This is a guest post from a colleague in the United Kingdom, Arlo Guthrie
As the editor of VetSurgeon.org, the leading online community for veterinary surgeons in the UK, I thought it would be interesting to assess British vets’ attitudes to homeopathy. So I joined forces with Alex Gough MA VetMB CertSAM CertVC MRCVS, Head of Medicine Referrals at Bath Veterinary Referrals to conduct a survey of our members.
The survey generated a response from 460 veterinary surgeons, which equates to about 2.4% of all 18,000 or so vets in the UK, including those that don’t work in general practice. So, a good sample size. First we asked whether respondents practised homeopathy themselves. 6.2% did, which means that there was some bias in favour of homeopaths (a survey carried out in 2006 found that 4.6% of British vets claimed complementary medicine as a speciality). We also asked whether homeopathy is routinely available to clients through the respondent’s practice. 7.7% said it was.
So to the first question to assess practitioners’ attitudes to homeopathy. We asked: ‘In your opinion, are there any veterinary medical conditions for which homeopathy could be an effective treatment? We deliberately couched this question in the broadest possible terms: ‘any’ and ‘could’. Despite this, a resounding 83.4% said ‘NO’.
In our next question, we sought to judge the depth of disbelief surrounding homeopathy. We asked: ‘Which would best describe your opinion of veterinary homeopathy?’. 77.4% answered ‘An ineffective form of veterinary medicine’. 9.5% said: ‘A rarely effective form of veterinary medicine’. 8.6% said: ‘An occasionally effective form of veterinary medicine’, and a paltry 4.5% said: ‘A reliably effective form of veterinary medicine’.
As a further indication of how strongly British practitioners believe that homeopathy is ineffective, 73% said that they believe that owners should sign a statement that they understand that in trials, homeopathy has been shown to be ineffective.
We also asked: ‘Do you feel it is appropriate for veterinary surgeons to practise homeopathy?’. 78.5% said ‘NO’.
All in all, a unequivocal result. Simply put, the overwhelming majority of British veterinary surgeons think homeopathy is wholly ineffective.
But how do they respond when asked by a client to refer a pet for homeopathy? In our survey, 24.3% of respondents said they would refer to a homeopath. A further 33.8% said they would explain that homeopathy does not work, but refer the case anyway. So that’s nearly 60% that would be prepared to refer, despite the majority believing that homeopathy is completely ineffective. 17.6% said they would explain that homeopathy does not work, and that the client will need to self-refer. 24.3% said they would explain that homeopathy does not work, and recommend the client does not self refer.
There are a number of possible hypotheses as to why vets may be prepared to refer clients for homeopathy, including a belief that they may retain some measure of control over the case, a fear of alienating the client, and the oft-stated argument that ‘it’s water, it’ll do no harm’.
We would argue that it’s the bigger picture that general practitioners need to consider; that the very act of referring endows homeopathy with a cloak of respectability which is simply not supported by science (on the contrary, it would require that we dismiss most of the proven laws of physics and chemistry).
It’s estimated that over £40M is spent on homeopathy annually in the UK, including £4M by the National Health Service. The sooner that more veterinary surgeons and their colleagues in human medicine are prepared to join the 24% of vets that refuse to endorse homeopathy, the sooner this money could be spent on effective methods of relieving suffering, both human and animal.