Dr. Karen Becker Pleads for Freedom from Criticism

One of the least reliable sources of veterinary information the internet, Dr. Karen Becker, is at it again. 

In a recent FB post, she implies that my criticism of her anti-science claims, her promotion of unscientific, unproven, and ineffective therapies, and her spreading myths about mainstream, science-based veterinary medicine, are “attacks” equivalent to the activity of “hate groups.” Along with this comment, she reposts the absurd video produced by Rodney Habib suggesting that my work promoting science-based pet health is contributing to the problem of suicide in the veterinary profession.

There is tremendous (unrecognized) irony in this comment. Proponents of alternative therapies base much of their argument on the idea that conventional, scientific medicine is unsafe or ineffective, and this is a standard approach for Dr. Becker (e.g. 1, 2, 3). Claiming that vaccines and drugs are harmful and that scientific medicine treats only symptoms and ignores the “root”real” causes of disease is commonplace. And while she doesn’t usually go as far as her sponsor Joseph Mercola, perhaps the most prominent and aggressive anti-science disinformation providers on the planet, her long association with him shows how comfortable she is with these sorts of attacks on mainstreams science and medicine, and those of us who provide it.

Her plea for “inclusion, acceptance, or tolerance” is simply a way of saying that when she makes claims like these, or tells pet owners to use useless therapies like homeopathy or unproven, potentially harmful treatment such as Chinese herbal remedies, the rest of the profession should let her do so freely, without criticism or challenge. Want she wants is the freedom to say and do what she believes in, whether it is actually true or really helps pets or not, and not be criticized for it. Her attacks on scientific medicine are, apparently, fair play, but pushing back against her claims with logic and evidence are being mean. This is a typical double standard employed by the CAVM community (e.g. 1, 2)

Refraining from warning pet owners about the unproven and potentially dangerous nature of Dr. Becker’s approach is not being “nice” or inclusive. This is simply ignoring misinformation even when it does harm. I believe people should be treated kindly, but ideas deserve no respect other than what they earn through their logical foundations and supporting evidence.

I will say of Dr. Becker, as I say of most of the proponents of pseudoscience and anti-science misinformation, that I have little doubt she is sincere and has the best interests of her patients at heart. I also believe she is very often wrong, and her approach is dangerous and misguided. As I too have the best interests of veterinary patients at heart, I have just as much responsibility to push back against her claims as she feels she has to challenge the practices of scientific medicine. Neither of us is obliged to ignore what we see as false or dangerous claims and practices, and the standards of civility, just like the standards of evidence, should be the same for both of our positions.

I can, of course, sympathize with how frustrating and demoralizing it can be to be attacked publicly. I have no doubt the personal attacks I receive, including Mr. Habib’s ridiculous video, are as numerous and at least as harsh as any Dr. Becker experiences. My chronicles of the hate mail I receive are evidence of this. I don’t see Dr. Becker expressing any sympathy or compassion for skeptics who are attacked in this way, even when it is done in her name or defense:

This article made my blood boil because Dr.Karen Becker has more balls than any of you tiny brainwashed humans coming out of vetschool… if your veterinarian is anything like this quak continue searching for another…I LEGIT HATE u whoever u are. 

I have made great efforts to focus my criticism on ideas rather than persons, and while I admit that I can understand why referring to Dr. Becker as a proponent of misinformation and anti-science nonsense might be upsetting to her, these are descriptions of her behavior supported by a great deal of evidence, not attacks on her person. That she expresses her objection to this by reposting a video that literally demonizes me through visual and audio effects and accuses me of contributing to the suicide of fellow veterinarians is pretty stark hypocrisy.

I’m sure Dr. Becker and I would agree on some things, including the tremendous challenges vets face, financially and psychologically, and the real harm of personal online attacks. However, these serious issues should not be used as an excuse to claim an exemption from criticism, or as a distraction from the equally real danger of misinformation and anti-science ideas to veterinary and human patients.

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous CAVM. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Dr. Karen Becker Pleads for Freedom from Criticism

  1. Thank you for what you do, and my sympathy for what you must endure. You may certainly.use my name and publish it. I am proud of my ideas & support for your ideas .

