Animals cannot consent to the treatments they are given when ill. This renders the promotion and use of SCAM in animals a tricky issue. This systematic review assessed the evidence for the clinical efficacy of 24 so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) used in cats, dogs, and horses.

A bibliographic search, restricted to studies in cats, dogs, and horses, was performed on Web of Science Core Collection, CABI, and PubMed. Relevant articles were assessed for scientific quality, and information was extracted on study characteristics, species, type of treatment, indication, and treatment effects.

Of 982 unique publications screened, 42 were eligible for inclusion, representing 9 different SCAM therapies, which were

  • aromatherapy,
  • gold therapy,
  • homeopathy,
  • leeches (hirudotherapy),
  • mesotherapy,
  • mud,
  • neural therapy,
  • sound (music) therapy,
  • vibration therapy.

For 15 predefined therapies, no study was identified. The risk of bias was assessed as high in 17 studies, moderate to high in 10, moderate in 10, low to moderate in four, and low in one study. In those studies where the risk of bias was low to moderate, there was considerable heterogeneity in reported treatment effects.

The authors concluded that the present systematic review has revealed significant gaps in scientific knowledge regarding the effects of a number of “miscellaneous” SCAM methods used in cats, dogs, and horses. For the majority of the therapies, no relevant scientific articles were retrieved. For nine therapies, some research documentation was available. However, due to small sample sizes, a lack of control groups, and other methodological limitations, few articles with a low risk of bias were identified. Where beneficial results were reported, they were not replicated in other independent studies. Many of the articles were in the lower levels of the evidence pyramid, emphasising the need for more high-quality research using precise methodologies to evaluate the potential therapeutic effects of these therapies. Of the publications that met the inclusion criteria, the majority did not have any scientific documentation of sufficient quality to draw any conclusion regarding their effect. Several of our observations may be translated into lessons on how to improve the scientific support for SCAM therapies. Crucial efforts include (a) a focus on the evaluation of therapies with an explanatory model for a mechanism of action accepted by the scientific community at large, (b) the use of appropriate control animals and treatments, preferably in randomized controlled trials, (c) high-quality observational studies with emphasis on control for confounding factors, (d) sufficient statistical power; to achieve this, large-scale multicenter trials may be needed, (e) blinded evaluations, and (f) replication studies of therapies that have shown promising results in single studies.

What the authors revealed in relation to homeopathy was particularly interesting, in my view. The included studies, with moderate risk of bias, such as homeopathic hypotensive treatment in dogs with early, stage two heart failure and the study on cats with hyperthyroidism, showed no differences between treated and non-treated animals. An RCT with osteoarthritic dogs showed a difference in three of the six variables (veterinary-assessed mobility, two force plate variables, an owner-assessed chronic pain index, and pain and movement visually analogous scales).

The results on homeopathy are supported by another systematic review of 18 RCTs, representing four species (including two dog studies) and 11 indications. The authors excluded generalized conclusions about the effect of certain homeopathic remedies or the effect of individualized homeopathy on a given medical condition in animals. In addition, a meta-analysis of nine homeopathy trials with a high risk of bias, and two studies with a lower risk of bias, concluded that there is very limited evidence that clinical intervention in animals using homeopathic remedies can be distinguished from similar placebo interventions.

In essence, this review confirms what I have been pointing out numerous times: SCAM for animals is not evidence-based, and this includes in particular homeopathy. It follows that its use in animals as an alternative to treatments with proven effectiveness borders on animal abuse.


13 Responses to So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for animals is not evidence-based and borders on animal abuse

  • Ahhh … “Borders On Animal Abuse” – not a very scientific claim Edzard, it’s like saying someone is ‘almost’ pregnant. Your statement has no scientific, legal or medical definition.
    How about exposing some of the medical negligence practised globally by qualified doctors and nurses – just to give your readers some balanced reporting? Looking forward to it!

    • or how about explaining it to you:
      most of your comments border on stupidity.

      • It puts a vet in a difficult position when a client requests a “referral” to a homeopathic vet- as I can only agree with the “borders on abuse” sentiment. Some of my colleagues seem to have far fewer scruples about this however

  • Edzard, I thought you might do better than that:
    Please explain for the benefit of your readers, what exactly in my animal abuse comment borders on ‘stupidity’ as you claim. Isn’t it strange that you and a few others who dismiss my comments never counter with a logical or meaningful reason why my opinions are stupid, invalid or unreasonable. Weird or What?!
    p.s. – I could send you a very long list of examples detailing criminal and professional negligence cases relating to so called conventional medical practitioners (SCCMP’s) – but you would probably dismiss them out of hand. Now why would that be I wonder?

    • “I could send you a very long list of examples detailing criminal and professional negligence cases relating to so called conventional medical practitioners”
      IN CASE YOU HAVE NOT NOTICED: This blog is about alt med [and there lies also my answer]

  • Insufflation of ozone gas rectally as if it is some type of helpful therapeutic seems like animal abuse to me.

  • It would seem self-evident to any rational person that treating an ill animal with non-effective quackery in lieu of actual medical treatment, would constitute animal abuse.

    • “Borders on animal abuse.”
      Such a term is a legal construct and it is hardly for a Professor of Complimentary Medicine to make definitive determination.
      The Prof is being very kind to the abusers by giving them wriggle room.

      Animal Abuse is defined as “…Not taking care of an animal. Knowingly neglecting its needs…”.

      If the cap fits…

      And please Mike Grant, don’t employ the ‘et tu’ logical fallacy.
      Abuse by doctors is explored in many blogs, sometimes this one.
      This thread is about folks who use treatments on dumb animals without having any plausible evidence whatsoever of their efficacy.

  • We have Veterinary chiropractors in US, might want to add that one to your list.

  • I think it more than “borders” and that it is cruel and abusive to give a suffering animal a fake treatment instead of effective treatment including pain relief. Some vets and owners fool themselves into thinking the animal has benefited, but the animal may change behaviour based on cues, meanwhile continuing to suffer horribly. Animal abuse indeed.

  • For many, pseudo knowledge is valid as long as it results in deception and private profit.

    In portugeuse: Para muitos, o pseudo saber é válido desde que redunde em logro alheio e lucro particular.

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