Are Holistic Vets Just in It for the Money?

I hate to break it to you, but it's not just "big pharma" that wants to make big bucks off your pets.

Last Updated on April 10, 2012 by Dogster Team

Holistic medicine has many adherents. Goodness knows that I understand why people might want an alternative to big pharma and the medical (or veterinary) industrial complex. There is no doubt that big pharma works to manipulate lawmakers, government agencies, scientists, and clinicians. The goal of the big pharmaceutical companies is profit — nothing more, nothing less — and the well-being of patients (be they humans or animals) is of secondary concern. In my opinion it is self-evident that the big players in the medical and veterinary industrial complexes are evil and not to be trusted.

As a response to this, many people turn to holistic and alternative practitioners under the assumption that they are more honest and less profit-driven. The purpose of this article is to challenge that assumption. It is certain that holistic and alternative practitioners aren’t as organized and manipulative as big pharma — which I concede makes them inherently less evil. But I do not believe for a minute that holistic and alternative practitioners are more honest or less profit-motivated. If anything, I think that holistic and alternative practitioners are, as a group, less honest then their conventional counterparts.

Let’s start by demonstrating that the assumption of holistic honesty exists. The comments section of many posts on Dogster and Catster is rife with examples such as the following one (left on a post that mentioned the potential for fleas and heartworm to become more problematic in the spring):

“If at all possible, speak with a holistic vet about alternatives to standard flea, tick and heart-worm options, as they are all toxins that compromise the cat’s natural immune system and can have some very unhealthy side-effects, especially with repeated doses. If your cats are strictly indoors, you may not – probably don’t! – even need to treat for these pests on anything but a case-by-case basis.”

This comment seems to take as given that a holistic remedy will be superior to conventional flea, tick, and heartworm preventatives. That notion is hogwash. Holistic parasite remedies have two problems. The first is that they don’t work. The second is that they can cause serious side effects. The comment also makes a completely false and unsupported claim — namely that all conventional flea, tick, and heartworm preventatives compromise the immune system. I am aware of no evidence whatsoever that Heartgard (or, for that matter, Frontline or Advantage) compromises the immune system. Can the person who left the comment — or anyone — cite good evidence that supports this absurd claim? Or can anyone cite any good evidence that shows that holistic parasite products do not compromise the immune system?

Many holistic adherents believe that there is some sort of conspiracy against holistic products. They presume that big pharma and mainstream practitioners work to suppress evidence of the efficacy of holistic remedies. That presumption is bullshit. Anyone with a few thousand dollars and some basic scientific knowledge can design a good study to show whether a treatment (holistic or conventional) works. And if something works, it’s very easy to prove. I could easily design a study to determine whether aspirin helps relieve headaches. I could very easily design a study to determine whether Cipro cures bladder infections. The studies would either show efficacy of the products unequivocally, or — if the results were equivocal — the studies would show that the products are not effective.

So why don’t adherents of holistic medicine simply perform good studies to show whether their products work? Most of the time they seem to be too busy trying to make money from their products and making noise on the internet. In other cases they might be afraid that a study would not support a claim of efficacy, so they don’t want to run a study that might damage a revenue stream. Make no mistake: Holistic practitioner are absolutely as profit-driven as any player in the veterinary-industrial complex.

However, some holistic products have undergone rigorous scientific testing. And some of the products have worked. Those products then promptly ceased to be alternative and instead became mainstream. (For millenia, willow bark was a holistic treatment for pain. Studies of this holistic product led to the discovery of aspirin, which is now a conventional treatment for pain.) However, most of the studies have shown equivocal results. That means most of the products don’t work.

Prescribing an ineffective product is, in my opinion, dishonest. I therefore strongly disagree with the notion that holistic vets are more honest than conventional ones. When conventional vets prescribe a product, they may be supporting the veterinary industrial complex and an evil big pharmaceutical company, but at least they have reason to believe that the product will help the patient. When a holistic vet prescribes a product that is not proven to be effective, he harms his patient in two ways. First, he fails to treat the patient’s problem. Second, he puts his patient at risk of dangerous side effects.

Yes, dangerous side effects. Holistic practitioners often try to have their cake and eat it too. They claim that their products are effective with no risk of side effects. But you can’t have it both ways. If something is going to be effective, there is no way to avoid side effects. Bioactive molecules always have the potential for side effects. There is no way to have a perfectly side-effect-free treatment.

Holisitic products are loaded with chemicals. Sure, they’re natural chemicals, but they can still be dangerous — botulism toxin, cobra venom, and aflatoxin are all natural and all potentially deadly. The chemicals in holistic products by definition can cause dangerous side effects. Therefore in many cases holistic products offer the worst of both worlds. They offer the potential for serious side effects, without any significant chance of benefitting the patient. How on earth could a person who would prescribe such a product be considered more honest than average?

I’m not opposed to holistic treatments that are shown to work. I’m not opposed to anything that works. But holistic practitioners who peddle unproven goods are just as bad as mainstreamers who do the same. In fact, they’re worse, because they manipulate people into believing that they’re more honest when in fact they’re less honest. At least big pharma admits it’s in it for the money. Holistic practitioners lie to their patients, and probably themselves.

However, I know a few holistic practitioners who do admit, privately, that they’re in it for the money. I have met several vets who took acupuncture certification courses strictly in order to build revenue streams. I have heard a few vets talk about the profit margins they enjoy on holistic consultations and on holistic products. Adding holistic and alternative medicine is considered by many practice management consultants to be a good way to build a practice and to increase its profits.

I have known a few holistic practitioners who cheated outright. I have seen several cases in which dogs went to holistic practitioners for treatment of skin problems. The dogs went home on a slew of herbs that I’ve never heard of, as well as one treatment that I know well: prednisone. Prednisone is just about the least holistic product on earth. It’s a synthetic steroid. And it will make dogs stop itching, which will make it look like the herbs are working. The owners of these dogs were, in my opinion, victims of fraud. They thought that they were treating their dogs naturally, when in fact they were administering a bunch of useless (and potentially dangerous) herbs along with an old-school, hard core conventional drug.

People who still trust the good nature of holistic practitioners should consider the following solicitation I recently received. My inbox and spam folders are full of items like this one (name changed to protect the scoundrel):

Dear Sirs

i have a holistic skin care product that works as well as a prescription drug with out the side effects. its great for multiple skin issues common in animals, hot spots, ringworm , wounds or allergic itchy skin. see our website i would love to send you samples for your review

thank you in advance

Snake Oil Peddler

Let’s break this solicitation down. First, it is written in the style of, and with the grammar of, a 419 scam. Second, it claims its product will do everything. Third, it claims that the product has no risks.

I would love for such a product to exist. I also would love for Santa Claus to come down my chimney and leave me presents each year. If the peddler of the snake oil would care to send me the results of a peer-reviewed, double-blinded randomized study that proves his claims, then I will be delighted to prescribe the product. However, I won’t be holding my breath.

The person who sent me the solicitation isn’t interested in running studies or helping dogs. He’s just in it for the money.

Photos via Shutterstock: Dog on vet’s table, prescription, dog held by vet

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