Considered to be a medical phenomenon, the placebo effect is produced by a substance which is not the result of the substance itself. It’s any psychological or physical effect where the patient’s belief, or expectation, after treatment is that the placebo treatment is working. And it’s not limited to one health condition, it can affect a wide variety of ailments.
Placebos can exist in the form of a pill, injection, or surgery. The brain essentially convinces us that the treatment worked. But they don’t necessarily shrink a tumor per se, as Professor Ted Kaptchuk states: “Placebos may make you feel better, but they will not cure you. They have been shown to be most effective for conditions like pain management, stress-related insomnia, and cancer treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea.”
In the case of scientific research, placebos are commonly used in clinical trials to assess the effectiveness of a new drug. Some participants will receive the drug being evaluated and others will take something like a sugar pill. Any effects shown by the placebo group will be compared against those who receive the real medication. And drugs are only proved to be successful if it generates a stronger, more measurable effect than the placebo.
We’re pretty familiar with the placebo effect in human medicine at this point. And whether or not placebos are a failure or success for humans is up for debate.
There is something to be said about how powerful our brains are at convincing us that a certain treatment is making us feel better. Nonetheless, is it really changing the root of the condition we want to address? After all, humans are notoriously good at persuasion, self-deception, and setting expectations. And that brings us to the placebo effect and our dogs.
Can our dogs hold certain beliefs and expectations about a treatment working or not?
Well…not really. But that’s where you potentially might enter into the equation. There’s no such thing as a placebo effect in animals because our dogs can’t truly know to what extent a treatment can work or not. Despite having our pet’s best interests at heart, this can leak into positive projections and warped understandings on how they may be reacting. This is where the caregiver placebo effect comes in. A placebo by proxy if you will. And yes, it’s a real thing.
The ‘Caregiver Placebo Effect’ as a dog owner
So here’s the thing about owning a dog, or any pet for that matter—we only want to do what’s best for them. To see them suffer is painful. That’s why, if there’s something that we believe can provide them relief, we’ll administer it with that hope and expectation. This is the caregiver placebo effect at play. Dogs can’t verbally tell us how they feel. They don’t really grasp what medication is, nevermind how it’s supposed to help them. But pet owners definitely do. And it’s pet owners and veterinarians that will be merely observers in the changes (or absence of) experienced by dogs undergoing a treatment.
When you’re evaluating the effectiveness of a drug or supplement your dog is taking—the caregiver placebo effect takes place if you’re perceiving an improvement in behavior or symptoms when there is none.