Univ. of Tennessee Veterinary School Recognizes “Excellence” in Alternative Medicine

The University of Tennessee School of Veterinary Medicine is one of the most noticeable academic institutions that appears to have been co-opted for the promotion of pseudoscientific veterinary medicine (along with Louisiana State and the University of Florida). I have written previously about the Integrative Medicine program at UT and the $10,000 grant the college received from the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation (AHVMF) explicitly for promoting (not studying) alternative therapies. Now, the university has presented its Distinguished Alumni award to two self-proclaimed “holistic” veterinarians. And these doctors were not honored despite their promotion of mystical pseudoscience but specifically because of it:

Dr. Marc Smith of Natchez Trace Veterinary Services and Dr. Casey Damron of White Oak Animal Hospital were recently honored with the “2012 Distinguished Alumni” Award at UT College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville, TN, for the creation of Pet-Tao Pet Foods and their service in the field of Alternative Veterinary Medicine.

Curious as to what about the creation of a pet food company might have merited such an award, I took a look at the Pet-Tao Foods web site. It is unashamedly dedicated to an approach to veterinary nutrition and health founded in the mystical nonsense of so-called Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM). 

Our diets are truly “holistic” because each and every ingredient is chosen according to two Eastern theories that define the term “holistic” – Yin/ Yang and The Five element theory. No other pet food company has this unique perspective, experience, or credibility.

The theory [of TCVM] states that all naturally occurring events in the universe have two opposite aspects: male & female, up & down, hot & cold, dark & light. These opposing aspects are interdependent, dynamic and constantly struggling to maintain balance with each other…Food is a powerful determinant in the body’s struggle to maintain health and the balance of Yin and Yang.

In Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, the five element theory explains the intricate relationships between the five naturally occurring elements in the environment: Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth…When using this theory in regard to foods, one can control how organs function in the body.  For example, a geriatric dog with increased liver enzymes should be fed LIVER according to the 5 element theory. Feeding liver promotes liver function and healing while re-establishing balance of the liver with respect to other organs.

In keeping with this fanciful and completely unscientific approach to nutrition, the company does not produce foods for specific nutritional needs or medical conditions as understood in scientific medicine, but for balancing Yin & Yang and the Five Elements. This allows them to recommend a limited set of diets for any medical conditions regardless of the cause or the specific nutritional composition of the diet based entirely on their assessment of the degree of imbalance in these mystical principles identified in a TCVM evaluation (which is itself a complex and completely subjective evaluation of the tongue, the pulse, and other physical and historical factors according to rules based entirely on tradition and trial-and-error). The company’s diets include:

  • Harmony (Balanced) – No health problems, IBD.
  • Chill (Yin Diet) – Yin deficiency, panting, pacing at night, restlessness, cool seeking, hot environments, over-energetic dogs.
  • Zing (Blood Diet) – Blood deficiency, dry flaky skin, cracked dry footpads, anemia.
  • Blaze (Qi Diet) – Qi deficiency, tires Easily, warm seeking, chronic diarrhea, cold environments.
  • Soothe – Limited ingredient cooling diet.

It is probably unnecessary to point out that there is no scientific evidence to support the practice of selecting food ingredients to balance Yin/Yang or the Five Elements. This is an entirely mythological folk model similar, and likely historically related, to the Greek system of Humoral Medicine that led to the now mostly abandoned practices of bloodletting, purging, and other methods of  “balancing” the vital humours to manage health and disease.

The fact that veterinarians who are thoroughly trained in scientific medicine and who are often, at least in my experience, practicing perfectly competent science-based medicine, are able to believe in such nonsense and use it in their clinical work is a bit of an embarrassment to the profession. However, the fact that a mainstream university research and teaching institution sees the promotion of such mystical anachronisms as worthy of lauding with an award for “excellence” is much worse. This lends a thoroughly undeserved aura of legitimacy to ideas that belong on the rubbish heap of medical history along with the treatment of infection by bloodletting and of epilepsy by application of leeches.



