations- Chi Institute, AHVMA, CIVT
Other CAVM Methods- homeopathy, chiropractic
“Western herbology is based on observations from centuries of experience along with an understanding of the pharmacology of the herbs and modern research. Many of the old texts, from the 1800’s and earlier are still valid sources of information as the authors of the day wrote detailed observations about cases they treated.”

“Make your assessment based on the modality you know well or think will be the best one to start with (i.e.: what is the imbalance?) Ex: Chinese-Spleen Qi deficiency; allopathic–elevated liver enzymes, homeopathic–weak vital force with watery diarrhea, etc.”

Huisheng Xie-
CAVM Affiliations- Founder of Chi Institute, also owns a Chinese Herb supply business
Other CAVM Methods- TCVM
According to Huisheng Xie, the leading figure in veterinary TCM in the United States, “no disease occurs if Yin and Yang maintain a relative balance.”

Here are a couple of examples from Dr. Xie’s TCVM textbook illustrating how the method is used to guide diagnosis and prescribing.

1. Signalment: Seven year old, female spayed Labrador Retriever

Primary Complaint: Separation Anxiety

History and Physical Findings: From a Western perspective, the dog has all the signs of separation anxiety. Acupuncture treatment did not help much. She has been on the herbal formula Long Dan Xie Gan Wan for signs of Liver Stagnation. Her tongue is slightly red and dry and her gums are tacky. Her eyes are red. Her pulses are thready and fast.

Assessment: This is a Yin Deficiency Pattern (Deficient Heat), specifically a Heart Yin Deficiency pattern. The Yin Deficiency can be determined from the red, dry tongue (Heat signs) and the thready and fast pulse. The association with the Heart is based on the major complaint of separation anxiety because this is due to a Shen (Spirit or Mind) disturbance. Of the five Yin organs, the Heart is the one that houses the Shen. Separation anxiety and other behavior problems are mostly related to the Heart. The treatment strategy is to balance Yin and Yang by enhancing Yin. The acupuncture points An Shen, HT-7, Da Feng Men, and KID-3 as well as the herbal formula Shen Calmer (Modified Tian Wan Bu Xin Dan) are recommended for this case.

  1. Signalment: A thirteen year old female spayed American Eskimo dog.

Problem List:
a. Cushing’s disease which has been treated with Mitotane for the past four years.

  1. Seizures which began last month and clustered about once a week.
  2. Hypothyroidism
  3. Generalized stiffness with weak hind end. There is no limping, but the dog’s gait is very stiff. The dog takes three to four steps then huffs and puffs and lies down.
  4. Generalized lethargy, weakness, lack of energy.

Physical Findings: Pulse is thin and fast; Ravenous appetite and thirst; Bilateral cataracts; Deafness; Panting Constantly; Poor teeth and gums; Rose colored thin ocular discharge; Stool dark brown and foul smelling; Chronic urinary incontinence, all day, all the time; Draining pressure sore on left hip; Pot-bellied with muscle wasting; Tongue is pink with thin coating

Assessment: This can be considered a Deficient Heat (Yin Deficiency) condition, with a Qi Deficiency and Internal Wind. The old age, weakness, urinary incontinence and lethargy indicate a Qi Deficiency. The fast pulse, thirst, ravenous appetite, constant panting and foul smelling stool can indicate Heat. Seizures are caused by Internal Wind.

The treatment strategy is to use acupuncture to balance Yin and Yang by enhancing Yin and clearing the Wind. In addition, acupuncture can be used for the stiffnedd while using Chinese Herbal medicine for the internal organ problems. Acupuncture points such as GB-20, LIV-3 and GV-20 may be beneficial for the seizures (Wind). The points KID-3 and SP-6 may be beneficial for Yin. Two herbal formulas may be beneficial: Tian Ma Gou Teng Yin for Internal Wind and Suo Quan Wan for incontinence and Kidney Qi Deficiency.

Nancy Scanlan
CAVM Affiliations- CIVT, AHVMA, Chi Institute
Other CAVM Methods- homotoxicology/homeopathy; As leader of the AHVMA, Dr. Scanlan vigorously opposed the AVMA HOD resolution identifying homeopathy as unscientific and ineffective.

”While the ‘find it and kill it’ Western medical approach may work for infectious diseases, holistic medicine takes preventative measures by treating the whole body…Holistic veterinary care can be much more effective when treating chronic illnesses like heart disease.”

