Skepticism

Pets, Alt Med, and a Transgendered Cat

Kristin in Toronto recently wrote in with the following question:

. . . Anyway, the other day my hairdresser told me that she was going to start taking her 12-year-old dog to a chiropractor. “Really? They have doggy chiropractors?” I said, and she told me yes, they do, as well as doggy acupuncture and doggy naturopathy. She even suggested that I take one of my Basset Hounds, who has rather weak back legs, for an adjustment.

I later found out that one of my aunts has taken her hyperactive Bichon Frise for acupuncture as well.

I am a dog owner myself, and knowing that Rebecca and Jay are pet owners and animal lovers, I thought you might want to discuss this disturbing trend. Has alternative medicine really penetrated so far into our culture that people will pay to have their poodle’s chi aligned?

That’s a great question, and the answer is: there is no object or treatment too ridiculous or expensive for someone, somewhere to give their pet. This is better known as Watson’s Fifth Law of Human Stupidity.

(Warning: adorable photos randomly placed throughout the remaining article.)

It’s true that I am an animal lover, big time. If I had my way, I’d own a house in the country with dogs and cats and bunnies and horses and I’d live my life as something that might be described in a James Herriot book. Because I love animals so much, I am annoyed and incensed when they get dragged into the world of alt med quackery. This is equivalent to the idea that I love people so much that I find medical quackery to be the most distasteful of scams.

Adorable pic to distract you from textUnlike quacks who focus on people, though, the scam artists (and honestly deluded) who target animals are rarely capable of causing the same amount of damage, which is why I tend not to focus on them as much. If an animal is really very sick, say with cancer, often the best we can do is make him comfortable until the end. People with gads of money can afford treatment like chemo, but it’s tough to figure out whether or not that increases the animal’s quality of life. More credulous people with gads of money can afford things like pet psychics and energy healers — from the animal’s perspective, this isn’t much different from doing nothing and making him comfortable. Some nutball comes to the house, waves some incense around, maybe snuggles him a bit, then leaves. The human pays through the nose, but rarely would a person go bankrupt for the treatment.

Alternative treatment for pets really makes sense, when you think about it. Treatments that don’t really do anything, like reiki or homeopathy, can appear to have an effect just because the pet owner wants so badly to believe it will. Some alt med practitioners claim that homeopathy’s positive results on pets cannot be faked because the animal cannot react to a placebo, but the point they miss is that the pet owner’s faith in the treatment can result in something appearing to work that doesn’t actually work at all. “Look, Sparkles is playing with her wookie again! She hasn’t done that in weeks, so it must be the prayers of those Tibetan monks we hired!” Plus, let’s not forget the fact that animals can respond to placebo pills, when they (like humans) come to associate similar pills with healing.

Let’s take pet psychics, as well. Being a pet psychic is at least a thousand times easier than being a people-psychic. First of all, the pet cannot speak up:

PSYCHIC: She says she misses her litter mates very much.
SPARKLES: Oh, right, me? Miss those little teet-hogs? Screw you, lady.

Second of all, our pets live pretty simple lives:

PSYCHIC: Sparkles likes her chew toys, and going for walks. She likes it when you scratch behind her ears and dislikes loud thunderstorms.
SPARKLES: What about my love of 19th Century French literature?

On the topic, we recently received an email from a woman who wishes to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons. She wrote to us about Sonya Fitzpatrick, who claims to be a pet psychic:

I know this is a very late comment, but I just wanted to add that I foolishly paid Sonya $300 for one of her 1/2 hour sessions a few years ago after seeing her on the Animal Planet Show. I was desperate to see if I could get one of my dogs to stop attacking my other dog before I rehomed her. I really loved my dog, but she was literally trying to kill my other dog.

Well Sonya said they loved each other, which was about as far off as you could get. It was so ridiculous. I felt betrayed by Animal Planet for endorsing such a fake. I don’t really want my full name posted, but wanted to let you know of my experience.

Way to go, Sonya, you can’t even be a good pet psychic. Here’s an idiotic USA Today article on her written by Dennis Moore, who fails to mention this story of her giant FAIL. Dear Dennis: quit your job, go back to j-school, and learn the rudiments of good reporting. Much like Sonya, you also fail. At life.

It’s been a rather busy few weeks in terms of pet quackery, and I’ll include another related story that I’ve received from a number of you: Bubba the transgendered cat.

On the list of phrases I hadn’t ever planned to type in context, “Bubba the transgendered cat” ranks just below “Palin’s erudite answer directly addressed the question and eased the concerns of a nation.” Anyway.

