The placebo effect on dogs and cats: true or false?

The placebo effect results in the improvement of the patient’s symptoms after the use of an inert substance. In dogs and cats, this phenomenon is difficult to study. However, it seems to involve little in the healing process. The placebo effect, said by animal caregivers, is a bias to prevent.

Can we heal without medicine? The body has its own resources that, in some pathologies, can be effective, but there are also limitations. The effect of placebos is recognized by humans, what about animals? Are dogs and cats susceptible to the placebo effect? To answer this question, let’s start at the beginning… How does placebo, a drug with no active ingredient, work?

What is the effect of placebo?

The word placebo comes from Latin and means “Please”. It is widely studied about human health, although some of its mysteries still remain.

In medicine, it is the observation of the improvement of a patient’s condition while the treatment administered has no self-efficacy. The placebo effect can be the result of a “fake” medication with no active ingredient, or from a medical procedure after which the patient feels better even though it has no specific beneficial effect on his or her pathology. The important thing is to convince the person of the effectiveness of his or her treatment.

Numerous studies have shown the effect of placebo in humans. The effectiveness of placebo is related to psychological phenomena such as conditioning (the patient is placed in the right condition for his or her recovery; more effective if the person has already received the “real” medication) or suggestion (the doctor confirms that the treatment is effective. patient). In the brain, the release of molecules such as dopamine or endorphins (natural analgesics) occurs.

In humans, the effect of placebo varies from one person to another. On the other hand, it is often difficult to identify a natural cure for the disease. The placebo effect also works with “real” drugs, increasing its effect on the active ingredient.

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What was the effect of placebo on animals?

As we have seen for humans, the placebo effect is largely related to the patient’s expectation of recovery. What about the animals?

This psychological aspect seems difficult to consider on the part of beings who may have no clear knowledge of the disease and even more so with no hope of a possible cure.

Studies on the topic are sparse and often vague or contradictory. Two studies in mice illustrate this: In 2012, researchers replaced a morphine solution with saline solution and showed a placebo effect on pain in 30 to 40% of the mice studied. . In 2014, another study in mice found no strong evidence of the effectiveness of a placebo in a pain-relieving procedure.

However, it is believed that the placebo effect may operate within the framework of classical conditioning; Just as Pavlov conditioned his dogs to spit at the sound of a bell (in addition to presenting food), taking medication followed by the progress of the animal clinic can, after all, lead to progress. in his condition each time the procedure. repeated (taking a tablet or making an injection, even if there is no active ingredient).

On the other hand, if the white coat effect is also one of the components of the placebo effect in humans (who feel assured of care), the same fact is not guaranteed in animal patients. stress due to visiting the vet …

In addition, in domestic animals such as dogs and cats, the placebo effect present in the animal is difficult to analyze due to the intervention… in humans.

The placebo effect on dogs and cats: true or false?
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In cats and dogs: effect of placebo on the caregiver?

Who has never bothered to check the health status of their sick dog, watch for the first signs of a medication or, at least, a little better? This placebo effect is known to owners, and veterinarians, as the “placebo effect on the animal caregiver”.

In 2012, a study of 58 dogs with osteoarthritis highlighted this particular phenomenon. Half of the canines received a placebo, the other half an anti-inflammatory. The subjective ratings of caregivers and owners were compared with the objective ratings of force platforms. Among animals that received placebo, 40% of owners and 44% of veterinarians noticed an improvement in lameness while no change was reported in force plates. The authors concluded that the placebo effect on caregivers is consistent for dogs suffering from osteoarthritis, when in fact they do not heal … The placebo effect on caregivers meets their expected and not a fact of the animal patient’s condition. It turned out to be a bit perverse …

In conclusion, when it comes to healing, it is better not to rely on the placebo effect in dogs and cats… or on subjective observations, such as the owner’s feelings. On the other hand, a good large dose of love is always recommended!

Isabelle Vixege

veterinary doctor


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