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Placebo Is Also Effective In Dogs

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For a dog, being left alone can be frightening. Some dogs get so nervous that they tear down your things, scratch up your front door, and bark loudly. Fortunately now, it looks like there might be a solution and it is pretty simple.

The placebo effect is conventionally thought to need some sort of conscious awareness. That sugar pill you just took helps your headache only because YOU THINK it will work.

Recent research with rats challenged that hypothesis, and now it seems like placebos can deceive dogs too.

Although placebos may involve both physiological and psychological changes, it’s typically thought of as being driven by social factors, often involving authoritative, reliable people providing definite information. For example, “This pill will make you sleepy.” But it can also be a lot simpler.

Placebo effect can be activated by the simplest form of learning known as classical conditioning.

The idea is actually quite simple. The animal (or person) makes an association between an active substance and some neutral stimulus. In “conditioned placebo” effect, it could be the taste, smell, or color of the substance, or some environmental signal having to do with the treatment process itself, like the place where it is managed. After the treatment is administered multiple times, the process can be done or offered without the active ingredient. If it still results in the same physiological or behavioral effects, then a placebo effect has been successful.

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Correct Platform

Domestic dogs are so uniquely harmonious to human social cognitive cues and bond so closely with their owners, they’re also vulnerable to separation anxiety. It can be pharmacologically treated by using a drug called Sedalin — a tranquilizer. It acts as a depressant and results in both neurobiological and behavioral changes.

Hungarian ethologistsZsófiaSümegi, MártaGácsi, and JózsefTopálset out to discover whether the  placebo effect exists in dogs or not. The researchers weren’t necessarily asking if using a placebo effect was a useful cure for separation anxiety. Instead, they used separation anxiety as a way to see if dogs are susceptible to the placebo effect.

They rounded up 28 dogs whose owners reported severe separation anxiety. To avoid any potential confusion, they ruled out dogs who were already taking meds and who had any known health problems. While the owners all gave informed consent, they were not told if their dogs would be receiving the Sedalin or a vitamin instead.

The researchers used a form of the “strange situation” to measure the dogs’ anxiety. It began as an experiment designed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth to evaluate the quality of human parent-child relationships.  It may seem like a crazy idea, but it is logical since the dog-owner relationship has often been compared to the parent-child relationship.

The strange situation modified for dogs had four stages: first the dog was introduced to a new room with its owner. Then the owner left the dog alone. After two minutes, a stranger entered the room and tried to mingle with the dog. Then the stranger left, and the owner returned. It’s all a bit unnatural, but evaluation of a dog’s behavior in each of these situations shows important information about how stressful it is to be separated from his owner.

After finding the baseline, each dog had three conditioning trials that were done on different days. Half of the dogs were given a dose of Sedalin before each trial, while the others were given a vitamin. Both the vitamins and Sedalin were hidden in liverwurst. All the dogs were given a spray of water on their muzzles and paws. The water spritz was meant to ritualize the process.

During the conditioning trials, the owners never left the room. The idea was that the researchers wanted to make an association between the dogs’ relaxed feelings and the testing room instead of between the medication and the owner’s disappearance. As predicted, the dogs given the medication were more relaxed, including when the owner left the room, than were the dogs given a vitamin.

On the final day, came thetest trial. All the dogs received the vitamin this time. Consistent with the placebo effect, those dogs who had previously taken the Sedalin still demonstrated the same relaxed behaviors, despite not being given the drug itself. The dogs’ behavior during the test trial depended on whether they’d been given the drug during the prior trials.

Sümegi and her team confirmed that the placebo effect was not limited to humans or laboratory animals. It is probably more common in the animal kingdom. It doesn’t even need consciousness or obvious verbal instructions.

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Conditioning

By stressing the environmental and procedural aspects of the drug administration instead of explicitly linking the medication with owner separation, the researchers assured their own success. The focus was on the dogs’ inner psychological condition, rather than on the separation itself.

“During the conditioning trials dogs had the opportunity to learn about the ‘relaxed nature’ of the environment,” Sümegi writes, “but they had no opportunity to learn how to cope with separation distress under the influence of Sedalin.”

It is thusoutstanding how well the dogs learned to cope as the experiment went on. They learned to associate their own relaxed feeling with either the ritualized procedure (liverwurst and water spritzing), or with the testing room, or both. It allowed them to stay calm when separated from their owners.

While the experiment was planned to investigate the nature of the placebo effect, the findings still have practical applications. Dogs with extreme separation anxiety are often given medication or behavioral therapy. These therapeutic interventions can be expensive, and there are welfare concerns involved in continually treating dogs with anti-anxiety medications. This finding also has important implications.

It also highlights the importance of the administration procedure itself.

“Our results suggest that by applying a specific regimen, that is, administrating the medicine always with the same environmental cues, for example with the same specific food type and with a set ritual,” the researchers write, “the real medicine can later be effectively replaced by placebo.”

It will save the owner the cost of the medication and it may also avoid the need to continually medicate dogs. They also added that more research will be important to determine what procedures are most effective in inducing the placebo effect in canines.

 

Images: Erháld Borbáth/Flickr, scott1346/Flickr, Tyler Allen/Flickr

Source: Science Direct