Apparently Bubba got some press recently, since his/her owner took him/her to a pet psychic, who informed the owner that Bubba was a male on the outside but a female on the inside. The psychic claimed that this was the cause of Bubba’s agitation, and not the years of abuse he/she suffered prior to arriving at a shelter. Despite the recent press, the web site that many of you sent me happens to be copyright 2006. There’s a chance that by now, Bubba may have already had his/her reassignment surgery, which means that the money sent through the “donate” link may just be going toward new, girlier cat-toys like leopard-print beds and pink leather collars. Or the money is just lining the webmaster’s pockets. Whatever!

Or, it means the entire thing was a joke that never had a punchline, but thanks to the magic of the Internet is enjoying a resurgence in interest. I highly doubt that any veterinarian would perform such a surgery — even the vets who recommend to their patients homeopathy and chiropractic treatments. Frankly, Bonsai Kitten was funnier.

When it comes down to it, the pet industry is fertile ground for scamming: people believe their pets are special, ascribe to them human-like traits they do not have, and spend enormous amounts of money on them. If ever lost my moral compass, I think I could make a pretty comfortable living off lying to pet owners. As it is, I’ll have to content myself with having integrity and spoiling my cats rotten with indulgences that actually work. Like an indoor LASER light show and a catnip-infused humidifier.

funny pictures

And why not: here are more pics of Dr. Calimari and Cpt. Infinity. Even cuter than a transgendered kitten.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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26 Comments

  1. The reason I don’t approve of these pet things is largely the associated costs and what that money *could* be doing if moderately wealthy people weren’t wasting it on crap.

    I wonder how many poor kids could get school clothes and textbooks for the money people spend on this shit. I wonder how many diseases would get more funding for research. I wonder how many poor countries would have available vaccines. Etc, etc…

    So the woo of it is ridiculous but, pragmatically speaking, the wastefulness of it all is even more silly.

  2. I fully and freely admit that my horse has had a few chiropractic appointments BUT they were performed by a legitimate vet and because of legitimate back/mobility issues. A deep tissue massage may have been just as effective, but I like the security of knowing that it was done by a vet and not just some massage therapist off the street. Also, she totally enjoyed the attention.

    I see a tooon of woo in the equestrian world. We have big animals that are more than just pets, but athletes and partners and when something isn’t right, we’ll go to any length to fix it, even if those treatments just make us feel better. It’s the result of a whole lotta love, but no ability on the horse’s part to say “hey, sticking me full of needles really doesn’t help my tummy ache”.

  3. Nothing new. I have a friend who’s been taking her dogs to a naturopathy “vet” and giving them homeopathic remedies for years. The sad thing is, she used to have 4 dogs, now she has one because the rest are dead. I can’t help but wonder if real medicine might have extended their lives.

  4. My daughter keeps calling the neighbors’ male cat “mommy kitty” and the female one “daddy kitty.” It never even occurred to me she’s actually psychically picking up on the cats’ internal gender confusion. That obviously makes much more sense.

  5. Hocking College in southern Ohio is giving certifications in Horse acupressure and are in the process of having a program for dogs. They wrote about this in my local newspaper and when I replied with a letter I received some really angry emails. Direct quote from the article:

    “Tina Romine, who teaches in the equine health and complementary therapy program at Hocking College, explained that acupressure is one technique used with the horses. The program teaches students to work with horses using several different methods such as massage and acupressure, Romine said.

    She has worked with racehorses in the past, and has seen the difference massage and acupressure can make with the horses, she said.

    Acupressure is a traditional Chinese medicine that works with the “energy pathways in the body,” she explained. When a pathway gets blocked, it can cause problems in other parts of the body, Romine said.

    The idea behind the acupressure is to apply pressure to different points to help release the energy to move throughout the body, she added.

    The students are not trained to diagnose problems in animals or treat the medical diagnoses, as the acupressure is just another method to help the animals, she said.

    Romine said the principles of acupressure also work with dogs, so she set up a class with the Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute to teach about acupressure with dogs at Hocking College. Based in Colorado, Tallgrass holds classes all around the country.”

  6. I had a coworker at my last job who was constantly taking her 12-year-old dog in for herbal treatments for a whole host of common dog problems. (I don’t remember exactly what they were, but i know hip dysplasia was one of them.) I would have suggested acupuncture if I had thought of it, although that dog was probably just as happy I didn’t.

