Yesterday, I wrote about some environmental chemicals that may play a role in causing disease. While this sort of environmental risk factor is a real and recognized phenomenon supported by good science, it can easily be cited to lend support to a bit of popular pseudoscience that may appear quite similar but which is actually something quite different: detoxification. Detoxification is one of the classic bogus pseudoscientific concepts of alternative medicine, and since I brought up the subject of environmental toxins, I thought it worthwhile to illustrate today some of the differences between the legitimate field of environmental toxicology and the quackery that is detoxification.
The notion of detox suggests that our bodies accumulate harmful substances, either from environmental toxins or the waste products of our own normal metabolism, and that these need to be removed or neutralized by some therapeutic process in order to prevent or cure disease. The details about what is toxic, how we come by it, and what we should do to detox vary widely according to the many and mutually inconsistent theories of different alternative practitioners.
At the heart of this notion is the emotion of disgust, and inherent reaction we have evolved to encourage avoidance of potential sources of harm, particularly infectious disease. Though there is controversy about the details, it is commonly argued that this innate emotional reaction has been generalized to cultural and moral domains, and this has led to the social constructs of contamination and purification. Detox schemes are portrayed as healthcare, but they are really a set of purification rituals intended to ward off harm magically like some religious practices.
The problem with this and many other alternative medicine ideas that are more religion than science or medicine is that evidence for or against specific proposed toxins or therapies becomes irrelevant. It’s not that there is no such thing as a toxin, since there are many well-characterized by science. And it’s not that we can’t remove or neutralize some toxins with medical treatment, because in some cases we can. The issue is that the specific claims about detoxification are often made up completely or extrapolated wildly and irrationally from small pieces of actual scientific knowledge, and they become self-sustaining components of a belief system rather than hypotheses that can be confirmed or disproved.
A typical example of this kind of pseudoscience, which mixes distorted but real science with complete nonsense, comes from the ever-reliable source of pseudoscience, Dr. Karen Becker at Mercola.com. Dr. Becker produces a steady stream of advice for pet owners. It ranges from the perfectly reasonable to the unproven but plausible all the way to the completely ridiculous, often all jumbled together. The key is that real evidence is almost never needed or heeded, and her claims are based predominantly on opinion, hers or that of the other alternative practitioners she interviews.
The Big Scare
Her detoxifications creed begins with The Big Scare, that classic snake-oil sales technique in which the CAM advocate tries to convince an audience that they and their pets are swimming in a toxic soup constantly threatening ruin to our fragile health and well-being. Without this fear, we might not realize that our apparently perfectly healthy pets were actually in terrible danger and that we need to act now to save them! We might be at risk of coming to believe that not all bad things that happen can be avoided if we just do the right things and that those who become ill have only their own poor lifestyle choices and inaction to blame.
It’s actually mind-boggling to think about all the different ways our pets are exposed to toxins in today’s world…. If you’re wondering if your own pet is carrying a toxin load, sadly there’s no doubt he is. The truth is that virtually every pet has measurable amounts of chemicals in their body, because they walk through chemicals, they sleep on them, they breathe them in, and they eat and drink them. And unfortunately, veterinarians prescribe and inject them on a regular basis as well.
Dr. Becker lists a host of the usual bogeymen of alternative medicine, from medicines that actually protect your pet’s health and prevent disease, like antibiotics and parasite preventatives, to poisonous commercial dog food that carry cancer in every bite, to the invisible threat of—gasp!— electromagnetic fields! Some of the specific things mentioned do have potential harmful effects, depending on dose, exposure route, species, lifestage, and many, many other variables. After all, anything, including such necessities of life as oxygen and water, can be harmful under the right circumstances. Others, such as fluoride in drinking water and electromagnetic fields have been thoroughly investigated and not found to be dangerous. But again, we are dealing with a faith-based, not evidence-based belief system here.
After The Big Scare, Dr. Becker moves on to explaining precisely how these toxins harm your pet. Well, not precisely, more like generally. Well actually, it’s more like using some vague science-y words that imply stuff without actually meaning anything.
When your pet’s body accumulates too many toxins, it stores them for future elimination. For many pets, that future opportunity never arrives and the toxic load begins to impede the body’s ability to function. Ultimately, toxic overload can interfere with the immune system to the point where cellular abnormalities like tumors and cysts develop. Other serious diseases may also show up as cells degrade and organ function is impaired.
Side effects of an accumulating toxin load cover a wide range of diseases, from skin conditions to organ failure. There can be behavior problems associated with toxicosis, endocrine disease, autoimmune disease, and even cancer.
So basically, your pets is constantly besieged by all sorts of toxins that are everywhere and in everything, and they can cause almost any disease if not eliminated. And while she admits that your pet has its own systems for dealing with toxins (since it would be hardly to explain how any suggests that they can’t be relied on. This, again, is a necessary step in selling you something which you can do to defeat this terrible threat and which will work better than the natural systems evolved over millennia which have kept us all alive so far.
A Magic List
Everyone likes lists. Just put “10 Steps to…” in front of almost any advice, and it will be more fun to read and more persuasive. The only trouble here is that most of these steps are either too vague to be meaningful, unproven hypotheses, or total nonsense.
