I’ve written a lot about homeopathy over the years. I have investigated and summarized the scientific evidence, looked into the history and philosophy behind the practice, and even taken an online introductory course in this type of witchcraft so that I could fully understand the claims and the truth behind the practice. As a relatively minor therapy (less than 2% of adults in the U.S. use it in any given year and less than 4% have ever tried it) which usually involves giving only water or sugar pills to patients, one might wonder why this bit of nonsense is worth the trouble of debunking. Unfortunately, the fact is that the practice, and the irrational beliefs associated with it, can still harm and even kill patients.
I have pointed out before how some veterinary homeopaths make recommendations for homeopathy or against scientific medicine that can cause great harm to patients, (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). However, I still feel it is important that people see how consistently delusional and dangerous these vets can be, since they manage to appear reasonable, and even supportive of science, when they are marketing their practices to pet owner sand conventional veterinarians. Talking amongst themselves, however, they freely make claims that are so obviously untrue and ridiculous that it should be clear to most people that their advice is best rejected. I recently came across yet another example in the faux veterinary journal Integrative Veterinary Care (IVC).
Cooney, T. Homeopathic treatment for epidemic diseases: Focus on parvo and distemper. Integrative Veterinary Care. 2015;5(4);54-58.
Given the overwhelming evidence that homeopathic remedies cannot prevent or treat diseases, recommending their use for any condition is irrational. However, recommending the use of homeopathy for serious, life-threatening disease is dangerous and unethical. Even the World Health Organization (WHO), which for political reasons is often quite reluctant to criticize alternative therapies regardless of the evidence, has issued a warning that homeopathy should not be used in preference to science-based medicine for serious illnesses. And the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), another political agency very friendly to CAM, also warns that there is no evidence homeopathy can prevent of treat any disease.
Dr. Conney begins by citing a very old lie from the homeopathy marketing kit, that homeopathic treatment has been proven effective in epidemics of infectious disease by its use against influenza in the pandemics of the early 20th century. The specifics of these sorts of studies and claims have been discussed by others (Cuba 2007, Cuba 2007, 1918 Flu Epidemic), but there are several obvious problems with them. For one thing, they are often based on uncontrolled reporting and case selection by proponents of homeopathy. Undoubtedly, homeopaths in 1918 claimed a very low mortality from the flu, without objective statistics (which are, shockingly, not available from 100years ago), there is no way to verify these claims.
Additionally, conventional medicine in the early 20th century was itself not science-based, and the early apparent successes of homeopathy were simply a reflection of the fact that an inactive treatment that did nothing was less likely to harm the patient than bloodletting, purgatives, and other pseudoscientific mainstream therapies of the time. Conventional medicine, however, has moved on and learned to use science to weed out ineffective therapies or those that do more harm than good, while homeopathy is still true to its unscientific 19th century superstitions.
Dr. Cooney continues making things up through the rest of the article. He claims, for example, to have collected “clinical data” showing that puppies who get parvovirus infections after having been vaccinated are less likely to survive than infected puppies who have never been vaccinated, and that puppies receiving homeopathic nosodes (a type of fake vaccine) had the highest survival rate. By “clinical data,” of course, Dr. Cooney means his own uncontrolled observations, which shockingly turn out to support exactly what he believed in the first place. One wonders why science is needed at all if we can prove ourselves right just by looking at our patients and seeing what we want and expect to see.
The clinical evidence of controlled research, of course, has proven the tremendous efficacy of parvovirus vaccines. Properly vaccinated puppies are so unlikely to get the infection that the companies making the vaccine ware willing to pay all medical costs for any pup who has been vaccinated on schedule and gets parvo. This, of course, virtually never happens, which is why they are willing to make this sort of guarantee. Nosodes, on the other hand, have been demonstrated not to be effective for parvovirus or other serious infectious diseases.*
Dr. Cooney provides no scientific evidence for his dramatic claims, he merely repeats some anecdotes from his own practice, which prove nothing other than his ability to see what he expects to see. For more on the unreliability of anecdotes and testimonials like these, see these articles:
Dr. Cooney makes the same sort of unsupportable claims about canine distemper, another deadly viral infection. He admits it is quite rare and that he hardly ever sees a case, though he neglects to mention that this is because of widespread vaccination. However, he brazenly claims that when the infection does occur, “yields the only hopeful outcome in most cases.” He supports assertion, of course, only with a testimonial from another veterinary homeopath and his own personal experiences.
Dr. Cooney derides conventional treatment as “’anti’ drugs like anti-emetics, anti-diarrheals, anti-nausea meds, antibiotics” and so on because in the twisted logic of homeopathy, treating the life-threating clinical effects of disease and the suffering they cause is a mistake. The body should be allowed to “vent the disease,” apparently even if it torments or kills the patient in doing so.
Undoubtedly, many of the patients Dr. Conney treats for parvo and distemper survive. This is likely due in part to misdiagnosis, since distemper is rare and difficult to diagnose, and he claims to see parvo regularly in vaccinated puppies despite the 99% effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing the disease. It is always easier to cure a life-threatening disease with fake medicine when the patient doesn’t actually have the disease in the first place.
It is also the case that Dr. Cooney apparently provides at least some of the standard supportive care, including intravenous fluids. With appropriate supportive care, about 50% of distemper cases survive, and about 80-95% of parvo cases survive. It would take an objective, controlled scientific study to prove what seems very likely to be the case, that Dr. Cooney’s use of fake medicines and avoidance of science-based treatments probably leads to a higher mortality rate among those true parvo and distemper cases he sees than those treated appropriately. However, even without such a study it seems obvious that for a licensed veterinarian to promote such pseudoscience and discourage accepted medical treatment for life-threating, and completely preventable, infectious diseases is dangerous unethical.
* Holmes MA, Cockcroft PD, Booth CE, Heath MF. Controlled clinical trial of the effect of a homoeopathic nosode on the somatic cell counts in the milk of clinically normal dairy cows. Vet Rec 2005; 156:565-567.
Larson L., Wynn S., and Schultz R.D. A Canine Parvovirus Nosode Study. Proceedings of the Second Annual Midwest Holistic Veterinary Conference 1996.