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Monday, September 1, 2014

Does Homeopathic Therapy Work?

A reader recently asked me my thoughts about "quack" treatments (their words) such as homeopathy, accupuncture, and so on.  This is another very polarizing subject, but as long-time readers know by now (and new readers find out quickly) that doesn't make me be quiet.  Polite discourse and debate is good for the mind!

As should be pretty clear, I am a trained in and practice traditional Western medicine.  I fully support traditional methods of diagnosis and treatment, using them myself on a daily basis.  For example, I would much rather use antibiotics than colloidal silver to treat an infection.  I also only have limited knowledge of many homeopathic/holistic treatments as that was never part of my education and I tend to think that there isn't a lot of evidence for many treatments.  That being said, I don't think that all homeopathy is "quack" medicine.

The hallmark of Western science is scentific study and peer reviews.  If we say that a prevention, test, or treatment is effective, we had better be able to support that with properly conducted scientific studies.  No, not all of them are 100% accurate and over time opinions can change.  But those opinions often change based on new evidence and data or new studies.  The duration of immunity ascribed to certain vaccines has increased over the years based on trials rather than merely thought and anecdote.  From what I've seen there is a lack of rigorous, independent, double-blind studies with many homeopathic treatments.  And really, that's the biggest complaint that most scientists and vets have about these therapies.  Show us the studies!  Show us the proof!  Don't say "well, it's worked well for me"!

Let me give a recent example that I came across.  I had a client tell me that she had started using black walnut extract to prevent heartworm disease based on things she had seen on the internet.  I had never heard of this so I started looking into it.  I found many websites, blogs, and articles from naturopaths on the benefits of black walnut, on how toxic traditional heartworm preventions are, and how safe and effective this extract was.  Do you know what I didn't find?  Proof.  Studies.  Sure, plenty of proponents of this method of prevention talked about what the mechanism of action should be, and I read a website from a vet about how he only recommended it and had never seen a case of heartworm disease in a dog using black walnut.  But all of these were opinions.  There wasn't a single scientific study, or even a report by parasitologists, immunologists, or toxicologists.  Some of the articles were by vets but most were by laypeople or people with an interest in homeopathy rather than a degree in a related field.  I even found articles and opinion pieces written by advocates of homeopathic therapy who had looked for direct proof or studies and found none.  Those same people were very honest in cautioning people about quickly jumping on black walnut extract because it really hadn't been appropriately studied for safety and efficacy.

"But it works!  And I know it does because I haven't seen a case of it!"  Really?  Okay, by the same logic when I see a dog who has never been on heartworm prevention and they test negative, it means that it's okay to not give preventative to that dog.  Right?  And in the same vein if I run back and forth across the interstate and never get hit by a car it must mean that doing so is safe.  Right? 

Not seeing a case does not constitute proof.  There is a difference between correlation and causation.  For example, I can see a graph that shows as temperature goes up the number of pirates also increases (yes, this is from the Wikipedia article I linked above).  Does this mean that an increase in temperature causes pirates to multiply?  That would be causation.  And that's the same kind of thinking that we often see with people advocating homeopathic treatment.  "I give A and I haven't seen a problem with B, so A must be working."  "My dog had X so I gave it Y and X went away.  Therefore Y works."  This is directly attributing causation when you may actually have correlation.  Using this method of determining efficacy contains a huge logical fallacy.  Scientific analysis and study through hypothesis testing and experimentation is supposed to differentiate between correlation and causation, allowing us to make a proper conclusion.  That has historically been missing in homeopathy.

I know that anyone reading this who is very much into holistic or homeopathic medicine is likely becoming very red-faced about now. But bear with me, as I'm not done. Because using the same logic we must keep in mind that just because there are no studies doesn't mean that a given treatment won't work.  If we say "Medicine P probably doesn't work because there haven't been rigid studies" we make the same mistakes of logic and once again place causation as a direct result when it may not be.  I do think that there are several homeopathic treatments that do work.

SAM-e has been studied quite a bit as a supplement to help liver function in animals, and has been attributed to improvement in osteoarthritis and even Alzheimer's in humans.  Glucosamine, chondroitin, and green-lipped mussel are all well known to help reduce joint pain and improve arthritis.  Omega fatty acids and fish oils have considerable benefit in certain kinds of skin and joint disorders.  All of these were at one point (and to many still are) considered "alternative" or "natural" therapies.  But because of scientific studies and considerable use we have been able to document true effects instead of simply anecdotes and personal reports.  Because of the scientific analysis they have become accepted by maintream medicine.

There is a form of "Western" accupuncture that seems to also have a legitimate basis in physiology.  I knew a vet in my area, a colleague whom I knew well and trusted, who had been trained in this form of accupuncture.  She said that it worked with known nerves and nerve clusters, stimulating them with the puncture of the needle.  It had also been studied and accepted at several veterinary colleges.  This particular method of accupuncture is different from the Eastern philosophies which tend to lean more towards energy clusters and similar mechanisms of action (as I understand them). 

There is much of homeopathic medicine and therapy that I do think is entering the realm of "quackery" and for which you won't find true scientific support.  However, I don't think that we should throw the baby out with the bath water and automatically eliminate all natural or holistic therapy.  More and more we are seeing proper studies done on these methods, many of which are showing real results and supporting the idea of a given treatment as being effective and safe.  As these studies build in number and are more widely known I would not be surprised to start seeing other formerly homeopathic-only treatments become commonly accepted in traditional Western medicine.  It's certainly happened before.

