The Hay Festival is not a place where you might expect to learn about the treatment of animals: it’s an annual literature festival held in Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales, for ten days at the end of May every year.
Caroline Ingraham has written an interesting book – “How animals heal themselves” – which is presumably the reason she was given the opportunity to give an account of her subject at the Hay Festival last week. The BBC have created a podcast from her talk, but I believe that the editors were wrong to give her this uncritical forum to propagate her views. Caroline has a controversial belief in the ability of animals to choose their own medicine. There’s nothing wrong with her having these beliefs, but there is a problem when her views are broadcast without any “public health warning”. There is a serious risk that animals could suffer unnecessarily if members of the public follow her advice to the letter.
In her talk, Caroline recounts entertaining anecdotes of animals (including elephants, horses, dogs and cats) that have recovered following her approach of allowing them to choose their own treatment from vegetation and other substances in their natural environment, or from herbal products offered to them by Caroline. In her words, the animals “guide her to help them make a full recovery”. Caroline stresses the importance of “letting animals lead the way” for behavioural and physical problems.
As a vet in practice, I know that 70% of the animals brought to see me will recover by themselves, with no intervention or medication. Animals have evolved with strong internal natural healing capacity (it’s called homoeostasis) Our aim as vets is to assist the healing process using scientific methods. There are many reasons why animals may fail to heal themselves, and science can often help. Serious bacterial infections are cured by giving antibiotics that kill the bacteria. Coughing caused by a failing heart is stopped by giving diuretics that remove the fluid gathering in the lungs. Cancer can be cured by surgical excision, followed sometimes by drugs to slow the regrowth of cancer cells. These are all treatments that are scientifically proven: in trials, it has been shown that if some animals are given the treatment, and some are not, a significantly greater number of animals improve.
Caroline offers no such evidence: her treatments are all anecdotal. My concern is that she may be witnessing the “regression towards the mean” i.e. the ability of animals to heal themselves without human intervention. Since around 70% of animals may recover naturally, if you believe that any recovery that you witness was caused by your intervention, you will believe that your treatment “works” 70% of the time. While this may sound impressive, the truth is that your intervention is having zero effect. If Caroline wants to clearly demonstrate the efficacy of her methods, she needs to do what pharmaceutical companies are obliged to do: carry out trials that compare animals receiving her treatment with animals that receive no treatment (a so-called control group). If she does this, she will be able to say without question that any extra improvement in the treated group is due to her treatment. Without doing this, her claims have no scientific validation, and it’s hard for objective observers to take them seriously.
At the end of the talk, the presenter did ask Caroline if she was a scientist, and if her work was “evidence based research”. She replied “I am not a scientist but the subject of zoopharmacognacy is an academic science”.
Caroline says that in trying to develop her work, “resistance came in from a variety of different establishments that tried to make it really very difficult for me to continue this work.” There is a simple reason for this resistance: there is strong legislation in the UK to protect animals. Only vets are allowed to diagnose and treat animals. The law is there to stop (often well-meaning) unqualified people who may not be aware of their own ignorance from accidentally harming animals because of their lack of knowledge.
There may be some truth in Caroline’s claims: animals may be able to choose certain forms of self treatment for some physical and behavioural issues. But this has not been proven, and it is wrong to state it as fact. It just does not seem right when an unqualified person suggests that pets should be allowed to choose their own “pain relieving herbal remedies” rather than the safe proven methods of pharmaceutical pain relief recommended by the vet attending the animal. And it does not seem right that the BBC should give such a person an uncritical platform to disseminate her viewpoint.