  2. Lori kelly says:

    If she doesn’t want the criticism then she should step back from the spotlight. Quit writing books, quit blogging false info, quit making misleading claims and charging for it. If she would stop trying to publicly spreading her misinformation there would be no need to point it out. As it is now she makes life and work for good vets difficult as they have to overcome the nonsense she spews on a daily basis with their own clients.

  3. art william malernee says:

    I will say of Dr. Becker, as I say of most of the proponents of pseudoscience and anti-science misinformation, that I have little doubt she is sincere and has the best interests of her patients at heart.>>>>>> wish there was a good way to measure that.

  4. David Jones says:

    Dear Skepvet,

    what do you think is the biggest weakness of scientific studies?

    IMO the biggest weakness of scientific studies, there isn’t enough scientific studies and there isn’t time.

    Dogs only live 10-15 years approximately and waiting 5, 10, 15, 20 years for some studies is not the best option…I want to do everything I can to help my dog now, I don’t want to wait wait years…

    Scientific studies are definitively good for people and pets long term…But unfortunately everything has it’s advantages and disadvantages.

  5. skeptvet says:

    The question is a good one, but also too broad. The phrase “scientific studies” glosses over huge and meaningful differences in dozens of study types. The limitations of, for example, an open-label prospective study are quite different from those of a retrospective case-control study. Part of the field of evidence-based medicine is about understanding in detail the strengths and limitations of different ways of generating evidence so we know what works best for what types of questions and how much confidence to put in specific study results. It’s complicated, and I literally did a master’s degree in epidemiology to help me really understand it all, so it’s not something easy to distill.

    The biggest problem with the evidence-base in general for vet med is simply the lack of evidence. A close second is the poor methodological quality of many of the studies done (which was the topic of my MSc in epidemiology thesis). This isn’t really a function of how long dogs live. After all, humans live much longer, and we have FAR better evidence for ourselves. It is more about the scant resources available for veterinary research. There’s very little money, and much of what there is gets used on topics that affect the food supply or human health in some way. As a result, we get few studies, small and often poorly done studies, and we rarely ever replicate or confirm the ones we do get.

    However, while the lack of good data means there is a lot we can’t know with confidence, it doesn’t mean anything can be true or we should just try whatever sounds good regardless of the evidence. There are still ways to make rational and at least somewhat evidence-based decisions. The evidence, for example, is robust going back over 100 years that homeopathy doesn’t do anything, so there are some things that we can say with confidence are a waste of time. There are other things that we don’t have direct evidence for but that we should rightly doubt until some is provided because for these things to work much of what we do know has to be wrong. Reiki and energy medicine, for example, contradicts well-established principle software physics and biology and chemistry that work in a lot of other areas. Could much of what know and base successful medical treatments on be wrong? Maybe, but it’s a long shot, so the rational choice is to assume not until robust evidence is provided (by those who want to use these methods and throw out what we know, not by the rest of us betting on the existing science).

    In areas where there isn’t much research at all, we can still make rational choices. There are, for example, no long-term studies showing whether raw diets have all the health benefits claimed for them compared to existing diets. But the arguments for why they should are pretty sketchy (“living food” vs “dead food,” “dogs are just funny looking wolves,” etc.), the evidence that raw diets have risks (particularly infectious disease) to humans and pets, and the evidence that conventional diets are nutritionally appropriate and work well for tens of thousands of dogs around the world all make the rational choice to stick with current practice and wait with an open mind for meaningful evidence to justify these claims.

    SO while you are correct that science has all sorts of limitations, there are still better and worse foundations for making decisions now. We shouldn’t throw up our hands and rely on anecdote, folk tradition, and a general fear of modernity and technology, as Dr. Becker often does, to guide our choices for our pets.

  6. David Jones says:

    Thank you for your response.

    Yes, there isn’t enough funding and incentives…proper studies are very costly. I agree with you that we can still make rational choices with the limited information that we have. And we definitively shouldnt do reiki, acupuncture, etc…

    I prefer to feed my dogs raw/fresh cooked whole foods the same way I prefer to give my children whole foods than giving them something highly processed yet artificially balanced (like meal replacement powders/drinks).

    I think kibble is amazing because it’s cheap, balanced and very convenient…but probably it isnt the healthiest.