If you are interested in finding a vet who practices these methods of pet care, here are a few links.  And for now I'll continue to support my own methods and practice as I was taught in school.

American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association
Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy
British Association of Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeons


  1. I think that you have confused the terms "homeopathy" and "naturopathy."

    Homeopathic "medicines" are created by adding lots of water to a substance (and how those substances are chosen is another issue), shaking it, then taking a small amount of that water, adding it to more water, shaking that, and repeating that over and over. Eventually the solution is diluted to the point that it is unlikely that the solution contains even a single molecule of the original substance. Homeopaths claim that the solutions are effective because the water "remembers" the original substance that was originally added to it.

    Obviously it is scientifically impossible for water to "remember" the substance that was originally added to it, and there is no scientific mechanism that would allow a bottle of pure distilled water to cure anything (other than dehydration).

    If a treatment involves giving an animal a substance that actually contains some molecules of black walnut, as opposed to just distilled water, then that is not homeopathy - it is herbalism or something else, and if it works, it works because of the chemical properties of the black walnut that the pet is actually being treated with.

    Naturopathy is a broader term that includes homeopathy, herbalism, acupuncture, etc.

    1. You are incorrect in claiming that water cannot have a memory. I'd be curious to know what scientific credentials you hold that would allow you to comment on the subject much less come to such a conclusion. Research being done today and in the past decade or two shows that it is quite possible that water does transmit information. In fact, the concept that water "has a memory" is quite plausible and contravenes no known laws of science.

      Current research shows that homeopathic medicines contain nano-particles of the original substance. Something can never become nothing. Nano-technology is a burgeoning field in medicine. You might look into it. Drug companies are interested in using it so that they can reduce the toxic side effects of chemotherapy.

      Naturopathy is not a broader term including other systems of medicine. It is a stand-alone system of its own. Naturopaths are often also trained in homeopathy, another stand-alone system of medicine.

  2. Twelve years ago a 4 year old female Samoyed of mine was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on her face. I was told that surgery would need to be performed to excise it. However, the vet added: “It will return in 6 months or less and from prior experience she may not live beyond six months.” I was devastated.

    I had (and still have) a family homeopath and decided to contact him to ask if there was anything homeopathy had to offer. He recommended a remedy, told me what to expect and if it returned to simply repeat the remedy. The tumor was gone within two weeks. Six months later, the tumor did return, but a repeat of the same remedy again was effective. Rather than die from cancer, my Samoyed lived another 8 years with no recurrence of the cancer and no other problems except arthritis which was also helped with homeopathy.

    I was first introduced to the effectiveness of homeopathy, the broad range of conditions it could treat, and its reasonable cost during a 5 year sojourn to study and travel in Europe many years ago. Recent data reveals that homeopathy is supported by over 500 million people worldwide.

    Conventional medicine continues to be its own worst enemy. When it fails health care consumers, they turn to alternative medicine. Homeopathy has met the demand time and time again over the past 250 years for minor things such as help in speeding the healing of broken bones, epidemics, pandemics, pain control, chronic and acute ills in children, adults, the elderly, plants and pets. I am delighted to see that more and more people who have benefited from homeopathy are now defending it. For me personally, it is easy to defend something so effective, safe and inexpensive when it has served my family, my pets AND my plants for the past 27 years.

  3. I've used homeopathy so successfully for more than 15 years for myself and with my animals that I would never be without it. I turn to it first before anything else, and it's never let me down. It did wonders and did them very quickly for a beloved animal with a nasty mammary infection she developed after giving birth. It was totally cleared with three or four doses of the indicated remedy. Homeopathy is wonderful for itchy flee bites, infections and boils as well as a host of serious, chronic conditions.

    It is used successfully by organic dairy farmers around the world because it works. A dairy farmer's income depends on his cattle and their health so he isn't going to use a medicine that doesn't work or doesn't qualify him for his license to sell organic dairy products.

    The European Union Parliament has invested in a study on using homeopathics to replace anti-biotics in farm animals. Clearly this is in response to the superbugs anti-biotics have created and the health threat posed by these diseases and the reduced efficacy of anti-biotics.

    If anyone claims homeopathy doesn't work, I have to think they've never used it.

  4. There is an enormous amount of scientific evidence showing that homeopathy is no more than a placebo. Apart from the fact that the theory behind it can only be true if we toss out basic and well-established principles of physics and chemistry, pre-clinical and clinical studies over 150 years have consistently failed to demonstrate efficacy whenever adequate controls for bias are employed. This is a clear a case of quackery supported by anecdote and personal faith in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence as you will find in science. Heck, the evidence against bloodletting wasn't nearly as solid as the evidence against homeopathy, yet no one is defending that practice now.

    For hose interested, here is a detailed summary of the evidence against homeopathy, a critical review of the evidence the veterinary homeopathy community puts forward in favor of homeopathy, and a refresher on why anecdotes and testimonials are not reliable evidence.

    1. The Case Against Hoemopathy-

    2. The Evidence for Homeopathy-A Close Look-

    3. Testimonials Lie-

    4. Medical Miracles, Should We Believe?

    5. Why Bogus Therapies Seem to Work-


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