Believe in alternative medicine

Homeopathy: Faith alone can heal

My editor asks me to write an article about whether homeopathy works or not. Nothing easier than that. It just depends on who you ask.

As a science journalist, I am fascinated by animal medicine, among other things. That's why I decided to take a look at the part-time training as an animal healer. In doing so, you come into contact - whether you want to or not - with homeopathy, especially with its proponents.

From a scientific point of view, the answer to my editor's question is clear. Pretty much all double-blind studies show that there is no effect beyond the placebo effect. Double-blind studies, in which neither the patient nor the treating person know which pill contains an active ingredient and which does not, are the be-all and end-all of modern medicine. If a drug to be tested does not work better in one patient group than a few sugar globules in another patient group, it simply doesn't help. Point.

Still, there are people like my girlfriend who say that "studies can't prove everything". She pours her flowers according to the lunar calendar and is convinced "that there is much in this world that we do not yet understand".

This may actually be true for many as yet unexplored phenomena. But when an entire industry is built on pure belief, that's going too far. Likewise, when the scientific doubts about homeopathy are dismissed as nonsense at a large German alternative practitioner school.

Dream job as a veterinarian. The animal healer is a less study-intensive alternative

For further reading: Comment: Put an end to the homeopathy hocus-pocus

Belief instead of science

It happens once per lesson. Then the trainer holds her ode to homeopathy in the animal healer class. It doesn't matter which topic is being dealt with. There is always time to talk about the healing power of homeopathy. "There are people who claim that homeopathy doesn't work. They just have no idea." It sounds contemptuous. About a dozen animal health practitioner students nod and smile in agreement. But me. I try not to roll my eyes too visibly.

Now it would be a good moment for the lecturer to explain why homeopathy is being criticized. That numerous studies have shown that the remedies do not work better than a dummy drug - and why that could be. She could talk about what the placebo effect actually is. Because it plays an extremely important role in all of medicine and pharmacy. Shouldn't that be taught in a non-medical practitioner school?

But no. "It is said that when a person takes a drug, he can simply imagine that it works. But that cannot happen to animals." One pupil agrees with the conviction: "Of course, there can be no placebo effect in animals!" This dispels all scientific doubts about homeopathy. Lessons continue as usual.

Placebo effect also in animals

The placebo effect is more than just imagining something. The body actually responds to the dummy drug and the hope a patient attaches to it. This "healing power" through faith can also be measured.

Scientists have also shown several times that the placebo effect can also occur in animals. As early as 1962, the US psychologist Richard Herrnstein wrote in the journal "Science" about the "placebo effect in rats". In 2010, for example, veterinarians at North Carolina State University showed that dogs with epilepsy had fewer seizures when given a dummy drug.

Animals are not stupid and quickly pick up moods. If the pet owner regularly puts a few globules in the animal's mouth and firmly believes that everything will be better now, then he also exudes this hope. This can have a positive influence on the health of the animal - especially with sensitive animals such as horses. The phenomenon is called "placebo by proxy".

Homeopathy is particularly popular with horse owners.

Uncritical

The training of an animal healer includes the anatomy and physiology of dogs, cats and horses as well as the causes and symptoms of all kinds of diseases, including diagnosis through anamnesis, listening, palpation and, for example, reading blood counts. A really good chunk of learning material. Since alternative practitioners are neither allowed to operate nor prescribe medication, the healing methods concentrate primarily on herbal medicine and scientifically questioned methods such as acupuncture and homeopathy.

"I brought you a few books that I recommend for your studies," says another instructor. She holds up a long book that describes all the homeopathic remedies and their uses. It was written by a veterinarian, and the preface in particular is worth reading. "In it he writes that he used to not believe in homeopathy." Hearty, sometimes mocking laughter fills the room.

While trainers and students regularly accuse the pharmaceutical industry of merely wanting to rake in money, they show a remarkably uncritical behavior towards the companies that manufacture homeopathic medicines. "Why don't you go to an event like this where the companies present their products," the trainer even recommends. "It's always nice, there is also something good to eat and drink." How exactly does this differ from the events with which the pharmaceutical industry wants to keep doctors involved?

Herbal medicine is natural science - but homeopathy is not

For further reading:Do we need new EU laws against homeopathy?

The homicide argument

If homeopathy is such a good cure, why can't clinical trials find it? The argument of the followers: Homeopathy works differently for every person and every animal. If a remedy does not show any effect on one dog, then it is just not the right one for that particular dog and you have to keep looking for the right remedy. A killer argument, because it provides the reason for ineffectiveness at the same time.

The followers emphasize again and again that they have seen for themselves how well homeopathy can help. One would even like to believe them, because how great it would be if a few globules with zero active ingredient could actually ignite such powerful healing powers! But the question remains: How do the convinced determine the effectiveness? How do you know what would have happened if the dog hadn't gotten the drug? Maybe he would have recovered just as quickly on his own?

A friend recently told me that her cat got cystitis all the time. But with a homeopathic remedy, that always goes away quickly. My friend resolutely refused my suggestion to leave the remedy out and see if it doesn't get better on its own: "I can't do that to my cat, I always suffer when she has something!" An entire industry earns its money with precisely this need to somehow help with something.

Founder of homeopathy: Samuel Hahnemann

Discussion pointless

When it comes to homeopathy, one often hears the argument: "It can't do any harm". Yes, it can if the dog actually needed an antibiotic, but is now given globules. In addition, unnecessary pulling-out-of-your-pocket money is also a damage, because the money may be missing in the end for other, important things such as expensive food for cats with kidney disease or the vet.

I already know one thing: this time too, after the article has appeared, an acquaintance will speak to me who swears that homeopathy has cured him of a serious illness. Others will write that homeopathy also helps animals and children and that this is the resounding proof. Discussing just doesn't help.