The origins of gullibility: 'Veterinary' advice abounds

The origins of gullibility: 'Veterinary' advice abounds

Bad pet health information has been circulating for centuries.
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Feb 01, 2013

It was a Saturday morning much like any other except that I wasn't running behind schedule yet. We had already been open for more than an hour. Something had to be wrong. My Saturdays are usually overbooked well in advance.

An extra few minutes between office calls gave me time to worry. Was there a raging storm outside that I hadn't noticed? Was our business going down the tubes? Had the public learned the truth about us and gone elsewhere?


ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN OSTRANDER
This called for an investigation. A glance out the window debunked the storm theory, so I decided to examine the appointment book. Lo and behold, clients had been cancelling their routine vaccination appointments. Interrogation of the receptionists brought the matter into perspective. It seems that those who called had learned of serious side effects associated with vaccination. They had no intention of risking their pets' health by having them get dangerous shots, and no amount of convincing would change their minds.

Since I had some free time, I headed to my office to confirm a suspicion. The morning paper was waiting on my desk. And on page 38 was "The Newspaper Vet," an advice column by Tab Lloyd, DVM. The opening letter was from a lady whose dog had been a little sluggish for two days after his annual vaccinations. Instead of pointing out how important vaccination can be, Dr. Lloyd (who doesn't practice, of course) babbled with sympathy about the poor pet.

Any practicing veterinarian could have told you that this lady would have blamed the vaccines for her dog's symptoms even if the pooch had been hit by a car, treated for a gunshot wound or fallen from the third-floor window—possibly all three.

My next office call was Ken B. Leevit with his dog, Nephron. This particular bowwow had been in a state of compensated renal failure for months. We kept him going with fluids, diet and medication. The long-range prognosis was poor. At least, I thought it was. Mr. Leevit did not agree. He had found a new source of hope. "Doctor, are you familiar with the article in Herbal Health magazine concerning this disorder? They have a whole section each month on botanical healthcare for pets. I read it every month, and the latest issue addresses kidney problems in dogs."

I didn't share his enthusiasm. However, I took a look at the article that he'd conveniently brought along. It was authored by the magazine's pet care consultant, Flora N. Fauna. Her list of credentials included owning several pets, growing up on a farm and having a "green thumb." The gist of the text was that brewer's yeast, tofu and a combination of herbs would cure or control most kidney problems. I wasn't surprised. Her articles always say the same thing. The disease featured each month changes—the treatment does not. I picked certain harmless elements from her suggested treatment protocol and told Mr. Leevit that he could try them if he wanted. Naturally, I suspect that he tried them all.

During the rest of that morning, I got to thinking about people's tendency to readily swallow bad advice. More specifically, I wondered when and why veterinary advice had become a topic for writers. I decided, just for my own curiosity, to visit certain areas of human history until I found where it all began.

Late Saturday night, I got between the sheets of my time machine, set my brain for AD 1440, and went to visit Johannes Gutenburg, inventor of the printing press. Immediately, the sign on his front door confirmed my suspicions. I expected it to say something like "Gutenburg Printing Inc." Instead, it said "Johannes' Pet Care Tips."

Dr. Michael Obenski owns Allentown Clinic for Cats in Allentown, Pa.