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Another way in which these therapies might be harmful is if they are used as an
alternative rather than alongside conventional treatment, which may delay or com-
pletely deny the animal access to necessary conventional veterinary or behavioural
The Placebo Effect
The placebo effect is when an improvement in health, behaviour, or a reduction of
signs or symptoms occurs that cannot be attributed to the treatment that has been
undertaken. During drug trials, a group of individuals is normally given a fake med-
ication that appears similar in every other way to the ‘real’ drug except that it con-
tains no therapeutic properties. Despite this, a significant number of the individuals
receiving the fake medication will report an improvement in their symptoms. When
the placebo effect occurs in humans, expectation of improvement can be a simple
explanation but this clearly cannot occur in animals. However, some authors and
studies report that placebo effect, or something very similar, does occur in animals
(McMillan, 1999). Simple coincidence can be a factor, i.e. the animal’s health or
behaviour would have improved anyway, plus, in the field of animal behaviour espe-
cially, there is also the high possibility of ‘indirect or vicarious efficacy’, whereby an
undesirable behaviour by the animal is triggered or closely linked to the owner’s
behaviour (Lees et al., 2017a). In other words, when the animal is ‘on medication’ the
owner no longer feels the need to perform a behaviour that may have triggered or
contributed to the undesirable behaviour in the animal, so the animal’s behaviour
improves. For example, the owner may feel the need to shout at the cat whenever he
suspects that the cat is about to spray urine on the furniture, but it is being shouted
at by the owner that triggers the urine marking. Once the cat is on medication to ‘cure
the urine marking’ the owner no longer feels the need to shout at the cat so the behav-
iour problem is resolved.
The placebo effect is not yet fully understood, and there are several theories as to
why an animal’s health or behaviour might improve without it being as a direct result
of medication, conventional or otherwise.
Armstrong, N.C. and Ernst, E. (2001) A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of
a Bach Flower Remedy. Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery 7,
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Cozzi, A., Monneret, P., Lafont-Lecuelle, C., Bougrat, L., Gaultier, E. and Pageat, P. (2010) The
maternal cat appeasing pheromone: exploratory study of the effects on aggression and
affiliative interactions in cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and
Research 5, 37–38.
Crowell-Davies, S.L. and Landsberg, G.M. (2009) Pharmacology and pheromone therapy. In:
Horwitz, D.F. and Mills, D. (eds), 2nd edn. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline
Behavioural Medicine. BSAVA, Gloucester, UK, pp. 245–258.