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Homeopathic Mistakes to Avoid - True for Both Your Pet and You

Story at-a-glance -

  • As part of her ongoing Highlighting the Healer series, today, Dr. Becker talks with the one and only Dr. Richard Pitcairn, world-renowned expert and educator in veterinary homeopathy, and author of the bible of holistic health care for pets, Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats.
  • In today’s video, Dr. Pitcairn discusses the discovery and development of homeopathy by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann 200 years ago. He and Dr. Becker also discuss the somewhat confusing and broad topic of dilutions of medicines to formulate homeopathic remedies, and how the process of energizing dilutions can increase their effectiveness.
  • Dr. Pitcairn tells the story of his first eye-opening experience taking a homeopathic remedy and how he learned – and not in a good way! -- just how potent the medicines can be.
  • Dr. Becker and Dr. Pitcairn discuss the difference between classical homeopathy and the many variations in use today, and the questions to ask a practitioner to determine what type of homeopathy he or she practices.
  • The doctors touch briefly on the subjects of homeopathy research studies and acceptance of homeopathy by the larger veterinary community. They also discuss the troubling new trend toward combining several homeopathic medicines into a single remedy, and the predictable results, including symptom suppression without resolution of underlying disease.

By Dr. Becker

Today, I'm talking to another very special guest as part of my Highlighting the Healer series, Dr. Richard Pitcairn. Dr. Pitcairn graduated from the University of California-Davis in 1965. Following graduation, he worked in a mixed animal practice for a year, and then became an instructor in large animal medicine at Washington State University where he also attended graduate school, majoring in veterinary microbiology.

Within a few years, Dr. Pitcairn earned a Ph.D. in veterinary microbiology and immunology from WSU, where he was an assistant professor on the veterinary school faculty, teaching public health and epizootiology to 4th year veterinary students. During his time at WSU, Dr. Pitcairn also participated in research projects using tissue culture, virus isolation and assay, and electron microscopy.

During his research on the factors affecting natural resistance to disease, the importance of optimal nutrition became a focus of Dr. Pitcairn's work. Realizing that such research would not be funded, he re-entered private practice to apply his study of nutrition and its effect on immunity and resistance to disease.

In 1978, in addition to his interest in nutrition, Dr. Pitcairn also began focusing on learning and applying homeopathy as a system of medicine that stimulates the immune system and natural resistance to disease. Then in 1982, he and his wife Susan published the first edition of their book, Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, which is now in its third edition and has sold over 400,000 copies. (When I began preparing my dog's meals at home during veterinary school, I used Dr. Pitcairn's book as my recipe guide.)

In 1992, Dr. Pitcairn established the Professional Course in Veterinary Homeopathy, which is a year-long post-graduate training course for veterinarians. I first met Dr. Pitcairn when I took his course in the mid-1990s. In 1995, the doctor and his associates co-founded the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy, which is the first professional organization of practicing veterinary homeopaths in the U.S.

Since that time, Dr. Pitcairn has stayed very busy! He and Dr. Wendy Jensen developed a veterinary repertory of homeopathy and he continues to teach and write about homeopathy.

The Origin of Homeopathy

Since many of my peers and I consider Dr. Pitcairn to be the father of veterinary homeopathy, I'm thrilled that he is able to join me today as part of my Highlighting the Healer series, which focuses on holistic veterinarians who use natural modalities to unlock the body's healing potential.

I asked Dr. Pitcairn to take a few minutes to explain exactly what homeopathy is, since many people are confused by the concept.

Dr. Pitcairn responded that homeopathy started with the discovery a doctor made about 200 years ago in Germany. That doctor was trying to understand how medicines could act to make people better, which is not an uncommon ambition among scientists and researchers. He was exploring the action of different medicines of his time. He got the idea, which is still somewhat of an unusual idea even today, to test the medicines on healthy people to see what effects they had.