“When traditional medicine looks on disease and physiology as circular, as seen in the Five Element cycle of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), different practitioners may decide to attack the same disease process at different parts of that cycle. The treatments may be seen as different by conventional medicine, but…final conclusions should be based on two criteria: were the cases treated successfully, and were all cases within the series consistent based on the traditional, not the conventional, view?”

“In order for acceptance to occur, initial research may need to be more standardized…the fact that a remedy consistently “improves” (to the conventional eye) symptoms of a specific “disease” (as defined by conventional medicine) may open the door to acceptance of homeopathy as a valid part of integrative medicine.:”

“Echinacea…has usually been studied with the expectation that it will increase immune reactions in some way. However, it may have more of an immune-modulating effect, as evidence by at least one trial showing a decrease in WBC activity. Instead of viewing this as conflicting evidence, it would be better to examine herbal tradition…to see whether this herb has been used as an immune “normalizer.” If so, the conflicting evidence is actually supporting evidence for the original premise.” [In other words, any result can be viewed as supporting the hypothesis if we simply interpret it through the correct lens.]

“AHVMA maintains that one must include an expert in any discussion of a treatment modality… Experts are those who use the modality in practice, and who are invited by practitioners of CAVM to lecture and write about its use.”[This view of expertise suggests only those who have an a priori belief in a method and elect to train in and use it are qualified to judge its value. This is the perfect closed shop for unproven or unscientific methods.]

Richard Palmquist-
CAVM Affiliations- CIVT, AHVMA, Chinese medicine organizations
Other CAVM Methods- homeopathy, energy medicine
Dr. Palmquist often comments on the relationship between tradition, experience, faith, and science, and he makes little distinction between them other than to sometimes suggest scienceis the least useful.

“Acupuncture reconnects and balances Life energy.… Energy medicines such as homeopathy, homotoxicology, Reiki, craniosacral therapy, and others align the physical, mental, and spiritual portions of the organism. Yes, I did say spiritual and that is a big part of holistic medicine-recognizing the spiritual nature of Life.”

“Scientific advance can be fueled by a few people who have experienced the impossible and who care enough to investigate and share.”

“When we use “science” to kill hope by stopping progress we find real harm occurring.”

“When a miracle surpasses our science, we can deny the miracle or use our science to pursue improved understanding. It’s a choice… Thanks for believing in miracles.”

“Miracles provide us the opportunity to see and share the unexpected as we gain insight into new relationships. RT if u believe in miracles.”

“Placebo effect (that means YOU) are responsible for HALF of a drug’s effect. How about making more of YOU!?”

“90.1 percent of AVMA delegates voted against the anti homeopathy resolution. Veterinarians free to pursue whatever tools needed to help.”

“In the end we do not heal from finding out what is wrong. We heal when we find and connect what is right with our lives.”

“We will have health reform when doctors become team members celebrating and developing potential and not simply pill prescribers.”

“People who are sure they know how the universe works are often in for a surprise. “Scientists” often fight what turns out to be right.”

Donna Raditic-
CAVM Affiliations- CIVT, AHVMA
Other CAVM Methods- chiropractic, homeopathy

Carmen Colitz-
CAVM Affiliations- Chi Institute, AHVMA
Other CAVM Methods- unclear
Dr. Colitz has been involved in the development of Ocul-glo, one of the few herbal/nutritional supplements in the veterinary market that has good quality evidence for its effectiveness. Like Dr. Wynn, her approach seems to be more consistent with good scientific practice. However, she has also allowed her name to be associated with comments like those below, in articles from the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal which were co-authored by Dr. Colitz.

“Besides optimizing nutrition, losing weight, and getting proper daily exercise, daily insulin is needed in most patients to control hyperglycemia unless optimally treated with homeopathy or TCVM.  It is estimated that 68% to 75% of dogs with diabetes will develop cataracts within a year of diagnosis, despite the best of care.”

“Once diabetes is diagnosed, support includes specific antioxidants, proper diet, homeopathy, TCVM and aldose reductase inhibitors.”

“Anecdotally, homeopathic veterinarians have seen resolution of cataracts with careful prescription of the homeopathic medicines that match the constitution of the dog or cat.”

“Careful monitoring for changes by veterinarians using homeopathy or TCVM, or frequent exams by a veterinary ophthalmologist, are recommended to avoid negative changes that can occur due to lens-induced uveitis.”