1. Improve Your Pet’s Diet
What Dr. Becker means by “improve” is really “change to what is recommended by my favorite nutrition mythology.” Avoiding commercial food, which is full of those pesky toxins, and switching to home-cooked, grain-free, ideally raw diets despite the complete lack of evidence to support the claim that any of these changes actually improves health or reduces disease risk. I’ve addressed a number of these myths and claims before, and they are far more about ideology than science.
2. Provide Clean Drinking Water
Presumably, you are unaware that the drinking water we get from the tap here in the U.S., which has eliminated numerous infectious diseases that have plagued humanity for millennia and continue to trouble the developing world, is actually a toxic brew that will poison your pet. Fluoride, in particular, is mentioned as a risk despite the overwhelming evidence that it is safe and effective at dramatically educing dental disease. No evidence needed here, just pure belief!
3. Beware the Air!
Apparently, the very air you breathe in your home is full of perils as well. Avoiding smoking is a sound and well-established way to reduce disease risk. Other than that, the notion that every cleaning product that doesn’t call itself “green” on the label is a poison for your pet and that you can somehow find a magic combination of products and purifiers to ward of sinister unseen toxins in normal household air is just another arrow in the quiver of The Big Scare.
4. Make Your Pet Exercise
The benefits of exercise for humans are well-established, and it is likely that our pets could stand a good deal more physical activity than many of them get. There isn’t actually much research for dogs to tell us how much of what kind of activity is ideal, and the notion that our cats should workout more is pretty far-fetched. Still, among the very real benefits of exercise is not “helping the body’s detoxification efforts.” Suggesting that without more exercise your pet will not urinate, defecate, circulate blood to the liver and kidneys, or breathe sufficiently to perform ordinary removal of waste products is just nonsense.
5. Avoid Pollutants and Chemicals
A perfectly sound bit of advice, except for the problem that everything is made of “chemicals,” and Dr. Becker’s notion of what is a “pollutant” is pretty vague. Sure, washing off your dog’s feet when they come in the house is fine, but there’s no reason to imagine it will dramatically affect their health or ward off any terrible illness.
6. Say No to Drugs!
Dr. Becker recommends avoiding “unnecessary” “drugs,” by which she usually means vaccines and medicines. I too recommend avoiding unnecessary medical treatment, but I suspect we have different definitions of what this is. I have written extensively about the issues involved in deciding what to vaccinate for and how often, and it is a far more complex subject than simply “avoid yearly vaccinations” as Dr. Becker recommends. And while antibiotics and steroids are probably overused, they are also important and beneficial medicines, and it is dishonest to sow fear of them without being clear and evidence-based in presenting both the risks and benefits and without defining “unnecessary” in any way. Making people afraid of medicine doesn’t make their pets healthier. Similarly, there are risks as well as benefits to parasite prevention, as well as to eschewing such prevention, but the “safe, natural alternatives” Dr. Becker mentions are not proven substitutes.
7. Brush & Bathe Your Pet
Sure, why not? But ignore this bit of nonsense: “Your cat or dog eliminates toxins through his skin, and regularly brushing or combing will remove loose fur and debris and help his skin breathe.” Oh, and don’t forget not to use shampoos that contain “toxins.” Make sure they are “natural.” *sigh*
8. Support Your Pet’s Liver and Kidneys
Here’s where the poor logic behind the detoxification scam shows itself especially clearly. We are warned that “chemicals” and all kinds of substances in our food, water, and air are bad for us and should be avoided, despite the lack of evidence in most cases that this is true. We are warned of the dangers of medicines are parasite preventatives without any discussion of the benefits and with no consideration given to the abundant evidence showing that these generally do much more good than harm. And then, after all this fear mongering without good evidence, we are told to protect our pets by giving them a bunch of untested and unproven chemicals! I have collected an enormous volume of evidence showing that the chemicals(!) in herbs and supplements and even needed compounds like vitamins and minerals can cause serious harm. Without proper testing, these cannot simply be assumed to be safe and effective. Giving such substances without this evidence and warning people away from substances for which good evidence of safety is available is bizarre and misleading. Only the fundamentally faith-based nature of the detox myth could explain such inconsistent and illogical recommendations.
9. Support Your Pet’s Immune System
Boosting the immune system is one of the other classic bits of alternative dogma and nonsense nicely dealt with already elsewhere. It suffers from many of the same problems with faith above evidence and illogic as the detox scam.
Dr. Becker lists a number of specific “detoxing” agents, and not surprisingly several of them have come up here before, including Chinese Herbal Medicine, turmeric, resveratrol, and others. None of these have good clinical trial evidence to show that they “detoxify” anything, and while there are some suggestive tidbits of research that some might have some legitimate medical uses, there are not clinical trials showing any to be safe and effective at preventing serious disease in apparently healthy animals. Their use is based entirely on anecdote or entirely unproven theories about health, not real evidence.
Finally, Dr. Becker recommends regular detoxing with these unproven chemicals if your pet has any exposure to supposed toxins, which of course is unavoidable since these malignant substances are everywhere, except apparently in the chemicals she recommends giving to detox your pet.
The whole notion of detoxification is a non-scientific concept that is part of an ideology which has more in common with religion than science-based medicine. The theories are unproven or outright false, and the specific claims made about toxins and detox treatments are made without real evidence. The strategy is no different in its essence than warding off bad luck or evil spirits, and it serves more to assuage the anxiety of humans than protect the health of pets. Here are some useful resources on the subject for further reading: