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Should Pet Owners Adopt Homeopathy?

09 August 2016

Homeopathic treatments are currently approved by the Royal College of Veterinarians (RCVS), but a new petition by vet Danny Chambers aims to ban their use, due to fears that such remedies don’t really work, and instead may lead to undue suffering to the animals treated with them.

At the time of writing, his petition had gained more than 3,000 signatures, over 1,100 of which are from practising vets. But which side of the debate should you believe?

What is Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a complementary or “alternative” medicine, based around the central principle that “like cures like”. Practitioners of homeopathy believe that a substance that causes certain symptoms can also help to remove those symptoms, if it is diluted to extremely low levels before it is administered.

Does Homeopathy Work?

The big point of contention in the debate over homeopathic medicine is whether or not it actually works, and it is on this point that the two sides disagree.

Mr Chambers, the instigator of the petition, said: “Homeopathy should not be confused with herbal medicine. Many herbal medicines have some merit, and it is not the same as a ‘holistic’ approach to medicine. Homeopathy is not effective.

“It is based on the premise that 'like cures like' for which there is no scientific evidence. Ingredients are then diluted to the point where not one molecule of the original substance remains.

“The theory is that extreme dilution increases the effect of the remedy. Homeopaths believe that water has a memory of what was once dissolved in it, and that this somehow has healing properties.”

Mr Chambers has spent three years writing letters and debating the issue of homeopathy in the Veterinary Times. He says he has become increasingly frustrated, after seeing that some animals may legally be given an ineffective alternative therapy, instead of an appropriate medicine that could help them.

Are There Any Benefits?

Despite Mr Chambers’s insistence that homeopathic treatments are not just useless, but actually harmful to people’s pets, there are a number of vets who disagree with him.

In a statement about the petition, the British Association of Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeons (BAHVS), said: “The whole premise of this campaign is based on the blatant misrepresentation that homeopathic medicines are ‘only water’. This is plainly not true. A global initiative of over 100 researchers from a mutiplicity of disciplines – the Group Recherche sur l’Iinfinitessimal (GIRI) - has been studying solutions described as ‘ultra-dilutionse’ for 30 years. They have observed unequivocal evidence of their bioactivity.

“The foundation of the campaign is therefore untenable from a scientific point of view. It is nonsense to suggest that homeopathy has been proven to be ineffective. There is a wealth of scientific papers demonstrating the beneficial effect of homeopathy, in humans and in animals.

“Among them are a clinical audit published in the Veterinary Record, and the most recent meta-analysis in homeopathy, published in 2014 in the peer-reviewed journal Systematic Review, which concluded there was a significant treatment effect beyond placebo.”

However, it is important to note that the GIRI is a group specifically set up to prove that homeopathy works, and is therefore not a scientific research group in the strictest sense of the term.

Additionally, a 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy, found that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos, and that the principles on which homeopathy are based are “scientifically implausible”.

While it is true that the negative conclusions from the House of Commons evidence check in 2010 have been somewhat discredited – because only three members of the committee voted in favour of the report – neither is it true that homeopathy has been conclusively proven to work.

Currently, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does not approve homeopathic treatments for use on the NHS, and any placebo affect that may be observed in humans due to the belief that they will get better, can evidently not be the case in animals, who do not have a concept of medicine.

Despite conflicting claims from both sides, it is still the case that the RCVS currently allows the use of homeopathic treatment for animals.

In a statement about the petition, the RCVS said: “As the regulator of the veterinary profession, we emphasise the importance of evidence-based veterinary medicine. We recommend that there should therefore be a cautious approach to homeopathy for animals and that normal evidential standards be applied to complementary treatments.

“We believe it is also essential that such treatments, until they can be proved, are complementary rather than ‘alternative,’ and that they are therefore used alongside conventional treatment.”

The crux of Mr Chambers’s argument, however, is that this may not always be the case when vets prescribe homeopathy. He argues that he has seen instances in which dogs and horses suffering from Cushing’s disease were ineffectually treated with homeopathy alone, leading to undue suffering that could have been prevented if a conventional medicinal treatment had been administered.

He said: “If you give homeopathy instead of conventional medicine then you are withholding treatment. This means it is an animal welfare issue and is a disservice to the owners.

“Animals and children have no choice in treatment so we should offer them medicine that definitely works. If adult humans want to ignore medical advice and choose something that has been proven not to work, that is their decision, but they shouldn’t inflict that on children or animals.

“Sometimes owners try homeopathy if their animal is terminally ill because they do not want to euthanise. This is understandable, but in reality it gives owners false hope, wastes their money, and prolongs suffering unnecessarily.”

What Does This Mean for Your Pets?

RCVS said it appreciates there are strong views about these issues on both sides of the argument, but that they are grateful for the opportunity this petition affords them to hear the latest views of both animal owners and the veterinary profession.

They also say that homeopathy “does not, in itself, cause harm to animals”, but when it is used as an alternative to conventional medicine, this may be a different matter.

For now, homeopathy is still licensed for use, but the advice for pet owners from the RCVS is that homeopathy should only be used alongside conventional medicine, and not simply as a replacement for more evidence-based treatments.

 

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