Most of the research done today is done with sick people, where drugs are given to see what effects they have. But the doctor in Germany who discovered homeopathy wanted to study the effects of drugs on healthy people because there was quite a bit of confusion about what the actions of the different substances were at that time. When they're given to sick people, the result is a mixture of side effects as well as, hopefully, therapeutic effects.

When he did these studies, the doctor made the observation that when medicines caused symptoms in healthy people, they were very similar to the symptoms the sick people had, and the medicines seemed to somehow be beneficial when they were given to those who were sick. The doctor's thought was that the medicine somehow acted as a stimulant. In other words, the usual way we think of giving medicines is that we give a drug – say your dog has diarrhea – so we use a drug that stops the intestines from moving so fast. The German doctor found that if the medicines given had already been determined to cause symptoms similar to the patient's condition, they acted differently. They acted as a way to stimulate the healing process in some way. The doctor didn't fully understand it at first, but he began to apply his findings as a method. And that was the beginning of homeopathy.

The German doctor was Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, and he went on to do "provings." The German word "proofing" means "to test." It's the word Hahnemann used when he tested the medicines in healthy people first to see their effects before giving them to the sick. When the word is translated to English, it's "provings." Sometimes people object to homeopathy because they believe "provings" aren't actual scientific proof. But that's not the way the word was intended to be used.

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Homeopathic Dosing and Dilutions

In my experience, some of the confusion about homeopathy is with the concept of dilutions. I asked Dr. Pitcairn to talk a little about why such a tiny amount of substance is given, what dilutions mean in this context, and how they act on the body's healing forces.

Dr. Pitcairn explained that Dr. Hahnemann's original discovery was the start of a career that lasted 50 years or longer. He learned things gradually. It wasn't like all of his knowledge just one day fell into his lap. One of the things he discovered after he started to apply his findings was that in a sick person, giving the medicines produced symptoms very similar to symptoms they already had. But he was giving the medicines as a form of treatment. As he did that, over time he found that his patients were often extraordinarily sensitive to the medicine. They were affected more strongly than you would expect.

As a result, Hahnemann began giving less of the medicine. He reduced the dose. He went from a teaspoon, say, to a drop. And for some patients, even a drop was too much, so he began diluting the medicine at 1 to 100 or something similar. That worked well in some patients, but in others, it was still too much. So he diluted it even more. And it evolved into the method that we are familiar with today, where the medicines are very much diluted and given in small doses.

When people hear that the more diluted the medicine is, the more powerful it becomes, they're confused about how such a tiny amount of a substance could have such profound effects on an animal's or a person's healing response. I asked Dr. Pitcairn how we can help people understand how those diluted substances can affect a body's immune system response. How do we explain the phenomenon, especially in the U.S., where we're always supersizing, taking more, and overprescribing? The whole concept of minimum dose or dilutions that are sometimes so diluted they are just an energetic frequency – it confuses people.

Dr. Pitcairn responded that there are essentially two parts to it. First is an understanding of how medicines act based on Hahnemann's discoveries. Second is adding more recent discoveries having to do with quantum physics, which supports those ideas.

Homeopathic Dilutions Are Energized to Increase Their Effectiveness

Hahnemann found as he used ever-smaller amounts of medicine, that it was necessary to very strongly agitate the liquid between each step, either by shaking it vigorously, or hitting the bottle against his hand or a pillow or some other soft object to agitate the liquid.

Dr. Pitcairn switches gears for a moment to mention that there have been studies done in which medicines were diluted and agitated. In those studies, it was found that diluting medicines without shaking or agitating them, had no observable effect. But when they're energized, they do have an effect. Going back to what Hahnemann found – he said that in the process of making dilutions over and over because patients were reacting excessively to the medicines, it got to the point where he realized there couldn't be any physical substance remaining. It must not be a physical substance that's having this effect – it must be something more like an energy of some sort. He compared it to magnetism, because 200 years ago, we didn't know about quantum physics and other things like that. But what he found was that it wasn't really a physical action but more of an energy effect.

