Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Needless Treatment of Pets

By Tanya Stephens

The emergence of complementary and alternative medicine in veterinary clinics is a serious threat to animal welfare and the reputation of veterinarians.

The postmodern mindset has had serious implications for the standing of science in general, and veterinary science has not been immune. At its extreme, postmodernism views science as simply one among a variety of subjective explanations for the way we perceive the physical world. Science is downgraded to mere opinion, and scientists’ professional voices are diminished.

One consequence of this postmodern context is not only the burgeoning of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) for humans, but the equivalent in veterinary science – the emergence of complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM).These “alternatives” to veterinary medical science pose a serious threat to the maintenance of ethical standards within the profession since they are not based on the scientific method and rigour expected of a professional body of practitioners.

In their 2004 book, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Considered, which examines the usefulness of CAVM extensively, D.W. Ramey and B.E. Rollin posed some highly pertinent questions:

Is it acceptable for a professional to do just anything under the guise of good intentions, or do they have an obligation to show that they are actually doing something helpful for the animals for which they care? If they do have such an obligation, then clearly, they must separate safe treatments from unsafe, and effective from ineffective… to a large extent, they have, and alternatives to scientific medical practice have consistently been found wanting.

Rollin has stated that “society expects medicine to be science- and evidence-based, and charters veterinary medicine accordingly”, concluding that it is “a violation of veterinary medicine's moral obligation to society to do otherwise.”

Webster commented a year later that “society at large shies away from the stern discipline of evidence-based scientific reason into the mushy embrace of such things as homeopathy and herbal medicine”.

The continued use of “therapies” that have been shown to be ineffective is clearly not in keeping with the scientific basis and expectations of the veterinary profession, and have animal welfare and ethical implications. Is it ethical to charge for therapies known to be worthless? And what of the animal in pain that is offered only acupuncture, which has been shown to be both implausible and ineffective in animals?

It is concerning that the use of CAVM in the profession is justified by some as a matter of opinion, like having an opinion on the live export of sheep. That demonstrates a misunderstanding of what CAVM is.

If veterinarians replace evidence-based medicine with “opinion-based medicine”, they lose both credibility as veterinary scientists and a legitimate claim to be the primary source of information and views on animal health and welfare. The use of CAVM in the profession also has the potential to affect adversely the regulation, and hence the professional standing, of veterinarians.

Some claim that much of what veterinarians do is not based on science anyway, which is hardly a justification for using therapies based on no science. It is also untrue. The veterinary profession may have lagged behind the medical profession historically in its use of evidence-based medicine (EBM) but many evidence-based veterinary medicine (EBVM) resources are now readily available.

In the USA, SkeptVet is a popular blog, and the EBVM Association is very active. American equine veterinarian David Ramey has an excellent website on EBVM (www.doctorramey.com).

The Centre for Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nottingham has launched the critically appraised topic database BestBETs for Vets (bestbetsforvets.org/) and the freely accessible VetSRev online database of citations for systematic reviews that are relevant to veterinary medicine and science (www.nottingham.ac.uk/cevm/vetsrev).

Also from the UK comes RCVS Knowledge, a new international EBVM collaboration sponsored and organised by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (www.knowledge.rcvs.org.uk).

CAVM has failed to gain recognition from specialist and scientific veterinary associations, including those in the USA, European Union and the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists. As well as this, most CAVM courses in the USA have been denied points awarded for continuing education (CE).

In Australia the Australian Veterinary Association has two special interest groups devoted to CAVM – the Australian Integrative Vets and the Australian Veterinary Acupuncture Group, both of which have sessions at the AVA Annual Conference and run courses that are eligible for CE points. Murdoch University’s Veterinary School teaches CAVM, and provides consultations in CAVM at its veterinary clinic.

The first priority of the veterinarian is the health and welfare of animals, and the use of ineffective and implausible “therapies” by veterinarians is of great concern. There are serious welfare and ethical implications with the use of CAVM. Animals, unlike humans, are unable to seek independent medical advice.

Tanya Stephens is a small animal practice owner with a background in research, a member of three animal ethics committees, the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists in Animal Welfare, the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal, and a past member of the NSW Veterinary Surgeons Board. She is a published author on veterinary professional ethics.