    Anyway, the dog kept getting worse. I was hoping this would encourage her to try more radical treatments, like going to a vet. But no — according to my co-worker, her dog would have been getting worse FASTER without the herbs. Not sure what became of the dog, as she left the company before the dog left this life.

    Not that there’s much you can do about hip dysplasia anyway. A surgeon would be reluctant for a hip replacement in a dog that old, especially if the dog smelled like a bucket of KFC by that point.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, my gerbil needs a bone marrow transplant.

  7. Tons of “woo” for pets (read: Owners with lots of disposable $$$) these days, sad to say. I think I’ve seen it all in the last 10 years in rescue. Everything from acupuncture to Zen for pets.

    If you take good veterinary-based (i.e science-based) care of your pets, feed them high-quality food in the right amounts and give them enough love and exercise, they will be fine.

    Trying convince other pet lovers is a whole ‘nother story, though. A few years ago, a group (that I subsequently left) hired a “pet psychic” for our annual picnic. She raked in the cash, of which the group got a percentage. I had a real problem with it, but was told to be quiet because “It was only for fun” and that we would make a good amount of money for her ‘participation.’

    I did notice that no one was told anything sad or bad by their pet via the psychic. It was all the generic hooey one gets in the average Astrology column. (Sarcasm alert) I guess we had a large group of terribly well-adjusted dogs there that day. ;-)

  8. I’m rather saddened and disappointed to read that you seem to be advocating, or at the very least accepting of, woo for pets, Rebecca.

    The problem with any woo is the false belief of efficacy. If a parent were to use alt-med or some other woo to treat their child’s cancer, would that be okay? Some nutball coming to the house, waving around some incense, extending some loving attention to the child, and then leaving will probably alleviate some of the child’s pain for a while, but the child is still dying of cancer. And the pain will return.

    And the failure of Sonia Fitzpatrick only resulted in no harm because the person in the story realised what con it was. But what of the pet owners who really do believe what they are told by this charlatan? Fido and Rex are kept together, and Fido kills Rex in a horrible, vicious and painful attack.

    Woo for animals is just as bad as woo for humans. It is in the same category as a parent allowing woo to be performed on their child.

  9. @David Plumb:

    Sorry, but when I hear of “energy pathways” in the body, I start looking for the wires and connectors. USB, perhaps? LOL What and where are these “energy flows” and “blocked channels” of which she refers?

    I like her little disclaimer that “The students are not trained to diagnose problems in animals or treat the medical diagnoses, as the acupressure is just another method to help the animals.” In other words, “I’m not practicing veterinary medicine without a license, so you can’t stop me.”

    She’s another con artist, whether she believes in her “treatments” or not. Massage may help some animals in the same way it helps humans to treat sore muscles and such, though. At least she’s doing SOMETHING that might have a benefit.

  10. My wife is a horse owner and back country trail expedition type. She has had other horsy folk recommend horse chiropractic on number of occasions. I’d love to see an adjustment (Wooohh there Trigger!!, I’m just tryin to pull that thar leg up to your chest, now exhale big feller!) Perhaps they use that “no touch chiropractic” on horses. Anyway it’s still just a con despite the vets purported belief in the treatment modality. And my wife’s horse is not from China so it couldn’t have any blocked energy pathways.

  11. @whitebird: Not that I’d ever besmirch the character of Alicia Silverstone, and not that organic = vegan, but this reminds me of the time I tried feeding my cats an organic diet using really expensive food once, and good lord the farts could have turned downtown into a Superfund site.

  12. I lived in the country from the time I was 9 until I was 18. I can tell you from personal experience that dogs and cats will eat the most disgusting things in the world and love it. You put out a bowl full of cat or dog food and they will turn up their nose to it in favor of something that has been dead for two weeks and has begun to liquify. Not only will they eat it but they will roll in it and then bring a semisolid portion back to share with you. Don’t waste your money on crazy food for the pets. They don’t care.

  13. As rebecca knows, I am the proud owner of two adorable bunny rabbits, Chainsaw and Spike.

    If any vetupuncturist or chironarian thinks they can get a terrified rabbit to hold still long enough to do a “spinal adjustment,” much less stick needles into them, well, that alone should qualify for the million-dollar JREF prize.

  14. @Rebecca, on the planet where I read

    Unlike quacks who focus on people, though, the scam artists (and honestly deluded) who target animals are rarely capable of causing the same amount of damage

    and

    Alternative treatment for pets really makes sense, when you think about it.

    and become so focused on that I forget about every thing else you write.