Dr. Pitcairn goes on to say that one of the ideas that emerged out of homeopathy, which isn't really different from any other system of medicine in the world, is that there's an energy that's responsible for life. In homeopathy, it was called the life force or the vital force. In Chinese medicine, it's called Qi. In chiropractic, it's called innate intelligence.

There are many medicine systems that have recognized that there is such a thing as an energy field, or an energy informational impulse that's behind the formation of living beings, whether it's a plant or an animal. The idea is that when you go through the process of dilution and agitating of the fluid, you release the energy from its physical organization. You release it into a form that's more effective -- more potent. That's why homeopathic remedies are called "potencies."

I asked Dr. Pitcairn to address the concern some people have that homeopathy is "New Age" and not "real" medicine with all the talk about energy and rearranging energy (which is actually a very old concept used to unlock a body's healing potential). He agreed there's some confusion around it because the New Age movement embraced many different forms of medicine other than allopathic, including homeopathy. People sometimes think homeopathy is a new system, but it isn't. It's over 200 years old, and it is a system of medicine that evolved outside of the more recent paradigm of New Age spiritual thinking.

Dr. Pitcairn explained that from a practical everyday standpoint, when people bring him their animals to heal, there's really no discussion of whether or not homeopathy is real medicine. He says to them, "I think this treatment will help your animal." They say, "Okay, fine." He doesn't go into a lot of explanation with them about it. He gives them the medicines and the instructions for dosing, and while there might be some discussion at some point about how the medicine is affecting the animal as changes occur, he found that for the most part, going through the theory of homeopathy with his clients wasn't particularly helpful.

Dr. Pitcairn's First Experience Taking a Homeopathic Remedy – Let's Just Say It Was NOT What He Expected

I asked Dr. Pitcairn if he remembered a story he told my class back in 1996 about his introduction to homeopathy and the first time he went for treatment to a homeopathic practitioner. The story was amusing to me.

He did remember and explained that he didn't know very much about homeopathy at the time, and he was interested mainly because of his graduate work in immunology. He had done seven years of graduate work and had learned quite a bit, but he also realized that his study of immunology didn't really tell him how to restore the health of his patients. It told him how things go wrong, but he was still searching for answers as to how to make things right again.

Then he read a book about homeopathy and it occurred to him that it sounded a lot like what he had already studied to some degree. Not the same, but similar in terms of stimulating the immune system. He knew he wanted to learn more about it and got the idea that he should experience it personally. So he set up an appointment with a practitioner he didn't know much about, and this particular practitioner, Dr. Pitcairn soon learned, wasn't a mainstream homeopath. He had his own methods – he used a pendulum to find the right remedy, for example. He gave Dr. Pitcairn a remedy to repeat, and it was a high potency remedy. Dr. Pitcairn says he had such a strong reaction that he ended up in bed for about a week. He lost 15 pounds and couldn't even watch TV he was so sick. So the remedy obviously didn't make him better, but he says it certainly left him impressed with how potent it was!

I told Dr. Pitcairn that what he had was a very clear, first-hand experience with just how powerful these medicines can be. He agreed and reiterated that it was a high potency medicine. In other words, it was well beyond any physical substance, but he never expected to get so sick from it. He figured if anything, he'd get better, or maybe he'd have no response at all.

Dr. Pitcairn went on to say that obviously he learned the homeopathic remedy he was given wasn't really the best medicine for him. And he shouldn't have taken it as many times as he did. The practitioner had him taking it every three hours for two days, which is a high dose for a high potency remedy.

Different Uses of Homeopathy in Veterinary Practice – What Works, What Doesn't – and Questions to Ask a Prospective Practitioner

I asked Dr. Pitcairn to talk about how integrative veterinarians include homeopathy in their practices. There's of course classical homeopathy, but there are a lot of variations as well, that don't really follow classical homeopathy principles.

