The practice of “animal homeopathy” is disturbingly widespread, although to put it bluntly — it doesn’t work. A new review study conducted by German researchers confirmed that there is absolutely no evidence that homeopathy works on livestock.

Livestock antibiotics

I wish people would just stop trying to milk homeopathy. Image via Pixabay.

We give homeopathy a lot of flak… but it’s pretty well deserved. It’s not just that the principle is scientifically invalid, and that it is a method relying simply on diluting substances until those substances aren’t even there anymore. Study after study has shown that homeopathy doesn’t work, and it often prevents people from using a medical approach which actually works. This is why the World Health Organization warns against using it and the FDA says that it is “not aware of scientific evidence to support homeopathy as effective.” You can search far and wide, but no reputable organization or research institute supports its usage. This is why it seems even more bizarre that people are using it — not only on themselves but also on animals. While this study will likely not convince hardcore homeopathy-quackery fans, it can go a long way towards promoting awareness around the lack of efficiency of homeopathy.

No one really likes antibiotics in livestock, but we use them for a simple and straightforward reason: they work. Risking disease spreading in animal farms is a recipe for disaster, and antibiotics block the spread of diseases or even prevents their development completely. With most farms being extremely crowded and not the most hygienic places in the world, the need for antibiotics is evident.

However, there are also concerns generated by this widespread usage. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that nearly 90% of the total use of antimicrobials in the United States was for non-therapeutic purposes in agricultural production. Globally, 70% of all antibiotics administered are used for livestock, and many of these drugs are misused or simply administered for the purpose of weight gain — not something particularly healthy. To make things even worse, the ever-growing danger of drug-resistant pathogens looms largely in this antibiotic usage, and both farmers and researchers are looking for alternatives. Probiotics, prebiotics, and bacteriophages have all been discussed, but much more work is required before these can become viable methods.

Others, however, have turned to something else.

Ho-moo-opathy

From the perspective of many farmers, homeopathy provides a natural and healthy alternative to antibiotics, so why not use it? After all, they likely hear lots of people telling them it works (either due to ignorance or simply with an intention to sell) and it seems medicinal enough. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t work — and this is exactly why such studies are so important. The study reads:

“‘Antibiotic-free’ or ‘raised without antibiotics’ labelled products are enjoying increased popularity in both Europe and the USA. This development is fuelled by, among others, mis- and overuse of antibiotics in human and animal medicine, which has promoted the development of resistant strains of bacteria worldwide (Laxminarayan and others 2013). Correspondingly, many farmers and veterinarians see homeopathy as an alternative for treating diseases in farm animals and thus reducing the consumption of antibiotics.”

They started out by digging up all the studies which mentioned homeopathy usage in animals. From these 4,448 publications, they selected a mere 48 which fit the relevance and overall scientific criteria. Yes, as you may have realized by now, quality studies on animal homeopathy are pretty scarce. Even so, almost all studies were published in questionable homeopathy journals, most likely because non-homeopathy journals wouldn’t publish this type of effort. Fifteen doctoral theses on homeopathy in livestock were available, and some of them featured several clinical trials. All in all, the studies included 52 clinical trials, with a mixed back of backgrounds and a mixed bag of results.

The review couldn’t really assess the efficacy of homeopathy because they found serious flaws in the studies. They found 28 studies which reported some improvement following homeopathy — interestingly, most studies focusing on pigs. Cattle and poultry were less responsive to homeopathy.

Wait… doesn’t this mean that homeopathy works?

Well, the problem when working with pseudoscience is you publish in pseudoscience journals, which means that the scientific standard is often just not there. The studies fell short in terms of reproducibility, rigor, and quality. Small sample size and lack of double-blind conditions were also ubiquitous. For instance, pigs who were given homeopathic solutions likely receive better overall treatment than those who receive nothing at all — so it’s impossible to attribute any improvement to the solutions alone.

Oh, and those are the studies that did find a difference. In almost half of the studies published by homeopathy, in homeopathy journals, found no difference between the method and a placebo.

“The remedy used did not seem to make a big difference,” coauthors Caroline Doehring and Albert Sundrum, both of the University of Kassel in Germany, wrote in their paper. “Looking at all the studies, no study was repeated under comparable conditions.”

Even more, they found significant conflicts of interest for the authors, something which again, should not be tolerated in scientific publishing.

“Often, studies were financially supported, eg, by the producer of the homeopathic or conventional remedy,” Doehring and Sundrum wrote. “In one trial, all of the researchers worked for the supplier of the homeopathic remedy.”

It’s essentially impossible to prove a negative, so you can’t really show that livestock homeopathy is not effective, but they did show the lack of evidence when it comes to the method. The study concludes:

“The current evidence of studies providing evidence in favour of homeopathy lacks reproducibility and therefore cannot claim to have sufficient prognostic validity. No general conclusions can be drawn as to whether a homeopathic remedy shown to be significantly more effective than a control treatment in a specific context is also effective in a different context or under different conditions (as the previous trial describes). It cannot be concluded whether it is better, worse or ineffective.”

Journal Reference: C. Doehring and A. Sundrum — Efficacy of homeopathy in livestock according to peer-reviewed publications from 1981 to 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/vr.103779

Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!

Like us on Facebook

Your opinion matters -- voice it in the comments below!