skeptical-dog

Advice column for pet owners can’t leave out the woo.

Being an Ann Arbor resident I regularly visit the Ann Arbor.com news website to keep up with what’s happening locally. Generally it’s a pretty decent news source, but I’ve found myself stunned on two different occasions by the advice column for pets because it contained references to “alt-med” woo-woo nonsense that’s usually associated with humans. It’s kind of the same feeling I get when on those rare occasions I visit The Huffington Post blogs and come across an article by woo-meister Deepack Chopra.

Today’s surprise came in this article about a dog suffering from a snake bite from a Massasauga rattler, the only venomous snake native to Michigan. They’re pretty rare — I’ve lived here my entire life and spent plenty of time in the woods as a kid and have never encountered one  – and as a result a lot of vets are not prepared to deal with pet that has been bitten by one.

Overall, the column is well written and contains much useful advice. The author, John Spieser, is a professional dog trainer and much of what he recommends didn’t raise an eyebrow until I got to this particular suggestion:

If you are a believer in homeopathics (which I happen to be, based on personal experience), having a few appropriate remedies on hand as a first course of action is a good idea.

It really is amazing how one stupid comment can put doubts in your head about all the rest of the advice being proffered. Homeopathy? Really?? Hey, why not give him a Milkbone while you’re at it. I’m sure it’d have just as much curative effect. Plus it’ll help to clean his teeth!

What’s really interesting is the fact that, despite the amazing curative powers of homeopathic water, in the case being discussed it’s never said that that approach was tried. Instead there’s a desperate search for anti-venom which none of the vets called had stocked because this is such a rare occurrence and few people are even aware that Michigan has a native rattlesnake. By the time some anti-venom was procured from the Toledo Zoo (at great expense) it was too late to administer it. Ultimately the dog was given a blood transfusion which seemed to do the trick.

Given all of that, you can understand why I’m puzzled the author would even bother suggesting a homeopathic treatment as something folks should keep on hand. The rest of his suggestions are good ones, but earlier in the article he mentions the fact that “vital time was lost due to unfamiliarity” on the part of the vets the dog was brought to. How much time would be lost if someone administered a homeopathic “remedy” expecting it to actually have some effect?

As I said, this is the second time I’ve been surprised by woo in a pet advice column at Ann Arbor.com. The first time was back at the start of April when author Lorrie Shaw wrote an article promoting the benefits of Penetrating Laser Therapy for your pets:

Anyone who has a pet has likely had the experience of monitoring their four-legged friends’ minor injuries or painful strains, and for the most part, the body will deal with it on its own, given a little time and/or rest.

When there is a chronic problem, like stubborn wounds or bone injuries that need extra attention, or perhaps when a pet is rehabilitating from injury and the healing process needs a little boost, holistic therapies or treatments can prove to be very useful — especially Class IV Penetrating Laser Therapy.

Now the first red flag this article raised for me was the use of the word “holistic” as that’s a popular word among the woo-woo faithful, but I admit that I hadn’t read up much on Penetrating Laser Therapy so I trudged on through the very brief article. It turns out that it’s not so much an article as it is a lead-in to free advertising for Dr.Taryn Clark and Dr. Jessica Franklin at the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital. That’s where the second red flag popped up as they are described as “veterinary acupuncturists” by the article.

Oh boy.

Like I said, I had not looked into whether or not  Class IV Penetrating Laser Therapy is legitimate or not. So I did a Google search that reveals that it’s very popular with Chiropractors and Veterinary Clinics. One such example can be found here where they promote it as a near-miracle cure for chronic pain:

The K Laser is an FDA approved Class IV laser. Early Class III therapeutic lasers are effective, but literally thousands of times less powerful than the new technology available today. Class III lasers are capable of penetration of only a few millimeters, while Class IV lasers can penetrate over 4 inches into the deep musculoskeletal tissue. The perfect blend of chiropractic and laser therapy produces phenomenal results in extremely short periods of time.

