Does the placebo effect work on animals?

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The placebo effect is a well-documented part of medicine. The idea is simply that if you give someone a false medicine they will sometimes get better or show improvements simply because they thought they were getting medicine. It is amazing that it works at all and shows how strange the body and mind work. While it works on humans there are many who feel it also works on animals. Let’s take a look at how that could be possible.

For years it was believed that animals could not fall victim to the placebo effect. However, placebos were used often in studies to form a baseline. The idea is that if a drug was being tested to solve epilepsy in animals they needed to be able to compare to another animal that was not being treated and so administered a placebo. They actually give the animal a fake pill so that those conducting the study don’t know who is the placebo patient either. However, some results have shown that the animal on the placebo pill also showed some positive results, and a reduction in epileptic fits.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the dog is having a placebo effect. The whole point of administering the placebo was to establish a baseline and that baseline may just be an improving one. Epilepsy, in particular, is a condition that goes through cycles. It may be that the pets in the study were all entered at a time when their fits were at a rough point. As the study went on they may have simply been doing a little better. The pill may have not explained the entire improvement.

Similarly, the placebo effect may not be related to the animal, it may be related to the human. If a person is putting their pet in the study they will likely ensure they are giving the right medication at the right time and looking after their dog, when at other times they may be more forgetful. Again this would not mean the dog has a placebo effect, just that the study has caused the human to behave better.

There is an increasing number of studies that suggest the placebo effect is real. The most well-known example is Pavlov’s dog. This experiment is now incredibly famous. Pavlov would ring a bell before feeding his dog every day. Before long all he would need to do was ring the bell and his dog would salivate even if there was no food around. The bell is not exactly a placebo but it shows that animals can respond to conditioning and conditioning can be used as a form of placebo.

This was done recently with mice. Mice with immune deficiency issues were given a drug and some sweet water. Over time the drug was removed and only the sweet water remained. The mice continued to show improvements off the sweet water alone. This basically shows that the placebo effect works in animals.

However, it likely does not work in the same way that it works in humans. Humans have a large placebo effect because we believe that something is going to cure us and this positive thought helps it to take place. It is unlikely that animals have this expectation of a drug or this level of understanding. Instead, it is likely that some form of conditioning is taking place. Perhaps the animal doesn’t understand why something is happening but they have seen it happen before and have come to expect it.

While this is interesting there is unlikely reason to pursue this line of work and determine how important the placebo effect is for animals. Although it appears it could be used to treat some animals it could be considered cruel if it actually was. If an animal is ill and a pain killer can make them feel better, it is better to give them the pain killer then to try out a placebo. The results are still incredibly interesting and shed further light on the animal brain.