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13 Responses to Univ. of Tennessee Veterinary School Recognizes “Excellence” in Alternative Medicine

  1. fluidtherapy says:

    what an absolute joke: loons awarded for promoting lunacy. interestingly, the distinguished alumni from my alma mater are recognized for their advancement of our knowledge in veterinary medicine — you know, like things that allow veterinarians to practice better medicine and provide better care to their patients. when will the proverbial elephant be recognized?

  2. v.t. says:

    I’m not an expert, but just glancing at the feline canned diets, it looks like the analyses are a little off, with the fat content unusually low (supposedly a 8-10 lb cat can eat one can daily). With such a low fat content, I’m wondering how that is even mildly comparable to any other commercial food for a healthy adult cat for maintenance.

    Smith’s practice website is telling, this vet (and his partner) has gone over the woo edge for certain. Be sure to check out the “Biopuncture” page, for just one example of the B.S. in his practice. His entire practice (including his practice partner) seems to be based more on woo than conventional medicine and I believe that’s the entire selling point.

    My feeling is that these vets have other problems, whether personal or professional. A 10-year-old practice (fresh out of school then) is just in infancy really, yet both the above partners spend more time attending the Chi Institute in FL and other conferences in woo than focusing on SBM – it’s most likely not regular vet med their clients seek, rather all the baseless, factless miracle fads the vets push, because after all, it’s the “newest” thing (I’d wager half or more of the clients themselves are into woo, therefore they are probably already biased and completely willing to be swayed into woo-ville). Why do these alt vets have such a love affair with the human fads (herbs, diet, acupuncture, chiro, homeopathy) – could it be because none of them has the cahonies to actually go into real research to establish safety and efficacy in animals? Oh the work, cost, professional liaisons they would have to endure, the horror.

    You know I am often in disagreement with you, Skeptvet, when you convey your thoughts on otherwise intelligent vets wandering off to the dark side of woo. I do not believe that they truly believe in many of the aspects of woo. I believe they are lacking in something, such as professional integrity and aptitude, perhaps did not have peer-support in school and later, are narcissistic, perhaps thought of dabbling in kooky homeopathy as a hobby and took it much too far, or as is common, it’s simply a huge revenue generator to appease the masses who don’t know better (the clients). Lastly, because they can skirt so many issues and non-regulations without fear of prosecution/malpractice. However, I do not believe that absolves them of defying and practicing outside the scope of the states’ practice acts and most horribly, deceiving clients and using pets as guinea pig test subjects.

  3. Art says:

    The University of Tennessee School of Veterinary Medicine is one of the most noticeable academic institutions that appears to have been co-opted for the promotion of pseudoscientific veterinary medicine (along with Louisiana State and the University of Florida)

    Did you leave the Colorado vet school out on purpose?
    Wish I had the fancy chicken with acupuncture needles stuck in its neck at the Colorado acupuncture course as a link.
    Art Malernee Dvm
    OSU 73

  4. Art says:


    The fancy chicken with acupuncture needles stuck in its neck is gone but other barnyard animals in the video are getting needled.
    Art Malernee Dvm
    The Ohio State University 73 grad

  5. skeptvet says:

    Yes, it’s true that CAM therapies are by no means confined to a few vet schools. I mentioned the ones I did specifically because in the last year they have been the focus of aggressive and successful fundraising by the AHVMA to establish “integrative medicine” programs and promote a wide range of CAVM therapies.

  6. Narda Robinson says:

    Art, get over yourself.

    Skeptvet, thank you for your continued excellent coverage of these important topics.

  7. Rita says:

    I saw this not 24 hours after seeing that the HSUS had given a welfare award to Burger King….elephant in the room, indeed.

