Giving our pets nutritional supplements is often a daily act of faith. We hope for the best each time we drop that pill or liquid into their food, then we wait. After observing them for days, weeks or months, we often believe that the stuff is helping. But is it really? There’s a situation called “Pet Caregiver Placebo Effect” that could explain the truth about what we often see behind many supplements and other treatments lacking vet-approved scientific evidence.
The Pet Caregiver Placebo Effect Reaches All of Us
We started thinking about this subject after reading an excellent blog post from Dr. Alex Avery, a New Zealand veterinarian who runs OurPetsHealth.com. The article is called “CBD Oil for Dogs: seizures, pain and cancer miracle cure?”
Does CBD oil really work?
This really depends on what value you place in different types of evidence! There’s loads of anecdotal evidence and testimonials from people who have taken it themselves or given it to their pets and seen a dramatic benefit. In reality, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions from stories like this because of the significant risk of bias and things like caregiver placebo. — Dr. Alex Avery, Our Pet’s Health
We wanted to find out more, so we started reading Dr. Avery’s other important article, the Placebo Effect in Pets. Our education continued with a closer look at how people respond to placebo treatments.
A placebo is anything that seems to be a “real” medical treatment — but isn’t. It could be a pill, a shot, or some other type of “fake” treatment. What all placebos have in common is that they do not contain an active substance meant to affect health. — WebMD, “What is the Placebo Effect?”
Placebo medical treatments on people are useful in science, because it helps doctors compare a placebo with a new, promising drug or procedure. One way they measure side effects and success rates of placebos versus the real deal, is to interview the patient (subject). If the patient expects that they will be helped, oftentimes the chemistry in their body reacts positively, even when they received no treatment at all. The patient actually says they are happy with the treatment!
How Caregiver Placebo in Pets Affects Us
But what happens when the patient cannot verbally tell scientists how they feel? As advocates for our pets, it’s our job to do the interpretation. So if we truly believe they are doing great on a supplement despite any measurable evidence, it’s possible we are being impacted by the caregiver placebo effect.
Because we are so invested in our pet, we really want to see them improve and likely believe the treatment will work. we, as the pet owner, are highly susceptible to caregiver placebo as a result.
There is a real risk we will see improvement even when it is not there. — Dr. Alex Avery, “The Placebo Effect in Animals.“
Veterinarians are so tuned into the placebo effect in pets phenomena that they’ve done research about it. In a 2012 placebo-controlled study called “Caregiver placebo effect for dogs with lameness from osteoarthritis,” researchers from the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine pulled 58 dogs from a larger study on a new NSAID. The dogs were given a placebo, in order to study owner perceptions of how their arthritic dogs responded the fake therapy. Scientific gait analysis tools compared the dog’s actual movements against what owners say they witnessed after the placebo was administered.
CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE:
A caregiver placebo effect was common in the evaluation of patient response to treatment for osteoarthritis by both pet owners and veterinarians. Force platform gait analysis was an unbiased outcome measure for dogs with lameness from osteoarthritis. A caregiver placebo effect should be considered when interpreting owner and veterinary reports of patient response to treatment.
Owners in the placebo group said their pet responded favorably to the treatment, even after they knew the dogs had a 50/50 chance of being given a placebo. The gait analysis tools showed otherwise, with some dogs even worsening after placebo treatment was administered.
. . . we cannot trust anecdotes or our own observations to determine if treatments work or not. We need placebo controlled, blinded studies with real, objective measures of effect or we risk making ourselves feel better without actually helping our patients and pets. — The SkeptiVet
How to Get Around the Placebo Effect
The truth is, we as pet parents can’t really get around the pet caregiver placebo effect on our own, because as the saying goes, we see what we want to see. So for our animal’s sake, whenever we introduce a new supplement or DIY therapy, it’s critical to keep an open mind and approach it as scientifically as possible.
- Avoid going overboard on supplements. The less you use, the better you will know which ones are actually working (or not).
- Keep a notebook all about your pet’s health and behavior.
- Jot down careful notes of how your pet is responding to the supplements you are providing.
- Have a conversation with your vet about what you are (and are not) seeing, so that you work together to come up with appropriate and helpful treatment.
As our pet’s only advocate, we must be on the lookout for real versus perceived responses to any treatments in order to promote good health and healing.
Learn More About the Pet Caregiver Placebo Effect