Posted in Herbs and Supplements | 14 Comments

Overview of the Evidence for Probiotics in Cats and Dogs

I have written about the subject of probiotics several times before, and this is one of the most interesting and active areas of research in scientific veterinary medicine. Unfortunately, probiotics are also illustrative of the unreliability of unregulated veterinary health products and the kinds of excessive claims often made without real evidence for such products.

An excellent new review of probiotics in small animal medicine has just been published. By way of leading up to the evidence and conclusions of this review, first I will give a quick review of my past articles on this subject:

Veterinary Probiotics, 2009

  • A normal microbial flora is beneficial, and perturbations in the normal flora are associated with disease, so the principle that manipulating the microbial ecology can affect health is reasonable.
  • The normal microbial flora is complex and poorly understood, so how to appropriately manipulate it to achieve health benefits is not yet clear.
  • Clinical studies in humans are mixed, showing benefits from some probiotic products for some conditions, no benefit in other cases, and inconclusive results for many products and conditions.
  • There is little reliable research in companion animals regarding the safety or efficacy of probiotic products.
  • The risks of probiotics are probably very low. Individuals with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk and should not be exposed to probiotics. There is some limited potential for these products to cause disease even in healthy individuals.

Probiotics for Herpesvirus Rhinitis, 2010

  • So overall, the study provides little support for the thesis that Fortiflora boosts general immune function in a way that would be clinically useful for cats with FHV-1 rhinitis.
  • The argument that probiotics “boost the immune system” in general is not a very convincing one, as illustrated in acritique of the concept by Dr.Mark Crislip at Science-Based Medicine.
  • There is no clinical trial evidence that shows resistance to infectious disease can be enhanced in a healthy, normal person.
  • Probiotics undoubtedly have some benefits, however the GI microflora and its role in immune function is a dazzlingly complex subject which science is only beginning to understand. Most of the normal organisms present in healthy people and animals have not been identified, and the ecological niche or function of these organisms isn’t known. The effect of tinkering with this complex system without understanding it is ultimately unpredictable, and the assumption that such tinkering must be beneficial is unwarranted.
  • As our basic understanding of the topic improves, I hope targeted probiotic therapies for specific problems will continue to emerge. But at this point, there is little scientific justification for the widespread use of such products for nearly any condition with the assumption of safety and efficacy.

Primal Defense- An Example of Why I am Suspicious of Probiotics, 2010

  • The use of science to try and justify Mr. Rubin’s unscientific nutritional theories are pure marketing, taking advantage of the respectability that real science has earned through the results it produces. His approach is ultimately based, as so much CAM is, on personal revelation, and supported primarily through anecdote and testimonial….Such a marketing approach can turn a potentially legitimate, if not yet ready for primetime, therapy like probiotics into pure quackery.
  • Companies like Garden of Life illustrate why the unregulated supplement industry (aka Big CAM) is not onlynot entitled to the assumption of better ethics that they often receive, but it quite likely gets away with even more ethically questionable practices than the mainstream medical and diet industries, which are at least better supervised and regulated.

Encouraging Studies on Probiotics for Canine Diarrhea, 2010

  • So these studies do provide some support for the potential benefits of probiotics for acute, self-limiting diarrhea in otherwise healthy dogs. The better of the two studies provides pretty good quality evidence for this use, though more work will have to be done to see if these results are confirmed in other populations and more real-world circumstances. The second study provided a hint of an effect, but the results were weak and not particularly convincing.
  • Overall, I’m still cautiously optimistic about probiotics, at least for acute, self-limiting diarrhea, and these studies encourage that optimism. Clearly, there is much more work to be done to define which organisms in what doses will benefit which patients, but as long as we are careful not to imagine these products as some kind of panacea and go beyond the available data, they seem to be reaching a point where judicious clinical use is reasonable.

Veterinary Probiotics- Sloppy Labeling and Poor Quality Control, 2011

  • This study does not directly address the question of whether or not probiotics in general are actually safe and beneficial for clinical use in dogs or cats. But it does highlight that even if they are, most of the veterinary probiotics currently available are inadequately or improperly labeled and do not have meaningful numbers of active bacteria in them anyway. A lack of research evidence combined with a lack of effective regulation, due primarily to the lobbying efforts of the supplement industry, undermine the potential value of these therapies and make confident routine use of the products now on the market nearly impossible.