[...] The laser works by creating vasodilatation, bringing oxygen to the cells. It stimulates the lymphatic system, pulling edema and inflammation from the area. ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) production is stimulated in the cells helping them have the energy to function normally. The pain reflex is broken, offering immediate relief. In other words, “it brings in the good stuff and gets rid of the bad stuff”.

Sounds amazing, right? I looked up the K Laser on the FDA website(PDF), no small feat given the amount of stuff they publish, and this is how it’s described there:

Klaser provides infrared therapy for the following allowed claims:

Infrared therapy to provide topical heating for:

- Temporary increase in local blood circulation

- Temporary relief of minor muscles and joint aches, pains and stiffness

- Relaxation of muscles

- Muscles spasms

- Minor pain and stiffness associated with arthritis

The Intended Use/Indications For Use stated herein are identical to the cleared indications for the predicateddevice.

The device is indicated for emitting energy in the Infrared Spectrum to provide topical heating for the purpose of elevating tissue temperature for temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain, muscle spasm, pain and stiffness associated with arthritis and promoting relaxation of the muscle tissue and to temporarily increase local blood circulation. – March 25, 2005

So it does have some effect, but it doesn’t sound quite as exciting based on the FDA description. Still, it at least has some benefit, right? So what do the folks at the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital claim is the benefit for pets? Here’s a quote from their “Ask the Expert” column at the Ann Arbor.com website:

Laser therapy provides a sterile, pain-free, surgery-free, drug-free treatment that is used to treat a variety of injuries, wounds, fractures, neurological conditions, numerous dermatological problems, and pain (post-surgical, neck & back).

Whether your pet is rehabilitating from trauma or injury, healing from wounds, or simply aging, your companion might benefit from this holistic approach to treating pain.

Wow, according to the experts, this laser therapy stuff does more than stimulate temporary increases in blood circulation and pain relief, but did you note the escape clause I highlighted in bold? “Might benefit” is a favorite of woo-wooers trying to ensure they don’t get sued.

But how does it work you ask? Here’s their explanation:

Like veterinary acupuncture, laser therapy stimulates the body to heal from within. Non-thermal photons of light are administered to the body and absorbed by the injured cells. The cells are then stimulated and respond with a higher rate of metabolism. This results in increased circulation from the body, an anti-inflammatory reaction, relief from pain and an acceleration of the healing process.

Non-thermal photons of light! That DOES sound impressive, but what the fuck does that mean? And how can it be non-thermal when the FDA specifically says that a Class IV Penetrating Laser delivers Infrared topical-heat therapy?

Well, trying to explain what a non-thermal photon is gets into some heavy physics concepts which even the experts say they don’t fully understand, but from what I can gather it’s not the sort of thing that’s easily producible as it tends to come from stuff in space like supernovas, pulsars, radio galaxies, Seyfert galaxies, BL Lacertae objects, and GRBs. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, we don’t have anything on a commercial scale that could produce non-thermal photons that you’d use in medical therapy.

You’ll note that they don’t explain how a non-thermal photon stimulates the cells to a higher rate of metabolism, they just say that it does and expect you to trip over the buzz words enough that you accept the claim. For true humor, however, you have to consider their list of symptoms that you may want to consider Laser Therapy to treat:

Most of our laser therapy patients are older dogs with musculoskeletal ailments. Some signs that your dog is experiencing pain that laser treatment may be able to assuage:

Abnormal sitting or lying posture

Whining, groaning or other vocalizing

Limping, unable to get up or lie down

Difficulty getting into car or down stairs

Lack of grooming

Won’t wag tail

Licking or biting area

Lack of appetite

Trembling

Could you possibly be any more vague while still covering as wide a range of possibilities?

Again, it’s not that the therapy doesn’t do anything because it does. So does a warm compress or a heating pad applied to the affected area and for the same reasons. Heat is a traditional treatment for sore muscles and joints as it promotes blood flow and relaxes muscles. The folks at AAAH say that your dog may go to sleep during treatment and your cat will purr. Well of course they will, it’s a warm massage.