Dr. Pitcairn first referred back to his earlier discussion about Dr. Hahnemann's discoveries on how homeopathic medicines act and that they must stimulate the body's natural healing abilities to be effective. When a traditional drug is given, it has a physical or chemical effect on the body. It slows down the activity of the intestine in a patient with diarrhea, for example. Or it stops the itching in an allergic patient, if it's a steroid or whatever, because it acts on that level in the body.

Homeopathic remedies don't act in the same way as those kinds of drugs. They act on a different level – an energetic level. What they do is they harness or stimulate the healing abilities that are always present in the body. An example of the difference would be, let's say you cut your arm. As part of the healing process, the injury will get red, swollen and painful. Your body will go through a healing, and as it goes through healing, there are different stages -- a scab forms and so on, until finally your body regrows the skin. That's the natural healing that must occur regardless of the treatment used. There must be a healing.

The homeopathic method enhances that process, making it faster and shorter in duration. Conventional treatment, on the other hand, uses drugs and other techniques that counter the natural healing process. For example, applying ice to relieve inflammation -- even though inflammation is part of the healing process. Or using an anti-inflammatory drug, or a drug to stop feelings of discomfort or pain, which seems like a good thing. But what all that does is it interferes with the natural healing process of the body.

Now, we go into practice situations. A veterinarian trains in homeopathy. He may or may not understand the differences discussed above. Some veterinarians will be interested enough in homeopathy to really seriously study it, realize it's a way of using medicines, and orient their practice that way. They develop a practice where they offer homeopathy perhaps along with nutrition, chiropractic, and other holistic approaches, but they're using homeopathy in the way we've discussed.

However, it's also possible for a veterinarian to either not fully understand or accept the way homeopathy works. In those practices, homeopathy is incorporated, but it's combined with, say, the use of drugs or other measures that counter the homeopathic effect. It's possible then, that the patients of those practices are receiving two types of treatment, one of which is stimulating the natural healing process and the other is slowing it down. It's very confusing for clients of the practice, not to mention confusing for the animals' bodies.

The patients in the second situation in which homeopathic remedies are being combined with traditional drugs or other traditional treatments don't get the homeopathic effect we've been talking about. They may gradually get better, but you're not seeing homeopathy used as it is intended -- as it was originally developed and as it has become more understood over the last 200 years.

As Dr. Pitcairn points out, there are of course all sorts of variations on homeopathy that have been proposed or practiced since Hahnemann's day. Today, many homeopaths distinguish their practice of "classical homeopathy" from more "modern" homeopathy practices. It gets very confusing for the public, so if any of you watching or reading here today want to find a classical veterinary homeopath, Dr. Pitcairn's website offers a number of questions to ask a prospective practitioner.

Dr. Pitcairn's Thoughts on Why Homeopathy Isn't Widely Accepted by Veterinary Professionals

I asked Dr. Pitcairn why homeopathy hasn't been more widely accepted. Even in the holistic veterinary community, there are practitioners who opt not to use homeopathy.

Dr. Pitcairn replied that he believes it's a conflict at a metaphysical level – a sort of underlying belief system about the practice of medicine. Whether it's Chinese medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, or some other modality, there are certain ideas that underlie it. Practitioners vary considerably in their philosophic beliefs about medicine.

But generally speaking, the medicine that we know, which we call Western medicine, or allopathic medicine, or conventional medicine as it is in the U.S., is based on an idea that's very materialistic. It's a belief that we are only physical beings, not spiritual or energetic beings. The conventional approach is that we're physical beings, and treatment should be directed toward only that physical level. But homeopathic theory is that we are energetic beings, and the physical is actually secondary to that. So there's obviously a conflict.

Let's consider the argument between those who are religious, and atheists. They interpret things differently. They don't accept the others' beliefs. It's the same thing in medicine. The idea of a life force is roundly rejected by most of conventional medicine. Not by every individual but by the general community. As soon as there is mention of a life force, the idea is rejected outright by most practitioners of Western medicine. The idea that homeopathic medicines have energy in them is also rejected. That's how the conventional community arrives at the belief that there's nothing to homeopathy.