    Raw food is most likely healthier, but can be dangerous if handled/stored improperly or if the raw diet isnt balanced well. Also raw food is less convenient and more expensive.

    It’s interesting that you talk about how supplements are bad…but don’t talk about how some dog shampoos contain toxic essential oils and other chemical additives…There are so many bad products for dogs on the market, it’s not just supplements. I would love to hear you cover other products than just supplements

  7. skeptvet says:

    A few responses-

    “I prefer to feed my dogs raw/fresh cooked whole foods the same way I prefer to give my children whole foods than giving them something highly processed yet artificially balanced (like meal replacement powders/drinks).”

    Understandable, but a false comparison. Convenience and snack foods for humans are designed entirely around appeal and price, with no concern for nutritional value. They are undoubtedly unhealthy as a significant part of the diet. It is not the “processing” that is the issue, but the goals and outcomes of that processing. Commercial pet foods are not the same simply because they are made at scale and come in a bag of can. They are formulated and designed with nutrition and health in mind, as well as shelf stability, cost, etc. It may well be that fresh-cooked foods have health advantages, and I suspect they do, but equating pet food with human junk food is misleading.

    Also, the idea that raw food is healthier than cooked food has never been demonstrated to be true for any species, so the logic of that is pretty suspect. Again, there is a big difference between a Big Mac and steamed broccoli with some sautéed beef, but the difference between that and raw beef and broccoli is meaningless nutritionally, so you are taking the extra risk for no benefit.

    “It’s interesting that you talk about how supplements are bad…but don’t talk about how some dog shampoos contain toxic essential oils and other chemical additives…There are so many bad products for dogs on the market, it’s not just supplements. I would love to hear you cover other products than just supplements”

    If you look at the rest of the. blog, I talk about a LOT more than supplements. As for “chemical additives,” that’s a meaningless buzzword. Raw broccoli is just as much made up of “chemicals” as a Big Mac or a shampoo. The implication is that there are specific ingredients in these products that have health risks, but to talk about these in a scientific way, we need to look at what these ingredient are and what evidence there is that they are harmful. the focus of my blog is largely challenging myths, misinformation, and misconceptions about pet health, and I’m happy to do so wherever I find them. I have certainly talked about antibiotics, stem cell therapies, medical diagnostic tests, surgical procedures, and many other conventional medical topics where misinformation and misconceptions exist. I don’t think I’ve addressed grooming products in particular, but that’s largely because 1) the area is so full of meaningless marketing nonsense that it would be hard to single out a particularly egregious example and 2) I don’t see much evidence things like shampoo have nearly the potential for harm that misconceptions about nutrition, vaccines, and medical treatments do. If there is a particular product or ingredient you are thinking about, let me know and I will take a look.

  8. enl says:

    Thank you for putting in the work to keep us abreast of best practices based on meaningful research, and critiquing those without reasonable basis.

    I changed vet practices a few years ago when the old practice brought in a new “medical director” (Not a doctor of veterinary medicine, PhD in anything, much less animal sciences, or in any way having the appropriate training for the title. He was a marketing rep with a bachelor degree in marketing and management) who met with every client, and pushed things like bi-weekly acupuncture and routine chiropractic. It took one visit after he came in for me and my pets to go out. I am considering changing again as my current practice has gone WAY up in price. SHould an annual visit for a feline be $US150? Rabies booster $175? I asked about the three year rabies booster today (my boy is 12 and has never missed a year, but is DEEPLY traumatized by going to the vet since he was about 8. I have suspicions…) and was told they don’t offer it because “it really is only good for one year”. Evidence? none. It is a corporate owned chain practice, which, unfortunately, seems to be the trend, just like in human health care.

  9. L says:

    I apologize if this is slightly off topic.
    Lots of crap out there. I am usually very careful about what I feed my dogs, but I have a senior that likes to chew on something, so I got her “Dream Bones”.
    No surprise, loose stools 24 hours later. Looked it up and tons of complaints due to sorbitol being one of the ingredients, no recall. In the trash it went, $15. Dog is fine after a bland diet for a day or two.

