A social media war is raging in the veterinary world
An unnecessary war is raging between non-believing and believing members of the veterinary profession. No, I am not talking about religion, but the beliefs I’m talking about are held as passionately as if this was a fundamentalist versus atheist war.
The topic is homoeopathy, and the latest battle in the war has been prompted by an infographic written by a vet that’s being widely shared on social media, provocatively titled “Homoeopathy Does No Harm: Really?”. This lists a number of anecdotal incidents where animals have allegedly died when homoeopathy was used in the place of conventional veterinary medicine.
The argument used to justify the infographic seems to be that homoeopathy often relies on anecdotes to convince people of its effectiveness, and therefore it’s justifiable to use anecdotes to persuade people that it’s ineffective.
Understandably, the pro-homoeopathic lobby have responded with outrage, and unfortunately this has even led to ad hominem attacks on some of the anti-homoeopathy vets. Nobody will win this battle; insult gives rise to insult, amplified and magnified by social media.
The RCVS has already passed judgement on homoeopathy
It’s important to understand the background to this latest spat. Last year, an open letter signed by over 3000 veterinary supporters petitioned the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) to blacklist homoeopathy from the treatments that vets are allowed to use. In response, the RCVS issued a new position statement on the veterinary use of complementary and alternative medicines, including homoeopathy. The section that specifically mentions homoeopathy stated the following:
“Homoeopathy exists without a recognised body of evidence for its use. Furthermore, it is not based on sound scientific principles. In order to protect animal welfare, we regard such treatments as being complementary rather than alternative to treatments for which there is a recognised evidence base or which are based in sound scientific principles. It is vital to protect the welfare of animals committed to the care of the veterinary profession and the public’s confidence in the profession that any treatments not underpinned by a recognised evidence base or sound scientific principles do not delay or replace those that do.”
This statement was welcomed by the vets campaigning against homoeopathy, even though it’s a long way from the “ban” that they’d called for. And the pro-homoeopathic vets felt outraged by the statement, even holding public demonstrations against it.
To me, it seemed as if neither side had read the statement properly: vets are still allowed to continue to use homoeopathy as long as they also used treatments that had a sound scientific basis where needed. Arguably, neither side “won”.
The vets against homoeopathy should really still be out there, shouting for a complete ban, while the homoeopathic vets should be quietly relieved that the RCVS is allowing to carry on business as normal.
The truth is, as I have said before, that the statement acted as a stern reminder that vets need to take great care when using homoeopathy, and that if they do not take such care, they may be struck off for unprofessional conduct. And this achieved two goals: first, vets and animal owners could continue to use homoeopathy, and secondly, most importantly, sick animals were protected from deluded individuals who might allow them to suffer by ignoring the science that could help them.
Successful veterinary treatment is not just about prescribing proven medication
Whatever the lack of evidence for homoeopathy itself, vets who engage in complementary medicine tend to offer longer consults with more listening than most conventional vets. And even if the treatments cannot be proven to work, it seems likely the sympathetic approach may provoke a potent placebo effect that has benefits for animals. And there is also an argument that the “anti-pharma” approach taken by homoeopathic vets may lead to a reduction in unnecessary medication being dispensed.
Vet Danny Chambers is a member of the RCVS Council who has been outspoken about homeopathy in the past, but his views on the way ahead in this debate are less hardline than might be expected. “I genuinely think that vets who practice alternative medicine could teach ‘conventional vets’ (I hate that term) a huge amount about communicating, engaging and empathising with client, and about how little intervention is often necessary. Likewise if they would be willing to learn about the effectiveness (or not) of their treatments by engaging more with science, we would all be better off.”
Going to the vet is better for animals than not going to the vet
It is important to remember that the scientific approach, using evidence-based therapies, has been proven to offer the best possible treatments to animals. But it’s equally important to remember that many members of the public are sceptical about certain aspects of the mainstream veterinary approach and there’s an undeniable demand for homoeopathy. Evidence-based vets should not ignore the evidence of this demand.
Making these pet owners feel alienated, and potentially pushing them away from visiting vets, carries a bigger risk to animal welfare than encouraging them to engage with their local vet clinic. A homoeopathic vet, aware of his or her responsibilities following the new RCVS position statement, is surely a far safer option for animal welfare than no vet at all.