However, as Dr. Pitcairn points out, in veterinary medicine there's actually been quite a wide acceptance of Chinese medicine. And Chinese medicine is based on the same idea of energy – they call it Qi, and Qi is not physical, it circulates certain meridians. And the energy can be directed with needles. Strangely enough, veterinarians have accepted the idea of energy in that context, but they reject the idea as it pertains to homeopathy.

In my opinion, quantum physics will help to settle at least part of the controversy. The dilution aspect of homeopathy was what I struggled with initially. How can something with only a vibrational input affect the body? Before I was a veterinarian, I was a wildlife rehabilitator working with a mentor who used classical homeopathy exclusively, with wonderful results. At that time, I didn't even care how it worked. I just saw a tremendous improvement in injured wild animals that were treated with homeopathy. I was a believer based on results. That's all I needed.

Sometimes when you go through formal training to be a veterinarian, of course, you do question things. In the case of homeopathy, it's like "There's no active medicine there." That's when it comes down to your belief system. I feel strongly that medicine has a spiritual aspect, so homeopathy was a natural progression for me in my practice and my evolution as a doctor. But that's not necessarily true of all doctors.

Homeopathy Research Studies

I asked Dr. Pitcairn how he answers people who want to know what research has been done pertaining to homeopathy. A lot of critics believe there's just no research to justify the use of homeopathy.

He responded that it's not accurate to say there's no research. There's certainly research. However, what people usually mean by the word "research" in terms of medicine is based on the conventional allopathic system. Let's say we're studying a drug that's used to treat the common cold. You get a group of people together who've been diagnosed with a cold. The drug is tested on the people in the group. The drug, the treatment -- is based on the diagnosis. Each person in the group is given the same medicine.

Now, if we move over to the homeopathic model, one of the things we learned early on is that not everybody with a cold has the same illness pattern. Some people have a stuffed-up nose, some have a runny nose, some have a lot of sneezing, some also have swollen tonsils, and some have headaches. They don't all require the same homeopathic medicine. There might be 50 homeopathic medicines that could be used for a cold. We pick the one that fits that particular patient. As you can see, that approach doesn't fit into the conventional model of drug testing.

What has been done as far as research in homeopathy is concerned, is kind of a hybrid model. For example, one study Dr. Pitcairn presented in his course was done with people suffering with arthritis. The people with an arthritis diagnosis were grouped together and given two or three of the most common homeopathic remedies used for that problem. The people improved. The researchers were able to show statistically an improvement that was as good as or better than the improvement seen with conventional drugs. It was demonstrated that the homeopathy worked. It just wasn't the kind of study that we would do in homeopathy if the choice was ours.

A New Approach by Some Homeopathic Practitioners Involves Combining Several Remedies Into a Single Medicine. Dr. Pitcairn's View on This Disturbing Trend

It's very trendy right now to use a combination of homeopathic remedies, for example, a combination of remedies for arthritis. So in one pill or tiny bottle, there are five or six different homeopathic remedies labeled "arthritis homeopathic" or "allergy homeopathic." That approach isn't in the patient's best interest, and I asked Dr. Pitcairn to explain why he would not recommend throwing every possible medicine for a certain ailment into a single remedy.

Dr. Pitcairn responded by suggesting we go back to the situation with the common cold drug test discussed a little earlier. Homeopathic practitioners have studied homeopathy medicines over a period of time. These practitioners know the medicines – it's part of the discipline of homeopathy. So a patient comes in with a certain kind of cold. If Dr. Pitcairn was that practitioner, he would say, "Okay, here's the medicine you need. This is the specific one you need." And he wouldn't give the patient more than one, because it's very possible that if he gave other ones, they would counteract or interfere with each other. So he would pick one that was appropriate, and expect the patient to have a very fast, nice response to it.

