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10 August 2018

Gluten-free dogs? Pets deserve better than this evidence-free fad

Animal owners are increasingly falling for potentially risky fad pet diets or homeopathic alternatives to vaccines, warn vets Danny Chambers and Zoe Belshaw

Silhouette of a person lifting up their cat
We want the best for our pets, but when it comes to untested treatments, curiosity could kill the cat

Tim Gainey/Alamy Stock Photo

Despite overwhelming evidence of vaccines’ efficacy and safety, the anti-vaccine lobby is growing. Raw and grain-free diets with unproven health claims are also gaining popularity. Proponents of homeopathy continue to argue that the power of their treatments cannot be validated using traditional scientific methods.

Familiar territory, you may think. But we’re not talking about human healthcare. This is pet dogs and cats.

Recently, the aggressive promotion of alternative therapies for animal diseases has become widespread. Closed Facebook groups, some with tens of thousands of members, discuss their mistrust of vets and the pharmaceutical industry, urging the use of “safer” options such as homeopathy, reiki, Chinese medicine and chiropractic interventions. In some groups, pet psychics even offer direct therapy via Facebook Messenger. Such is the level of suspicion about animal vaccines, that the British Veterinary Association put out a statement this year to dispel the myth that they are linked to autism in dogs.
The most recent manifestation of such distrust is a backlash against supposedly dangerous ingredients in commercially available dog and cat diets. Hence these groups advising members to feed their pets raw meat-based, grain-free, organic, or even vegan diets, echoing human food fads such as gluten-free.

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Dodgy diets

Although well intentioned, these diets may not be safe or nutritionally complete. Late last month, the US Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into a possible link between grain-free dog food and a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. Many scientific reports exist of pets and their owners being poisoned by raw diets contaminated with bacteria. For cats, a meat-free diet is lethal if not supplemented with specific amino acids.

The idea that vets and major pharmaceutical companies are hiding the dangers of conventional medicines and the benefits of alternatives in order to make money defies logic. There is legislation that ensures veterinary prescription medicines undergo strict efficacy and safety testing before they are licenced for use. Government funded bodies ensure that data on adverse events is continually collected and that commercial pet food meets strict safety and quality standards.
Pet owners need to know that delaying or withholding effective treatments can cause animals to become more ill, and they could be prosecuted if their animal suffers because they did not seek veterinary advice.

But despite clear evidence that we love our pets, annual surveys of UK pet owners demonstrate that a growing percentage of owners are not providing their basic healthcare needs. In 2018, 13 per cent of owners surveyed said they did not believe in vaccinations for their dog and 17 per cent for cats. So, what is going on?

Amplified anecdotes

Social media has undoubtedly played a role. Closed Facebook groups can act as echo chambers where strong yet poorly evidenced claims may go unchallenged, and those who express a different viewpoint may be blocked.

Frequently, correlation and causation are confused – for example, vaccines are blamed for anything from epilepsy to sudden death. On social media, the power of the anecdote is amplified – a photo of a dog dying supposedly of an adverse vaccination reaction is much more impactful than a post highlighting the statistical likelihood of that being the case. These emotive posts feed into cognitive biases to look for simple answers to complex problems.

Conventional veterinary medicine may also be a victim of its own success. The fact that national vaccination campaigns have been so effective against previously common dog diseases such as distemper and parvovirus means that people are less aware of their dangers.

Information relation

So what is the solution?

It is difficult to engage in constructive dialogue with people who believe that anyone with a different opinion is part of a conspiracy or has ulterior motives. Similar to discussions surrounding climate change, simply presenting the scientific information can polarise people further; explaining statistics to those who are against vaccinations seems to have little effect.

Understanding how these beliefs form in the first place is key. Anti-science attitudes are more closely tied to an individual’s personal values and even their politics than their educational level.

Information needs to be presented in a way that affirms an individual’s values, not threatens them. People tend to trust information that comes from those they can relate to. Pet owners may trust others with the same breed of dog or who own a pet with a similar health condition more than they trust their vet.

Adults are, rightly or wrongly, free to ignore scientific wisdom and can elect to use unproven, ineffective or even dangerous alternatives to treat themselves. However, the health of animals is in the hands of those charged with their care, and both owners and vets have an ethical and legal responsibility to act in their best interest. We should not accept the use of ineffective or dangerous practices for pets simply to satisfy the beliefs of a small, but vocal, fringe group.

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