Homeopathy for Canine Parvo and Distemper: Dangerous and Unethical

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:

Why We’re Often Wrong

The Role of Anecdotes in Science-Based Medicine

Why We Need Science: “I saw it with my own eyes” Is Not Enough

Don’t Believe your Eyes (or Your Brain)

Medical Miracles: Should We Believe?

Testimonials Lie

Alternative medicine and placebo effects in pets

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.

 

 

 

 

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7 Responses to Homeopathy for Canine Parvo and Distemper: Dangerous and Unethical

  1. v.t. says:

    This wack-job needs to be in jail.

    He is either 1) not parvo testing and treating mild GI issues and fleecing his clients, or 2) testing/confirming parvo and fleecing his clients by treating pets with supportive care only plus drops of water, or 3) actually treating with standard care but lying to his clients and telling them it was the magic homeopathy that “cured” parvo and fleecing them for additional bogus costs. How many pets did he really only treat with homeopathy and those patients died, that we will never hear about in this lifetime?!

    Oh, but homeopathy is “such a gentler approach”. Tell that to a parvo puppy!

    When oh when are the boards going to crack down on these lying, thieving, con artists!

    I’ve said it a million times, these wacko altie vets are seriously lacking in the mental and ethical department (among other things). How anyone could truly trust them to practice real medicine in any effective manner is beyond me.

  2. The scary thing about these kinds of articles is that someone who knows little or nothing about the subject is going to find this article in a search engine and believe it’s actual science from a respected journal. What are we to do about these uncontrolled, un-peer-reviewed publications that are cropping up everywhere?

  3. skeptvet says:

    Well, technically this is “peer-reviewed” since there is a peer-review board of alternative vets who decide on submissions to the journal. Peer-review is a weak protection against nonsense under the best of conditions, and it is worthless when groups of believers in pseudoscience get together to certify and validate each other. The technology available makes it simple and cheap to slap together faux journals like this that are, as you say, indistinguishable from real scientific publications to anyone who doesn’t know very much about how science actually works.

    I would say that the best defense against this kind of abuse of the public would be meaningful standards of care and regulation of practice that requires some scientific standards, but that is politically impossible in the US. Remember, the leading group representing vets, the AVMA, rejected a non-binding resolution declaring homeopathy ineffective by 97%! The profession as a whole doesn’t seem to feel any responsibility to protect the public from nonsense promoted by vets, partly because of “slippery-slope” fears and a sense of professional collegiality, and partly out of a general cultural distaste for regulatory oversight in the US. I have to hope that publicizing the ridiculous lengths these people will go to can at least keep their practices marginalized and warn the public away in some cases, because education and exposure seem the only real tools we have available.

  4. Art Malernee Dvm says:

    Peer-review is a weak protection against nonsense under the best of conditions>>>

    Richard Smith, who edited the BMJ between 1991 and 2004, told the Royal Society’s Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication conference that there was no evidence that pre-publication peer review improved papers or detected errors or fraud.
    We were taught years ago in vet school that peer review was real important but scientific studies such as the ones online published in the bmj show it just gives doctors the opportunity to back stab each other. The studies about peer review are now behind a bmj paywall and Richard Smith still publishes on Twitter. I’m sure many of the doctors who put the bmj behind a paywall after Richard Smith left continue to get a check. 🙂

  5. Art Malernee Dvm says:

    Here is a online article about the peer-review study behind a bmj paywall. I remember the bmj study did conclude peer review does work for technical editing.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1420798/

  6. Diana says:

    I recently rescued a puppy who is a survivor of parvo, he is the only one out of 5 of his siblings that survived. He is currently 5 months old and 9.7 lbs, yorkie poodle mix, and has been diagnosed with giardia about 3 weeks ago. They prescribed him a round of panacur, followed by a round of flagyl, both of which he completed. They also insisted on feeding him Hills I/D prescription diet (sensitive) Rice & Egg formula. None of this seems to be working. His stool is mushy and greasy looking (no chunks of mucus like it was originally), he has shown a huge increase in shedding, and seems to be very itchy and biting his paws on occasion. They now have prescribed him another round of flagyl (metronidazole, 100mg). I am at a loss, I typically take a more balanced approach between holistic and western medicine for both myself and my dog. But the vet seems adamant about staying on track with this food and medication. Does anyone have any suggestions? I am convinced the food has worsened the condition of his stool but i am also bias as I only give my dogs USA “human grade” premium foods, I also used to cook my previous dogs food (of course mixing it with a number of plant based supplements). Either way, I really am not sure what to do, I am so scared my little puppy is going to worsen, he has been through so much already, any input is greatly appreciated!
    Also, we do have him on a probiotic called Synacore Digestive Support (Van Beek is the brand) + a chewable digestive enzyme (which also has a probiotic in it) the brand is NaturVet.

    This is my thinking… his gut is one big swamp due to the effects of parvo (I assume he must have something similar to SIBO as he shows many of the signs). Now, in this swamp he has nasty parasites (giardia) eating away at his already vulnerable gut. This being said, after much research this is what I was thinking of going, but am nervous as none of these remedies are FDA approved for dogs (i of course will check with his vet but i find that many times hearing other pet owner’s experience is much more beneficial as every dog is different).

    PLAN OF ACTION:
    -take him off the vet food. Cook him organic, no antibiotic/hormones, vegetarian fed (aka the best of the best) chicken + sweet potato + carrots (i heard carrots help with a dogs digestive system).

    -now for the basic supplements any puppy or dog would need in his homemade food, I would mix in: seaweed plant based calcium powder ( ), and Multi-vitamin – this vitamin contains small bits of garlic and yucca which could help his intestinal problems ( )

    -now for fighting off the giardia, building his immune system, and dealing with the aftermath of the parvo, I would add the following to his homemade food: goldenseal, echinacea, grapefruit seed extract, and slippery elm. ( )

  7. skeptvet says:

    I’m sorry your puppy is going through this. Obviously, I can’t offer medical advice through the Internet (and no one else legitimately can either). If you find that your vet isn’t responsive to your questions and concerns, I would consider a second opinion. I will offer a couple of general observations.

    1. “i find that many times hearing other pet owner’s experience is much more beneficial as every dog is different”
    The problem is that if every dog is different, which is true, then anecdotes from owners of other dogs are no more useful than the aggregated experiences of your vet. Either dogs have enough in common that we can make some generalizations based on studying enough of them, or they are all utterly unique and we can’t. The evidence strongly suggests that we can, in fact, draw useful lessons from studying groups of dogs, even though there are individual differences. It also shows that controlled research evidence is a lot better at finding these lessons than the haphazard experiences of owners or vets. When there isn’t such research evidence, which is often the case, all we have to rely on is collective experience. But this doesn’t change the fact that such experiences is pretty unreliable.

    2. There is no reason to believe organic food sources have any health advantages over conventional foods, so while it’s fine to use them it isn’t going to be the thing that makes the difference. For a growing puppy, however, nutritional adequacy is critical to health development, so I would recommend you consider consulting a veterinary nutritionist to develop an appropriate diet. There are many who will do consultations online and help you with this. Recipes from books, even those written by regular vets, have often turned out to be nutritionally inadequate, so this level of expertise is really helpful.
    Here are a couple of possible sites you can check (or you could check with the closest veterinary college nutrition service, if there is one nearby)
    http://www.petdiets.com
    http://www.balanceit.com
    http://www.allcreaturesnutrition.com

    3. There is absolutely no reason to believe any of the herbal products you mention have any value for your puppy, and the research doesn’t exist to show that they are safe either. Using these kinds of products is really rolling the dice, and I don’t recommend it.

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