Probiotic Fortiflora Not Apparently Very Helpful in Preventing Diarrhea in Shelter Animals, 2011

  • For the dogs, there was no significant different in the incidence of diarrhea between those getting the Fortiflora and those receiving the placebo regardless of how the data was analyzed. The overall incidence of diarrhea in both groups was lower than expected for reasons that were not identified.
  • In the cat groups, the overall incidence of diarrhea was no different between the probiotic and placebo groups. However, when the data was broken down to compare the proportion of cats having diarrhea for more than 2 days, this was lower in the probiotic group than in the control group, though the level of significance was not dramatic (P=0.0297 with a cutoff of <0.05).

European Food Safety Authority Rejects Prostora, A Probiotic for Dogs, 2013

  • In terms of the efficacy of the product, the EFSA concluded that it could not reach a definitive judgment. According to the report, eight research studies were submitted in support of efficacy. Five of these were rejected for inadequate methodology (lack of a control group, for example). The three evaluated (including one I have reviewed here) did show some evidence of a beneficial effect. However, the effects were inconsistent and not always strong enough to be meaningful even if statistically significant.
  • Apparently, the organism in Prostora has shown some resistance to the antibiotic clindamycin. A number of genes that confer antibiotic resistance have been identified, and some of these can be transmitted from one bacterium to another. The specific source of the resistance to clindamycin seen in the Prostora bacterium is not known, so it is not clear if this resistance could be transmitted to other bacteria in animals or people exposed to Prostora.
  • Because of this uncertainty, and the serious and growing problem of antibiotic resistance in infectious organisms, the EFSA chose not to approve the sale of Prostora in the EU.
  • As I have often said about probiotics, because they clearly have the ability to affect the health of people and animals, they undoubtedly have risks as well as benefits. The devil is in the details, and they should neither be rejected out of hand nor embraced unquestioningly as beneficial. The specific risks and benefits of particular organisms for particular health conditions in particular species have to be understood through the careful and laborious process of scientific research. There is nothing intrinsically “alternative” about the use of microorganisms to affect health, but the indiscriminate use of them in the absence of appropriate scientific evaluation would be a mistake in the tradition of the worst kind of alternative medicine.

Probiotics in Horses, 2014

  • The authors conclusions are these:
    Although probiotics have shown promise in the treatment of selected diseases in humans, the evidence that they can be used to control diseases in horses so far is weak.Based on lack of regulation regarding quality control of commercial products, use of over-the-counter products is questionable, particularly in the absence of scientific information on safety and clinical efficacy.

    Despite all of these limitations, probiotics generally are regarded as safe, cost effective and easy to administer. Therefore, additional research is warranted to test possible applications in equine veterinary practice.

  • Very similar conclusions likely apply to the use of probiotics in small animals. They are probably low risk and are relatively easy to use and inexpensive. In most cases, there is little evidence that they have significant benefits, but their use for some conditions, such as diarrhea, is reasonable given the limited but suggestive evidence available so far.

Clearly, over time I have gradually become more optimistic about the potential for probiotics as the evidence has accumulated. Unfortunately, the evidence is still quite limited and weak in small animals, and the issue of quality control and regulation has not been solved, so there is still significant uncertainty in the use of probiotic products in patients.

The recent review addresses some of the same studies I have discussed, as well as additional research. It is a sound, science-based summary of where we are today in terms of the scientific study and use of probiotics in small animal medicine.

Jugan MC. Rudinsky AJ. Parker VJ. Gilor C. Use of probiotics in small animal veterinary medicine. JAVMA. 2017;250(5):519-528.

The authors begin by discussing the general issues of investigating probiotics, including the problems with labeling and quality control, the importance of focusing on specific organisms and specific health conditions as well as recognizing the limitations of in vitro and artificial research models in predicting the effects in actual patients:

All 8 veterinary products evaluated in 1 study contained concentrations for individual microorganisms that were < 2% of label claims; such products also contained unlisted, potentially pathogenic genera (eg, Staphylococcus spp and Pediococcus spp). More recent studies on veterinary probiotic content have provided similar findings.

In vitro studies are useful for generating hypotheses for in vivo studies, but their clinical applicability is extremely limited ….