  10. Jazzlet says:

    David Jones

    You might want to consider the genetic differences between dogs and wolves , dogs have something like six times the number of the gene that produces amylase – the enyme used to break down complex carbohydrates like bread – than wolves. Dogs evolved with us and some of that evolution made it easier for them to get nutritional value from the leftovers of our cooked food.

    skeptvet – ” but the difference between that and raw beef and broccoli is meaningless nutritionally”

    Strictly speaking yes, but the availability of those nutrients for absorbtion during digestion tends to be far greater in the cooked food.

  11. Are Chinese herbal therapies useless and potentially harmful?

    Are they useless? Chinese herbal therapies have existed for over two thousand years, and for many people they are very effective. There are thousands of published, peer-reviewed, double-blinded, statistically relevant PubMed studies proving efficacy, at least for people. (There are probably studies for animals as well.) Many studies conducted in China have never been translated to English. Is it just a placebo effect? Perhaps, but probably not, considering the evidence. If a Chinese herbal therapy works well for a human’s medical condition, would it not potentially work for an animal?

    Chinese herbal therapies are potentially useless when the diagnosis is incorrect, the wrong formula is chosen, the wrong dosage is prescribed, or the herbs are not well-sourced. Some practitioners believe more is better, and so they prescribe formulas containing a dozen (or more) different herbs when actually the most powerful formula is a Dui Yao, a combination of just two herbs. Sometimes the herbs in more complex formulas contradict each other.

    Are herbs harmful? Yes, like any drug, herbs can be harmful, and there are published clinical research studies on some herbs affecting the liver, for example. Again there is the potential issue of where an herb is sourced, whether the plant was cultivated in a area with greater water and air pollution. Gan Cao (licorice root) is a good example of an herb which interacts with pharmaceutical drugs, either reducing the effect of the pharmaceutical or heightening the effect.

    Most herbs are kinder to the GI system, with fewer side-effects, because the entire (pertinent) part of the plant is used, so sometimes one part will have the desired chemical but another part will treat the side-effects of the chemical.

    This is an interesting discussion, and I thank you for it.

  12. skeptvet says:

    This comment is simply a statement of your beliefs presented as facts. The real facts, however, are far more complex and less encouraging.

    To begin with, the foundations of TCM are mystical nonsense (chi, five elements, yin/yang, etc.). You cannot claim a discipline to be scientifically legitimate when it is organized around magical principles. Anyone prating TCM in this way is, effective, practicing a form of folk magic, and while you can do studies about the Tooth Fairy or other magical entities, but that doesn’t make them real.

    Secondly, there are absolutely not thousands of studies “proving” TCM works. The literature for acupuncture is the largest, and while there are indeed thousands of studies, and it has proven impossible to consistently demonstrate an effect beyond placebo despite great effort over decades. Herbal remedies do a bit better, but there is a lack of consistent evidence showing safety and efficacy for the vast majority, and many contain positively harmful components or secret ingredients with little quality control, so even when there is evidence a particular herb might be beneficial in some conditions, it is unclear that most patients are actually receiving anything like what was tested in the studies. And the evidence for the dangers of these products is significant, so the scientific evidence by no means shows that balance of risks and benefits is favorable.

    Finally, the entourage effect you refer to is a common belief among herbalists, but there is no compelling scientific evidence this is true or that ” one part will have the desired chemical but another part will treat the side-effects of the chemical.” That is another holdover of spiritual beliefs about “balance” in the universe, not a proven scientific theory.

    As for veterinary patients there is no body of clinical trial evidence showing specific TCVM therapies are safe and effective for particular medical conditions, and just assuming they must be if they are in humans (which itself is not well-demonstrated) is a dangerous practice, as any human healthcare provider who has given their dog or cat acetaminophen knows all too well. Anecdote and extrapolation are insufficient, and those who want TCVM to be accepted by science-based veterinary medicine need to conduct the basic and clinical research to prove their claims, which has not yet happened.

  13. I find it ironic when people who criticize others don’t want to be criticized. But I get it. It sucks.

    Respectful criticism is important. I wish more Facebook famous veterinarians and influencers encouraged pet owners to ask questions and explored all sides of an issue, not just the sides that support raw feeding and holistic medicine.

    I’m a raw feeder and I believe in homeopathy, TCM, and other holistic modalities.