  8. Art says:

    Narda, a DVM and DO physcian teaches colorado senior vet students 4 week acupuncture courses at csu vet school. She calls her acupuncture scientific acupuncture and the acupuncture taught at the vet school in my state of florida unscientific. I believe teaching students to add intrgrative medicine to their practice will not work. Its like mixing apple pie with cow pie.
    Here is a non VIN quote of narda from this blog.

    I lecture to students in the pain and holistic medicine clubs about medical acupuncture, and they can then delve more deeply into acupuncture during independent study rotations and senior rotations. They also learn about acupuncture and other integrative medical modalities during their junior elective called, Critical Overview of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. During their senior year, CSU PVM students can enroll in my Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians, in which they spend 4 weeks learning how to perform and practice medical acupuncture

  9. Anthro says:

    I’m no PETA freak, but I really can’t bear to think of pets being subjected to these ridiculous “treatments”. A friend was told off by the real vet because she nearly killed her cat (who had a serious kidney condition) by following “holistic” vet advice.

    How can it be considered humane to even offer such nonsense? How can lawmakers permit vet schools and practices to operate so removed from accepted practice? No point asking that last one, sadly.

    Sorry, but here’s my final cliche: What’s the world coming to? Hint: A bad end.

  10. skeptvet says:

    Couldn’t agree more!

  11. zyrcona says:

    I agree that the award is ridiculous. What will be next, a Flat Earth Award?

    But I looked at the pet foods and some of them look quite nice quality, and it says they satisfy the nutritional requirements of the veterinary body that oversees such things in the USA, although I personally wouldn’t feed animals tofu or anything else derived from soy. Yes, it’s a silly marketing tactic and the foods are probably overpriced (I didn’t notice on the site how much the quoted price buys) but how is this any worse than the various other unverifiable claims made by pet food manufacturers, that go something along the lines of ‘the diet Nature intended’ and have pictures of wolves on the bag? I have yet to see scientific evidence that foods marketed as coat improvers, etc. work. The marketing is daft but based on the ingredients I don’t think the product is harmful or above and beyond the marketing tactics of its competitors, and people could do worse than feed this to their pets. 🙂

  12. skeptvet says:

    I’m sure the foods are nutritionally adequate since, as you point out, they meet AAFCO standards. And I agree that most diets are marketing with weakly justified or outright unscientific claims of some kind.

    The problem here is that these vets are specifically identifying their diets as useful for preventing or treating disease based on the fairytales of TCM. If they look at your cat’s tongue and feel their pulse and decide they have a Wind deficiency with excessive Yang and that has caused the symptoms of what science-based medicine might call “hyperthyroidism,” then they will tell you your cat can benefit from one of their diets by having its Wind increased and its Yang decreased, or something along those lines. Apart from being manifestly untrue, this statement is promoting something equivalent to choosing a diet on the basis of your pet’s astrological sign, and it fundamentally mocks and undermines real, scientific veterinary medicine. That seems a bit more disturbing than selling a shampoo “clinically proven” to make your hair more lustrous or other more ordinary kinds of marketing nonsense.

    Anything that gives an aura of legitimacy to unbridled superstitious nonsense and makes people think it is a legitimate complement or alternative to real medicine, even if it is harmless in itself, is going to encourage people to do useless and harmful things to their pets instead of seeking legitimate medical care. Homeopathy, for example is basically harmless in itself because it’s just sugar and water. But people die from believing homeopathy is actually medicine because they use it in place of real preventative or therapeutic care. The belief can harm even when the product does not.

  13. zyrcona says:

    The ‘conditions’ the foods are supposed to ‘treat’ seem to be fairly generalised and non-veterinary things like being hyper or lazy. I’ve got a slightly hyper dog, and no vet has ever offered me a medicine for it, so it strikes me as what the foods are targeted at are personality types and temperaments as perceived by their owners. Similarly lots of foods one can buy have herbs or some such rubbish in them that are supposed to improve the smell of flatulent dogs. But if these foods are being used or peddled as a replacement for proper treatment for genuine medical needs, then I agree that’s not on.

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