Importantly, the effect of a probiotic in a specific clinical context is likely unique to that context. For example, one cannot extrapolate the effect of a probiotic in dogs with a specific disease from results of studies on healthy dogs or on dogs with another disease.

Although studies of healthy dogs and cats frequently provide apparently positive effects of probiotics, the implication for disease states is unknown.

The authors then review the few studies that have been done in specific subject areas:

Acute GI Conditions

Overall, studies of dogs and cats with acute diarrhea provide weak evidence for the exclusive use of probiotics, yet provide substantial evidence for preventable stress-induced diarrhea…Evidence for use of probiotics in dogs and cats with naturally occurring acute diarrhea is lacking.

Chronic GI Conditions

Overall, there currently is no definitive evidence that probiotics are effective for dogs with chronic diarrhea, especially not dogs with more severe IBD.

Probiotics in Puppies and Kittens

Studies of puppies and kittens have limitations similar to those for studies of adult dogs and cats, including small numbers of subjects, limited evaluations for disease states, and limited control populations for direct comparison. One important feature, which is highlighted when puppies and kittens are concurrently evaluated, is that important species differences in response to probiotics exist; therefore, evidence from one species cannot automatically be extrapolated to another species. Probiotics are also likely to have different effects in immature animals than in adult animals because the GIT microorganism population transitions to the adult microorganism population during development in immature animals.

Kidney Disease in Cats
I have discussed several studies looking at the probiotic Azodyl, and despite the anecdotes and angry denials of some users, there is no reason to think this product has any benefits. The authors of this review appear to agree:

Taken together, the effect of probiotics on renal function in these studies is questionable.

…there currently are no indications for administration of probiotics to cats with chronic kidney disease.

General Conclusions
The overall assessment of the evidence in this review is pretty similar to my view that the evidence is limited and weak and, while encouraging for some conditions and organisms, is not yet clear about the real benefits, if any, of probiotics. Further research is certainly warranted, and clinical use may be appropriate in some circumstances, but we have yet to convincingly demonstrate meaningful benefits of probiotics to prevent or treat illness in dogs and cats.

….most studies have limitations, including the number of subjects, extent of population characterization, appropriate characterization of underlying disease, control of potential confounders (diets and other environmental effects), and comprehensive examination of potential outcome measures. Also, many studies are uncontrolled or use inappropriate or incomplete control groups.

A clear role for administration of probiotics to dogs and cats is not evident on the basis of the current literature. Evidence in healthy dogs, as well as dogs with GIT and non-GIT illness, suggests some effect of probiotics on the GIT microbial population,…but there are no clear clinical benefits. Similar but weaker evidence is available for cats, but with fewer controlled studies.

Although general conclusions can be drawn for a specific study population, results were variable among studies, and some studies indicated no effect of probiotics.

Currently, evidence suggests that administration of probiotics may play a role in animals with acute GIT disease, especially stress-induced diarrhea, mainly for decreasing the time until resolution of clinical signs when compared with outcomes for standard treatments.

Results for studies of dogs with chronic enteropathies are more difficult to interpret because they are typically confounded by administration of concurrent treatments.

On the basis of examination of the current data, no specific product can be recommended for use. Effective probiotic species are likely disease- and individual-specific microorganisms. Because of questions regarding accuracy of product labeling, products should be evaluated by outside laboratories. Longterm outcomes and administration periods require evaluation for both safety and efficacy.

Risks of Probiotics
The authors are clear that the existing evidence, while limited and weak with regard to benefits, does not suggest any common or serious risks, and I agree:

No substantial adverse effects were noted after probiotic administration in any of these studies, which suggests relative safety over a short period for the microbial populations evaluated.

Bottom Line
This review provides a concise survey of the probiotic research in dogs and cats to date, including an appraisal of the significant weaknesses and limitations on the existing studies. The bottom line is consistent with my own view of the literature.

  • There are few studies, and those that have been done have significant limitations and often conflict.
  • There is reasonable evidence for some clinical benefit in acute diarrhea associated with stress or antibiotic use.
  • There is no high-quality, consistent evidence for most suggested uses of probiotics.
  • The unregulated probiotic products on the market today are plagued with inaccurate labeling and poor quality control. This means that even if probiotics might be beneficial in some cases, it is unclear if the actual products available could achieve these benefits.
  • There do not yet appear to be significant risks to probiotics, though the evidence for this safety also quite limited.


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