The “Placebo Effect” in Veterinary Medicine

The placebo effect is a known factor in human medicine.  It occurs when a patient feels that they are benefiting from a fake pill or treatment, often given to patients in double-blind studies when researchers are testing new medications.

Is there a placebo effect for pets?  A recent article in The Atlantic addresses this question.

While our pets don’t know what kind of medicine they are getting, we as owners do know.  It turns out that placebos can trick owners into thinking that their pets are feeling better.

In one study on a canine epilepsy drug, 79% of owners with dogs on the placebo reported a reduction in seizures.

How does this happen?  Veterinary experts report that we have “blind spots” about our pets, and our perceptions of their health don’t always match up with reality.  This often happens when pet owners are aware that their pets are being studied and they have an expectation that they will see an improvement.

The placebo effect among pet owners is similar to what’s known as the “caregiver placebo effect.”  When a patient—human or animal—can’t speak about how they are feeling, the caregiver must observe and judge the effects of a treatment.

The article points to one canine arthritis drug study where the perceptions of both owners and veterinarians were compared to actual physical exams.  It turns out that even the vets were guilty of the caregiver placebo effect.

The danger of the veterinary placebo effect is that our pets may continue to suffer while we think that they are feeling better.  Veterinarians note that it’s natural for us to want our pets to feel better, we just have to be aware of our perceptions and expectations.