    Sorry about taking your post the wrong way and misinterpreting you. Rereading the post I’m rather surprised that I got it so wrong.

    And yes, it was because of your claim that woo for animals causes less harm than woo for humans. As I noted in my previous comment, I believe the harm is as great in both circumstances, and I stand by that part of my commentary.

    One aspect is to do with consent. Just as a child relies on the consent of the parent in the provision of care, so too does the pet rely on the carer. Both are sentient animals that rely on another to act for their best interest: allowing woo to be performed on either one is a betrayal of that reliance. That is a harm.

    Another aspect is to do with the claim that woo for animals is less damaging than woo for humans. Perhaps in a pure numbers, utilitarian sense, sure. There is a great deal more quackery and woo directed towards and used by human beings than for non-human animals, and so there is more harm to humans as a group. But the harm to each individual being of equivalent treatment is equal.

    Also, the time and money spent on quackery and woo is money not being spent on effective and proper treatment. That the owner of a pet feels better because of their delusion that the treatment given to the animal has been successful, or that the advice given seems to work, is no different to the delusion from that same practice applied to humans.

    I just can not accept the claim that one is less damaging than the other. To me, they are one and the same.

  15. @Stephen: Glad the confusion is cleared up over how I feel about the issue.

    That said, I do very much disagree with you that they are just as damaging. Health-related pseudoscience that hurts and kills children and adults is much more prevalent, more widespread, more dangerous, and more costly than anything that targets animals. That said, even if the two were equal in those regards, I would rather a hundred kittens die of quack medicine than a hundred humans.

  16. @Stephen: Also, some of the harm that woo does to humans does not apply to animals. Animals can’t suffer from false hope or misinformation. They can suffer needlessly from treatable conditions just as humans can, and that is a horrible thing.

  17. @James Fox: Horse chiropractic is one of the funniest things to watch ever. Imagine a tiny little vet on a big step stool using her elbow to produce some of the loudest pops you ever heard and using cookies to get the horse to stretch out its neck. As long as the vet is gentle and sloooow, most of the horses I’ve seen it done on love it. Mine is usually a big ol’ spaz, but she was practically cuddling the vet after a while.

  18. @Question Authority

    LOL…. my letter included criticism of the energy pathway claim and then I ended with calling her a scam artist. The scam artist part is what I think triggered the angry email onslaught.

    However, it could be entirely possible that the ‘dog acupressure’ class is not acupressure for dogs, but rather acupressure where they use dogs to stimulate the acupuncture points. If I was to have my Chi aligned in anyway it would have to be with puppies.

  19. @LOLkate:
    Funny I suppose because it’s not likely to be doing anything. The horse gets attention and the vet knows how to make noises using ol Triggers back as an instrument. To take money for this dog and pony show is a con. There’s no science that I’m aware of that supports any of the basic theories of chiropractic or it efficacy on non human animals. I’d also wonder if the vet could be doing something that could place the horses health at risk. And I’ve been known to turn into a big ol’ spaz when someone is rubbing and pushing around on my back too.

  20. Wow! My letter made it onto Skepchick. Awesome!

    @David Plumb: I like your idea about dog accupressure. I’m sure having some puppies placed on my chakras would have a positive effect on my meridians.

    Also, I’d like to point out to those who connect woo for pets with lots of $$$ on the part of the owners, while that does hold true for my aunt and her Bichon, it doesn’t for my hairdresser. She’s self-employed and doesn’t seem to have all that much money. She’s genuinely trying to do the best for her dog, who she loves to death.

    About Rebecca’s point that animal woo practitioners not doing as much harm as to people, I wonder about chiropractic. I know that people sometimes die of aneurysms or strokes after chiropractic adjustments. Couldn’t the same thing happen to dogs? Or horses?

  21. @Rebecca:
    Most dogs cannot digest corn, for example, but at least dogs are onmivores like us. (That’s where the gas and other symptoms come from in dogs that are fed cheap dog food. Corn is used as a cheap filler. That’s why I only feed my pets high-end foods.) Cats are evolutionally tailored to be carnivores. Feeding cats a vegan diet will eventually harm them.

    For the record, I currently have four Shelties (The Barks Brothers), three cats and a tankful of fish. I also am a Director of a new rescue on the East Coast, Dogwood Sheltie Rescue (www.vadsr.org), so I expect a foster Sheltie this weekend.

    And, yes, I love to have healthy, happy puppies, cats, dogs and kittens bouncing all over my chakras! LOL :-D

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