Do we see it in pets, too? Here’s how scientists can tell
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Perkins tractors -- two pointed rods about 3 inches long -- were made of expensive metal alloys. Thousands were purchased in 18th-century London to treat body aches -- simply wave the two rods over the aching part of your body for 20 minutes, and the pain was gone. For many, at least. British doctor John Haygarth had patients who reported their pain gone, but no physiological reason explained why. Haygarth wanted answers.
He tested several patients at a British hospital with fake Perkins tractors made of cheap wood. They worked just as well as the expensive alloy ones at relieving pain, thus demonstrating the placebo effect for the first time.
Placebos today can be oral (proverbial sugar pill), topical (creams with no active ingredients) or intra-articular (saline injected into a joint). Researchers from Tufts Medical Center found that patients with osteoarthritis reacted differently depending on the type of placebo administered. Intra-articular placebos were more effective at relieving pain than topical placebos, and topical placebos were more effective than oral placebos. Further, the difference in effect between an intra-articular placebo and an oral placebo was often larger than the difference between active pain-relief drugs (acetaminophen, naproxen, ibuprofen) and oral placebos.
The type of placebo isn’t all that’s related to effectiveness. Studies show that when doctors appear competent (don’t mishandle the blood pressure cuff or drop a reflex tool) and warm (call patients by name and make eye contact), patients feel better, resulting in a greater placebo effect.
Can pets experience the placebo effect? If so, is it connected to the veterinarian, caregiver or both?
It would seem that in animals, a placebo response would require knowledge that treatment was an intentional effort to heal or relieve pain. We know from FearFreePets.com that most animals feel like they’re being harmed or hurt when treated. Yet there are explanations for why animals might experience a placebolike effect.
Take conditioning. There’s no better example than Pavlov’s dogs, who would salivate at the sound of a bell. Conditioning can show body changes resulting from exposure to a stimulus that previously produced that change. If animals were able to form an association between treatment-related signals -- attention from the pet parent, gentle handling, the way the pet parent behaves toward the animal when receiving treatment -- and relief of pain or distress, expectancies of treatment effects might develop for either the pet, pet parent or both.
It's well-known that therapies can induce placebo effects in pet parents. Client expectations can be powerful motivators. Having seen the pet receive therapy (laser treatment, for example) or medication, pet parents expect to see positive results.
Veterinarian David Ramey says, “When doctors claim effectiveness for a treatment beyond the evidence in the belief that they’re doing the patient a favor by inducing a ‘placebo effect’ to the animal’s supposed benefit, they are abusing three trusted roles: expert, authority figure and comforter.”
I want to draw attention to three of Ramsey’s words: beyond the evidence. I can think of no greater example of “beyond the evidence” than the current wildly exaggerated claims of the effectiveness of CBD to treat almost every pet malady from joint pain to epilepsy. As a pet parent, veterinarian and skeptical scientist, I see these products promoted online, in stores, at farmer’s markets and even sold in multilevel marketing programs. The truth? Probably 99% of these products have no effect on healing, pain relief or reducing fear, anxiety and stress.
Why? Because of the specific ingredients used, concentration and dosage. One company makes CBD products that have undergone rigorous clinical trials at a prestigious college of veterinary medicine. These specific strains (grown in one location in Colorado) have shown clinically proven efficacy for treating epilepsy, skin issues, joint pain, and reduction of fear, anxiety and stress.
If you want to try CBD, ask your veterinarian to recommend a product with real science behind it.
Q: I’m seeing more and more suggestions that dogs should learn to wear muzzles. My dog is friendly, so what’s the benefit?
A: We are among those who believe that every dog should be familiar with wearing a muzzle -- even if they are the sweetest, best-behaved dogs in the world. There are a lot of good reasons why a dog might need to wear a muzzle. Let’s go over them.
No. 1 is that a muzzle keeps everyone safe. Let’s say that your dog has been hit by a car and you need to get her to the ER right away. Dogs in pain are likely to snap or bite. Putting a muzzle on them before you try to move them protects you during that process and protects veterinary staff at the hospital.
Another reason is in case of a natural disaster that requires you to leave your home and seek public shelter. Your dog might be friendly, but if you have to stay in a crowded shelter with other people and dogs, the shelter may require that all dogs be muzzled to prevent any injuries from dog fights.
Reason three: Some dogs can’t resist eating things they find on the ground, from toxic toadstools to dead animals. Wearing a muzzle helps to prevent tummy upset, poisoning and blockages.
It’s easier to manage these situations if your dog is already familiar with wearing a muzzle. And it’s not difficult to teach dogs to wear them. Encourage them to stick their head in the muzzle by smearing it with something tasty like peanut butter or squeeze cheese. Once they are comfortable putting their head inside it and being rewarded for doing so, you can practice buckling it and then letting your dog wear it.
Learn more about muzzle training here: fearfreehappyhomes.com/dog-meets-muzzle-how-to-make-the-introduction. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
for pet comfort
-- Does your dog or cat love being petted? Massage might be a logical next step. Giving a massage offers the opportunity to do a thorough body check, searching for areas where the pet appears to be sore or making note of lumps, bumps or wounds that should be addressed with the veterinarian. Keep a light hand on the animal as you move from one area of the body to another. This can be reassuring and more relaxing than if you frequently move your hands on and off the body. Adjust pressure and speed according to how the animal responds. In most cases, pets are more tolerant of being touched and massaged in such areas as the back, sides, chest and neck. Areas that are more likely to be sensitive include tail, legs, paws and face (and the belly in cats). Finally, move your hands with, rather than against, the direction of the fur.
-- You might think of trimming your bird’s wings as a safety measure, but it’s not necessarily in a bird’s best interests. Flight is a natural behavior, and wing trims inhibit that, causing muscle atrophy, decreased bone density from lack of exercise and broken blood feathers from crash landings. Inability to fly also affects a bird’s posture, potentially resulting in pain and orthopedic problems. We think it’s better to take precautions that allow birds to navigate their environment safely than to restrict an instinctive behavior that’s essential for well-being.
-- Upcoming June animal celebrations include National Adopt a Cat Month, National Pet Preparedness Month, Pet Appreciation Week (June 4-10), International Corgi Day (June 4), World Pet Memorial Day (June 13), Take Your Cat to Work Day (June 19 -- may be best celebrated by working at home) and Take Your Dog to Work Day (June 23). -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.