Debunking "Alternative" Medicine

Veterinarians Torture Animals With Alt Med After California Wildfires

The California wildfires during late 2017 lead to massive and widespread damage to forests and homes. Not only that, but it also harmed a lot of wildlife, including bears and mountain lions.

Now, quack veterinarians are giving fake treatments like acupuncture and chiropractic to animals with third-degree burns on their paws. Like always, the alternative medicine practitioners offers to flimsiest of excuses for why they need to apply their quackery and to a certain extent replaced science-based pain treatment and management with ineffective treatments.

This means that animals with severe burns suffer due to pseudoscientific ideologies.

What is alternative medicine?

Alternative medicine is largely a scam. Most of it has been shown to not work or has never been tested. Either way, the crushing majority of claims made by alternative medicine proponents are either flat-out wrong or wholly unsupported by any shred of evidence. Treatments that have been tested and found to work are simply called medicine. Alternative medicine, like “alternative facts”, is just a deceptive way to market fake treatments to exploit people with serious medical conditions or obsessed with “wellness”.

Thousands of clinical trials and other studies have been carried out on different forms of alternative medicine, from homeopathy to extreme diets for cancer, and almost all have come up showing that there is no clinically meaningful benefit. Those that have shown an effect are typically plagued by methodological problems or have effects that are so small as to be practically meaningless and probably the result of residual bias.

The last-ditch case that alternative medicine pushers use is to claim that their fake treatments are really just “harnessing the power of placebo”. In reality, using alleged placebo medicine is ineffective, deceptive, unethical, pseudoscience and harmful.

A common objection made by quacks is that alternative medicine must work since it is (allegedly successfully) used on animals. Those animals, the argument goes, could not be affected by placebo effects. This is, of course, incorrect as placebo effects are just an umbrella term for all effects not directly related to the active ingredient in the treatment. Even worse, the improvement in animals are often rated by humans not blinded to the treatment, so the placebo effects and cognitive biases operate on the humans themselves. Giving fake treatments to animals to treat real medical is wasteful, ineffective and a scam.

What were the December 2017 Southern California wildfires?

During 2017, a total of 9 133 fires raged in the U.S. state of California that covered 1 248 606 acres (~5053 square kilometers). That is comparable to the size of the African nation of Trinidad and Tobago or twice the size of Luxembourg. California experienced its largest ever wildfire in modern times during December of 2017 called the Thomas Fire, which had a size of over 280 000 acres (~1133 square kilometers) and cost over 177 million dollars to fight. During the 2017 period, California experienced its largest and most destructive forest fires and the third most deadly. Many factors contributed to the fires, including exceptional dry vegetation, persistent Santa Ana winds and low humidity.

What animals are they “treating”?

A recent article (cache) published in Times Magazine pushed a gullible story about how alternative medicine had helped animals harmed by the California wildfires. That could not be further from the truth.

The Time Magazine story reported that veterinarians used different kinds of fake treatments to three animals harmed by the California wildfires: two bears and one mountain lion. One of the bears was pregnant and the mountain lion was so young that it would not be released into the wild afterwards. The animals had suffered third degree burns on all of their paws.

There is more information at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website about the story.

What fake treatments are being given and why?

The veterinarians at Integrative Medicine Service at the University of California, Davis used a variety of fake treatments, including acupuncture, chiropractic treatment and cold-laser therapy. Even more surprising, they used wrapping wounds in fish skin. Although they were not batshit enough to think that things like acupuncture or chiropractic would actually heal the burn damage, they used just as flimsy rationalizations for why they used it:

Standard pain treatment is a problem for both the animals and their caregivers when it comes to wildlife with sharp teeth and claws, Peyton said. For safety, vets have to heavily sedate the animals every time they change their bandages or otherwise care for them.

“You can only anesthetize them so many times,” Peyton said. “It’s hard on them. We can’t do that to them every day.”

Putting pain pills in food also is problematic, because there’s no guarantee the animals will eat them, Peyton said.

In other words, the alternative medicine veterinarians used e. g. acupuncture as an “alternative” pain treatment. The argument was that science-based pain treatment could not be used frequently enough and that the animals might not eat the food if pain pills are delivered with them. So instead, they stop science-based pain treatment and replaced it with a fake treatment. How that is supposed to make the pain less severe is not explained. In reality, the animals would just have the same level and amount of pain due to the burn damages and also pain from getting needles stuck into the paws.

How were these fake treatments delivered?

Vets carried out the alternative treatments only on days when the bears and mountain lion were already anesthetized for bandage changes or other standard care.

Predictably, these fake treatments were applied at the same time as standard, evidence-based care was given. Like clockwork, alternative medicine quacks will take credit for any improvement and attribute it to their fake treatments even though real treatments were also used and much more likely to be the cause of the improvement.

Here is another close-up picture of the burnt paws with acupuncture needles stuck into them:

What about the fish skins?

The California vets stitched the fish skins to the animals’ burned paws, then wrapped the treated feet with bandages of rice paper and corn husks, after reading about trials on human burn victims in Brazil that placed treated skins from tilapia, a ubiquitous species of fish, on burn victims to soothe pain and promote healing.

Doctors routinely graft skin from humans and pigs to burns, but fish skins have the advantage of being more readily available.

“We made little spring rolls with their feet,” Peyton said.

While it is true that there is at least some research being done on using fish skin, it has nowhere near the amount of evidence as standard of care methods for treating burn damage. It is also a suspect method as bears eat fish and might be even more tempted to bite off their bandages when fish skin has been put on it due to the smell.

The bottom line is that most of the alternative “treatments” used by the veterinarians are unsupported or contradicted by the evidence and was used in conjunction with standard treatment or carried out during bandage changes. To the degree they partly replaced conventional treatment, this means torturing animals based on ideology, both by withholding effective pain management and sticking needles in them or used unnecessary force against their spines.

Failure of journalistic integrity

The only hint of a critical thought in the Time Magazine was the following sentence:

Many health-insurance companies consider some of the treatments experimental or unproven, and do not always cover their costs in human patients.

Why not bring in quotes and commentary from science-based veterinarians? Scientists and medical experts that have thoroughly studied these fake treatments? Engaged with the scientific literature?

The answer would very well be that it would crush the cosy spirit of the story.

But scientific reality is much more important than a nice story. With the increasing pressure to get clicks and advertisement impressions, the scientific quality and critical thinking content of newspaper stories are often compromised or eliminated altogether. This is one such example.

Journalists have an intellectual responsibility to report the facts accurately and not compromise their integrity for views.

Image attribution: both images in this post come from the Thomas Fire Bears Flickr album that can be found here from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife account.


Debunker of pseudoscience.

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