The next question is, how much does it cost? According to the representative I spoke to on the phone (prices aren’t listed on the website) the initial treatment is $50 on top of $55 office visit fee and then $40 for each additional treatment. Or you can sign your pet up for a series of six treatments for $210. The number of treatments varies depending on the specific problem your pet is suffering from, but seeing as many of the problems this treatment is dealing with are age-related it’s likely that you’ll need to go back more than a few times. Depending on your income level that may or may not be an unreasonable amount of money to spend, but when you can get similar results from a heating pad or a heated pet bed, well, you have to wonder if it’s worth the money. Still, at least it actually does something as opposed to acupuncture or giving your dog homeopathic water.

Finding this nonsense in the local news website, however, really bugs the shit out of me. Especially when it’s presented in such a non-critical fashion. We already spend billions on our pets every year because we consider them to be part of the family. Is it too much to ask that we not be fleeced by questionable treatments from supposed professionals? It makes me loathe to read the Ann Arbor.com website the same way that all the woo-woo crap on The Huffington Post makes me loathe to read that website. Which is a shame because both sites have plenty of good stuff to offer which is just undermined by the bullshit.

Still, there’s always a silver lining and this one comes in the comments to both of those articles. First, from Rick Kuick in the article about the snake bite:

“If you are a believer in homeopathics (which I happen to be, based on personal experience)…”
I believe – I believe they contain water and little else.

And then in the earlier article on penetrating lasers there were two comments that brought a swell of pride to my chest. The first from Amlive reads:

With all due respect, I smell nonsense and snake oil here, not unlike many other questionable science permeating the field of “holistic medicine”.

For an alternative view -

http://skeptvet.com/Blog/2010/05/cold-laser-therapy/

When studies confirming benefits and science of these therapies show up in NEJM, I might start listening. Until then, I have to put this up there with homeopathy (which means I’m sure there’s a market for it here in Ann Arbor).

And the latter from Trespass:

Is this news reporting? Even soft news should be generally accepted medical/scientific fact not holistic nonsense. It damages the credibility of a news organization.

Yes, it does this skeptic’s heart much good to see there our others out there questioning this nonsense being in a supposedly legitimate news source.

6 comments

  1. I skim Cat Fancy magazine in the local library to get my monthly fix of artistically shot cat pictures. They seem to have regular doses of vet woo articles, and woo products for pets are advertised. Of course this is also the magazine that seems to describe every cat breed in their monthly profiles as being wonderful companions, so maybe the editorial staff aren’t very descerning.

  2. My vet does use acupuncture, but it is reserved for animals with degenerative conditions such as severe arthritis. It is no miracle cure, but it can make arthritic joints less painful. I’ve talked to several people who bring their dogs in for acupuncture and they feel its helped. One dog I observed being carried in was able to walk in the next time I saw him about 6 months later. My vet is also trained in Chinese herbs, but again, they are reserved only for special cases. When I was doing active rescue I had about 100 dogs pass through here and one herbal remedy was recommended for only one dog.

    I think that some things work, but there is so much fraud that its hard to separate the real from the woo.

    The cold laser nonsense with its wide and wild list of things it “may” help is pure bunk. People desperate to help their pets will sometimes spend themselves into the poorhouse. You have to be able to trust your vet and I wouldn’t trust anyone trying to sell me expensive treatments that might help. I feel so sorry for the people being fleeced because they love their pet. :(

  3. I’m surprised the vet woo isn’t chin-deep. It’s been my observation that a fair percentage of pet owners will take out a third mortgage to save Fluffy from the sniffles. Fruit ripe for the con artist plucking.

  4. I believe that a few equipment has work, but there is so much deception that it’s hard to disconnect the actual starting of the woo.

  5. I know laser therapy sounds like bunk and I am super skeptical about everything. But, I have to tell you, we are seeing amazing things with our therapy laser. Dig deeper, the science is there. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have the machine in my office! Regrowth of nerve cells, increased cellular metabolism, pain relief, etc. I use it on my own knee and shoulder with amazing results. It is not a cure-all, but we are seeing moderate to dramatic improvement in most of the cases we are using it for. My job is to relieve suffering and improve the lives of pets and their people. The laser helps me do just that. http://www.animalmedcenter.com/faqs/category/class-iv-laser-therapy

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