I am occasionally interviewed by journalists writing articles about alternative medicine for pets. Many of these articles deal focus on acupuncture, and they tend to follow a pretty consistent pattern:
1. Story about a dog or cat with some pain or disability, often that has not responded to conventional treatment.
2. Owner takes pet to veterinarian who recommends acupuncture (or other alternative treatment).
3. Brief summary of claims for benefits for acupuncture ad reference to long history of use in people and pets. Sometimes there is a reference at this point to research studies supporting the use of acupuncture (almost never to studies that do not support it).
4. Brief quote from grumpy, killjoy token skeptic (that would be me) to create the impression of “balanced” reporting.
5. Return to story of pet from beginning of article, now all better and frolicking happily.
It is well known that the media caters to our inherent preference for stories over statistics, and that when journalists cover scientific subjects, especially those that are controversial, nuance and thoughtful analysis of evidence are often sacrificed for a compelling narrative. And the well-meaning notion that a journalist should present voices from “all sides” of a controversy all too often results in stories that suggest a legitimate debate about scientific facts when, in reality, there is strong evidence and consensus on one “side” and the unshakeable faith of a small minority on the other.
I was pleased, therefore, to see a recent piece about veterinary acupuncture in Slate which took the scientific evidence, and the perspective of skeptics, more seriously than the feel-good anecdotes of believers.
By Brian Palmer
The title may be a bit extreme, since unfortunately a lot of otherwise excellent veterinarians have been fooled by the claims and shaky evidence for acupuncture, but the overall message of the article is right on target. Mr. Palmer appreciates that while the scientific evidence is mixed, an appropriate evaluation requires considering the quality and limitations of studies and the preponderance of the evidence.
If you’re an acupuncture enthusiast, you’re probably getting ready to point me toward studies proving the efficacy of veterinary acupuncture. Before you do that, let’s make a deal: I will concede that there are studies supporting veterinary acupuncture if you concede that there are studies opposing it. The issue is assessing the quality of the studies and determining where the weight of the evidence lies.
His conclusion, with which I agree entirely, is that the most reasonable interpretation of the balance of the evidence is that acupuncture is a placebo for humans and likely has little to no predictable beneficial effects in animals. Most veterinary acupuncture studies are deeply flawed, and better research could be justified, but the best evidence in humans does not suggest this is a promising area for veterinary medicine.
Mr. Palmer’s piece also points out that the potential financial conflicts of interest which alternative medicine proponents so blithely use to dismiss research on pharmaceuticals or other conventional therapies are just as much of an issue in research on alternative veterinary therapies, including acupuncture. One of the most prominent researchers in veterinary acupuncture and so-called Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) also makes his living teaching TCVM and selling herbs and related products. While this does not automatically invalidate the research Dr. Xie is involved in, it points to a clear a priori bias which necessitates rigorous scientific controls, including replication by others, in order to generate reliable evidence. These controls are seldom present in veterinary acupuncture research.
It is encouraging to see the mainstream media identify the unimpressive scientific reality behind the widespread positive, and anecdote-driven claims for veterinary acupuncture. Here are some links to previous posts on veterinary acupuncture and TCVM which offer more details about these claims and the science, or lack of science, associated with them.