    I also believe in spay/neuter, conservative vaccinations, and traditional medicine.

    To me, it’s not one or the other. I’ve seen great success in my dogs by combining holistic and traditional medicine – but this can’t be done based on information garnered from social media posts.

    The number of emails I get (I’m a blogger who has taken a few nutrition courses) from people who will allow their dogs to suffer because they don’t want to give their dogs prescription medication is heartbreaking.

    Celebrity veterinarians are constantly telling people of the horrors of spay/neuter, vaccines, and prescription medication. But they ignore or block people when questioned about the reality of pet over population, uncontrollable pain/allergies, or areas that have fleas not frightened off with essential oils.

    How does this help dogs?

    There’s a difference between trolling and cruel character attacks and people disagreeing with someone’s stance.

  14. Jill says:

    I appreciate your tact, but I am in the camp that Dr. Becker cares much, much more for her own ego and wallet than she does about the health of animals. If she cared about animal health she wouldn’t do what she does.

  15. Lisa A says:

    I’ve landed on your website after some neighbors were promoting the Dr. Becker book to me. Just reading the cover, I was immediately skeptical of the claim that dogs are living shorter lives today–a topic that you have thoroughly covered. THANK YOU for promoting rational discussion based on the best science available. I am becoming more and more appalled how little people understand the scientific method, how little they want to understand what does and not make up a credible source or study, and how so much pseudoscience (usually affiliated–somewhere–with marketing) is migrating from the human health sphere into the realm of animal health.

  16. TD says:

    When I realized Dr Becker was an extension of the Mercola nutriceutical empire I lost all respect and she lost all credibility. I wonder if she is aware of the taint, because now she/they have rebranded Mercola’s Healthy Pets as Bark and Whiskers. From the Mercola Market re their immune supplement: “Formerly Dr. Mercola Healthy Pets, our reinvented line, Bark & Whiskers™, brings the same veterinarian-formulated products you know and love with a touch of playfulness – because who says wholesome health can’t be fun? Immune dysfunction is the single most common reason owners take their pets to the veterinarian.” Reinvented is the operative word here, and a Freudian slip in my opinion. I believe that Dr. Becker knows exactly what she is doing. Good intentions in the face of quackery and greed are without merit.

  17. Donna says:

    I’d love to know what you feed your pets?

  18. skeptvet says:

    I don’t have particular brand loyalty, and over the decades I have fed many different foods. Generally, I use a commercial kibble appropriate for age and size as the mainstay.

  19. Yeewen says:

    If they were balanced though do you think at least some if not fully fresh cooked food would be better. Seems like if there were/somewhat like the existing science packs for astronauts etc technically has the nutrients one needs with perservatives etc rather than meat and veges directly available. Some dogs won’t eat kibble and it seems espeicially better than them not eating all day espeicially dogs that will vomit/prone to certain gastrointestinal issues.

  20. skeptvet says:

    Personally, I suspect cooked, whole-food diets will have health benefits compared with current conventional diets, if they are properly formulated. I also hold that belief at a very low level of confidence when the only evidence to support it is extrapolation from observational studies in humans and a handful of short-term lab studies in dogs. If proponents of such diets can generate better evidence that my guess (and theirs) is right, I’ll be a vocal advocate, but most have chosen to recommend or sell such diets without producing that evidence, and that is a disservice to pet owners.

  21. art malernee dvm says:

    single source maintenace diets are a risk factor for disease but produce a consistent poop. When i lived at the vet fraternity house we cooked for each other but not Tye. His mom at the beginning of each quarter made him precooked meals that Tye put in the freezer. It had hamburger, onions, rice (probably white not brown) green peppers ect. Tye ate no breakfast but for lunch and dinner ate these precooked frozen meals every day along with a bottle of blue ribbon beer that cost us at the time at the fraternity 25cents. My point is just like aafco dog food i suspect moms food and a bottle of beer was a pretty good balanced diet but his mom should have changed the formula of the diet and Tye should have considered something else to drink once in a while. I bet most dogs and most humans would like variety in their diet. Many dog foods do change formula from bag to bag. I think that is a good thing. Tye was to lazy to cook. We feed dog food because it is cheap and convenient not because its better then using fresh ingredients grown locally that vary in a balanced diet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *