Does the placebo effect work on dogs?

A simple question, based on recently getting a dog with severe separation anxiety… There’s a number of articles out there that confirm this, but none of them have cites. :wink:

That confirm what, exactly?

Dogs have little to no understanding of cause and effect, which is why reinforcement is only effective for training if delivered immediately after the good or bad behavior. Dogs are not able to understand a connection between, for example, swallowing a pill and eliminating a heartworm infection.

Placebo effect is something that affects both the target of the treatment, and the observers. The reason we have double blinded trials, rather the single blinded trials, where the people conducting the test are unaware of what is the placebo and what is the real treatment is that they will tend to over-report positive results when they’re administrating the real treatment. It creates an expectation that something will get better, and that biases their observation.

In that way, the placebo effect can work on dogs or infants or other entities that aren’t able to report their own results. That isn’t to say that the dog feels better when given a placebo, but rather that the person who’s observing the dog to report whether it got better or not is influenced by the treatment.

So you may hear anecdotes, or flawed studies, that say dogs respond to placebos in certain circumstances. But you would expect that to happen in the absence of any real response from the dog.

It may be possible that other concurrent effects may have some positive effect on the dog. In your example, if the dog is anxious, perhaps the person who’s administrating a placebo would also treat the dog with kindness and attention, and those things would actually provoke a real response.

In a word: yes.

But you have to realize that the “placebo effect” is in itself, a conditioned response. Think Pavlov. Which animals did he use to illustrate that? :slight_smile:

Aside from that, you have a dog with separation anxiety. There’s actually a good practical cure fore that. Get a second dog. I’m serious. Dogs need other dogs, and it WILL pay off. Sure, it’s twice the food, but it’s actually far less drama.


With no way to tell a dog that something is medicine, you’d have to CONDITION it to know about treatment.
Then you could probably replace it with a placebo and get a placebo effect …

Maybe, but its like two kids of the same age, they fight…
It is perhaps needed to calm a very anxious dog, but preferably get a dog on trial and only keep placid doggies.
…Or a small Chihuahua. (so that the yap and bite doesn’t really do any annoyance to anyone.)

There are woo-prone vets who inflict homeopathy and various other alt med nonsense on dogs, claiming both that it works and that such observations disprove the idea of a placebo response to which dogs are supposedly immune.

I don’t see any reason why a dog might not have some positive response to being fussed over (unrelated to imbibing the magic water), plus humans are good at fooling themselves about how their ministrations affect other creatures.

I read a study years ago where dogs with “arthritis” were divided into several groups. The dogs in each group were treated with the same medication at the same dose, but the cost charged to the owner varied.

The results showed that the more the owner paid, the greater the perceived benefit the owner reported.

Yeah, the placebo effect seems more likely to target the dogs’ owners than the dogs themselves…

I can’t answer the original question, but for what it’s worth, these have worked on my dog:

For separation anxiety: Making sure he’s relaxed every time before I leave the house. For example, my routine is that I calmly tell him to get on his bed. I sit down next to him and pet him for a minute or two with a few "good boy"s for good measure. Then I slowly get up and walk out the door. Note: I make sure I’m completely ready to go (bags packed, pockets full, etc.) before I start the routine, or else dog will get anxious watching me pack up. This routine corrected his behavior in about 1-2 weeks.

For general anxiety (especially during storms): A Thundershirt, which is basically a swaddle for dogs. I thought it was ridiculous at first but decided to give it a try after reading the reviews on Amazon. The first time I wrapped him, it was like I gave him a valium. Rather than the usual nervous panting and pacing, he stood still for a while, laid down, then passed out. These days, I take it off as soon as the storm is over; I get worried that something is wrong because he’s TOO calm!

Anecdata incoming!

My friend’s dog had separation anxiety and her crunchy granola pet store recommended giving the dog two drops of lavender oil as the last thing she did before she left. She was told to try it with short absences (say 15 minutes) and then work her way up to longer absences over a week or so. I doubt the lavender oil did much to calm the dog, but it created a regular ritual. The dog quickly learned that two drops of lavender oil meant his owner was leaving, but he learned at the same time his owner was definitely going to come back. I think the placebo effect worked on the owner and the ritual worked on the dog. Everyone was happy.

My dog also had separation anxiety, so we created a routine. The last thing I do before I go is take him outside to pee, then I bring him in and pet him for a few seconds, tell him I love him and instruct him to go to his place. He runs to his bed and I give him great treats (almost the only time I give him those treats – they are very special to him). Then I leave. We set up the routine the same way my friend did, starting with very short absences and building them up. It only took a few days for my dog to have no real separation anxiety when we left for even a whole day.

Maybe, depends what you mean. I can see a dog being patterned to receive pain medication and forming the link between the medication and cessation of pain, and then perhaps given a placebo that they cannot detect as being different there could be some placebo effect, but it’s not quite the same as a human receiving a sugar pill as a new treatment believing that it has some actual effect.

They won’t, though. Dogs don’t have cause and effect. Because a painkiller takes time to work, a dog will never connect taking the pill with the cessation of pain later.

Drugs that have a more immediate effect might be interesting to see if a dogcebo effect exists. I once had a roommate whose dog loved to hit the bong with him.

I disagree. I’m speaking from experience with my own dog, highly intelligent, and he does comprehend some link between medications and their effect. I’m not saying it’s sufficient for a placebo effect, and it’s certainly muddled by other factors like the taste of the medication and how it’s taken. It is clear that he can tell which medicines help him and which make him feel worse, and his reaction to taking those medications changes over time as he realizes that. It’s possible that is some kind of placebo effect itself, that he can’t distinguish between the different medications, but based on circumstances thinks that medicine does help at times which changes his reaction to taking the stuff whatever it might be.

ETA: And in general, dogs do understand cause and effect, certainly not at the level of human comprehension, but that’s what a Pavlovian response is, conditioning created by clear circumstances of cause and effect.

I flat-out don’t believe this. People are always attributing amazing powers of cognition to dogs when in actual fact all the dog is doing is reading his owner’s body language. Dogs are REALLY good at reading human body language. You probably feel the medication will help the dog so you radiate “good vibes” when you give it to the dog and he responds accordingly.
People are very susceptible to the placebo effect and I’m sure they can “pass on” their feelings to their dogs via body language.

Or Great Dane has separation anxiety. We found out one day when we came home and he chewed or $5000 dining room table. Oh well, I guess it’s his dining room table too.