22 February, 2012

Placebo power

From years of treating the four-legged variety of sick and injured, I have come to one unassailable conclusion - never underestimate the power of the placebo. So many cures (approximately 50%) that are attributed to DVMs can appropriately be assigned to nature doing what it does best - fixing the wrongs that humans make when they attempt to enclose an animal in an artificial environment, feed them artificial food and treat their ills with artificial medicines. Things like aspirin (a natural herb), band-aids, poultices and laxatives are still in demand, despite FDA's attempts at making them prescription drugs. As a child, I would often accompany my parents to the vet with our cat or dog that had been bitten by a snake or paralysis tick or hit by a car, but never for a vaccination. Sure, we used DDT-based insecticides because the vet said we had to get rid of the fleas, but we were reluctant to use said chemicals as my parents knew too well that these would be absorbed through our skin (remember, these were the days when skin exposure to chemicals was thought trivial).

Even in the 21st century, I am still very much a proponent of evidence-based medicine and the judicious use of therapeutic medicines, however, that comes with a big caveat. There is a time and place for everything. If there is pus in a wound, then antibiotics are recommended. If there is a fever, antivirals may be indicated. If there is a worm crawling out the animal's butt, antiparasitic drugs might be useful. A lot of diseases, at least in animals, are the result of food (commercially prepared), fluids (dirty water, chemically tainted) and fomites (parasites, synthetic carpets, chemicals, synthetic cloths). I cannot recall the number, likely to be in the tens of thousands, where a pet I was treating had received antibiotics and/or steroids for years because of unresolved allergy problems that are quite rare in the natural habitat, but relatively common in domesticated pets. For most other problems, doing nothing is to evoke a placebo effect - in effect we relinquish responsibility to nature. It also allows for a more accurate diagnosis to be determined.

Veterinarians subscribe to the maxim, 'first do no harm'. Sadly, most vets make the confession that at one time or another they have killed an animal via a treatment. This is not a slander of veterinarians, as they rarely are motivated to a particular treatment solely for financial reasons. Most commonly, the motivator is to cure the problem so that they can get on with other cases.

Therefore, if there was ever a 'cure' for cancer, believe me when I say that most veterinarians would jump at the chance. We would not go bankrupt. On the contrary, such a cure would free up our time to concentrate on more important issues, such as disease prevention and health promotion, two domains that are far more interesting than the unending queue of dogs that need a steroid shot or a cat with chronic allergies that needs yet another antibiotic jab. Though conspiracies abound about pharmaceutical companies limiting access to cancer cures, I can rest at night knowing that whomever has the key to that safe wherein the holy grail of cures lies, it is not one of my compatriots in the field of veterinary science.

When free energy, holistic cures and world peace have arrived, I will still invest in band-aids, aspirin and laxatives. Sometimes, a dog will still want to go chase cars.