As an example, a few years ago Dr. Pitcairn conducted a seminar in Park City, Utah. The seminar wrapped up and he was checking out of the hotel, and one of the veterinarians who had been in attendance was there checking out next to him. She was sniffling, so he asked her, "What's going on? Are you not well?" And she replied that she thought she was coming down with a cold. She explained her symptoms, and Dr. Pitcairn recommended a remedy. He asked her if she had it with her and she said she did. So she pulled it out of her suitcase and took it. Before they got downstairs to the shuttle, she felt completely well.

So homeopathic treatments can work very rapidly when they are selected correctly. If it's not the right choice, it won't do anything, or it might even make the person or animal feel worse for awhile. It's the skill of the practitioner that's important. Dr. Pitcairn continued, "But what if you don't have that knowledge or skill? What if you don't want to study or haven't studied?" In that case, a practitioner – a homeopath or a pharmacist or whoever, can save himself by thinking, "I don't know which of these 30 medicines would be best to treat the cold. But let me take the top six or the top eight and mix them together. Maybe one of those will work."

I told Dr. Pitcairn that his was a perfect analogy. It's exactly what people are doing, and it's very concerning. He replied that it shows a very low level of skill. It's like going to a doctor who doesn't know enough about antibiotics to pick the right one to treat your infection, so he mixes six of them together and gives them to you. "Just take them all. Maybe one of them will work."

The Problem of Symptom Suppression

The problem with this approach is that it can suppress certain symptoms or disease processes that show up later as a much more serious pathology. I think that's an outcome a lot of people don't consider.

Dr. Pitcairn explained that in homeopathy, diseases are divided into acute and chronic. An acute disease would be like a cold or an injury. It's only going to last a certain amount of time, and then the patient recovers. Chronic conditions would include allergies, hyperthyroidism in cats, arthritis, and things of that nature. If they're treated with multiple remedies, it can actually make the animal less likely to be cured, because it covers up some of the symptoms, pushes them in a different direction, and actually can make the whole situation more complicated.

A lot of people seem to think that homeopathic remedies can't do harm. That is something Dr. Pitcairn wisely cautions his students about and I remember it from my training. We need to be responsible in the decision-making process of selecting remedies for patients. Giving a remedy that is "almost" right or "close enough" can be harmful to the patient. In the case of a single incorrect remedy, chances are, the worst that would happen is that it would do nothing to help the patient. But with some of the combination remedies, there are concerns – including with injectable homeopathics.

According to Dr. Pitcairn, injectables were not recommended by Dr. Hahnemann. He recommended that remedies be given by mouth because that was the most effective method of administration.

Dr. Pitcairn also believes remedies should be given by mouth. There's no reason to inject a remedy and in fact, they don't even work as well if they're injected. And single remedies are given – not combinations. That's the way homeopathy is supposed to be practiced. When we talk about suppression, many people don't really understand what it means. Let's say you have an animal with arthritis. Using a corticosteroid will make the symptoms go away, but the arthritis isn't cured. That's what is meant by suppression. The symptoms are suppressed, but the disease remains.

And the same thing can happen with homeopathy. A combination of remedies, or the wrong single remedy, can be used over and over again, and the symptoms may go away, but we haven't restored the animal's health because it's not the right remedy.

My Sincere Thanks to Dr. Richard Pitcairn for His Time Today!

I expressed to Dr. Pitcairn that I so appreciate all that he has done over the course of his magnificent career, and as a mentor and leader in his field. The training courses he has developed and taught have been life changing for so many holistic veterinarians, including me.

Dr. Pitcairn's work has really opened up the field of veterinary homeopathy in ways that would not have occurred were it not for his passion to teach about the ability of an animal's body's to heal naturally. I so admire what he has done and continues to do. It was a great honor to have him spend time with us today.

At the end of our chat, Dr. Pitcairn thanked me and said, "I love the word 'magnificent.'"

And that's him. Magnificent! We appreciate everything he does. We really do.