Mastitis in dairy cattle is potentially fatal. Treatment involves long-acting antibiotics (although antibiotics alone are not enough). Some homeopaths, though, believe that magic water (or sugar pills that have come into contact with magic water) can be used to treat mastitis. Homeopathy involves taking the purported ‘active ingredient’, diluting it (usually to the point where not a single molecule of the ‘active ingredient’ remains), and banging the container on, for example, a special wooden striking board covered in leather on one side and stuffed with horsehair (this is what the inventor of homeopathy used).
It’s a kind of magic. Homeopaths make extraordinary claims, but their claims are not supported by the available evidence. Some homeopaths have attempted to explain away this inconvenient evidence with extraordinary excuses.
Using homeopathy for serious conditions as an alternative to proper treatment really is a terrible idea. And mastitis can be quite nasty. So – what’s the evidence on the efficacy of homeopathic products for cows?
Here, the authors of a conference presentation found “there was no significant effect by the remedies at all. The cow somatic cell count over three months after treatment showed no significant difference in the five groups. Standardized homeopathic combinations and Tuberculinum nosodes are not able to control sub-clinical mastitis during lactation”. (Treatment of bovine sub-clinical mastitis with homeopathic remedies.)
In this paper, “there were no significant differences between the SCC of the two groups on any sample day, but there were significant variations between the SCC on different days (P=0.003) in both groups”. (Controlled clinical trial of the effect of a homoeopathic nosode on the somatic cell counts in the milk of clinically normal dairy cows.)
Here, the authors looked at homeopathy, placebo and antibiotic treatment of clinical mastitis in dairy cows. Would homeopathy perform better than placebo? Would it, perhaps, perform even better than antibiotics (part of the conventional treatment for mastitic in cows)? Now that really would be something. Here’s what the authors found:
Significant reductions in mastitis signs were observed in all treatment groups. Homeopathic treatment was not statistically different from either placebo or antibiotic treatment at day 7 (P = 0.56, P = 0.09) or at day 28 (P = 0.07, P = 0.35). The antibiotic treatment was significantly better than placebo measured by the reduction in score I (P < 0.01). Two-thirds of the cases both in the homeopathy and placebo groups responded clinically within 7 days.
This small study was unable to tell us much. The authors write that “the number of patients did not reach the number of patients required to give the study a sufficient power”. They also tell us, though:
In this study, the frequency of clinical responders at day 7 is clearly higher in the antibiotic group compared with the homeopathy and placebo groups even if not significant at the 5% level. From this result and the changes in score I, the antibiotic treatment can be concluded to be the best for improvement of acute mastitis symptoms. However, it is noteworthy that two of three patients not treated by antibiotics could be classified as clinically cured at day 7.
It appears that while the effects of the antibiotic treatment could be distinguished from placebo, the effects of homeopathy could not. Two thirds of the animals in the placebo group were responders at day 7, and the same was true of the animals in the homeopathy group. Ninety percent of the animals in the antibiotic group were responders at day 7. The authors point out that none of the treatments showed particularly good effect at day 28 of the study – and call for further focus on the current use of antibacterial drugs in mastitis treatment and a more target-oriented use of such drugs.
Antibiotics appear to have some (limited) value in the treatment of mastitis in cows, homeopathic products do not.
Full text of papers: homeopathy, placebo and antibiotic treatment of clinical mastitis in dairy cows PDF; Treatment of bovine sub-clinical mastitis with homeopathic remedies PDF. The Quackometer has covered a more recent paper on homeopathy and mastitis in cows.
1. Emphasis added to ‘potentially’ – as pointed out in the comments section, mastitis is only rarely fatal.
2. Typo corrected – ‘homeopathy’ in the sentence referring to the Quackometer’s post.
There’s also this article on homeopathy for diarrhoea in calves.