“Hair of the dog” remedies may do the trick for some hangover sufferers. But health experts say that a Canadian homeopath took the idea too far—way, way too far.
Homeopath and naturopath Anke Zimmermann used diluted saliva from a rabid dog to “treat” a four-year-old boy, according to a blog post she published earlier this year. Zimmermann claims that the potentially infectious and deadly concoction successfully resolved the boy’s aggressive behavior, which she described as a “slightly rabid-dog state.”
The tale fits with the scientifically implausible principles of homeopathy. These roughly state that substances that produce similar symptoms of a particular ailment can cure said ailment (“like cures like”) and that diluting a substance increases its potency (“law of infinitesimals”).
Health experts say Zimmermann’s claims aren’t just farfetched, but, rather, they’re barking mad.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told the CBC that she has “grave concerns” about the use of saliva containing rabies, which causes fatal infections. She also has a bone to pick with Health Canada over the treatment and its approval, which gave her pause when she learned of it from Zimmermann’s post. The rabid-dog treatment, called lyssinum (aka lyssin or hydrophobinum), is one of more than 8,500 homeopathic products approved by Health Canada, according to the CBC.
“There’s no way I can understand why we would have anything that was meant to be saliva of a rabid dog approved for use in this country,” Dr. Henry said. “I also have concerns that this would be used for treating what sounds very much like a behavioral issue in a young child.”
Like many other health experts, including those at the US Food and Drug Administration, Henry worries that such homeopathic products can be harmful and/or delay actual medical interventions and treatments.
For her part, Zimmermann dug in her heels and doggedly stood by the claims in her blog post.
The lengthy post unleashed the months-long saga of four-year-old Jonah. The boy presented with aggression and sleeping troubles, according to Zimmermann. He was said to be violent, easily angered, and known for growling at people. He also suffered from fears and nightmares of werewolves, wolves, zombies, and ghosts. When Zimmermann asked him how he feels when he growls, she said that the four-year-old responded: “Like there is a tornado inside me. My spirit is a hurricane!”
Zimmermann quickly sniffed out the source of the problem: when Jonah was younger, a dog bit him. That is, Jonah’s mother said that one time a dog accidentally “broke the skin slightly” on Jonah’s hand while it was reaching to get food Jonah was holding.
Zimmermann pounced on the tidbit, claiming:
A bite from an animal, with or without rabies vaccination, has the potential to imprint an altered state in the person who was bitten, in some ways similar to a rabies infection. This can include over-excitability, difficulties sleeping, aggression, and various fears, especially of dogs or wolves. This child presented a perfect picture of this type of rabies state. Most homeopaths would have easily recognized the remedy required in this case.
The “remedy” to this “state” was clearly the saliva of a rabid dog, Zimmermann concluded. Months later, the mother reported that Jonah’s issues had improved—although they had not resolved entirely.
Zimmermann declared the treatment a success. “Bottom line: homeopathy can work wonders for children with behavioral disorders if the remedy can be clearly perceived.”
In her response to hounding criticism of the post, Zimmermann stood by her conclusions. “This child dramatically improved—the parents are very happy,” she told the CBC. “Isn’t that something that’s interesting? Shouldn’t we be looking into that?”
Though she admitted that “there’s no common consensus about how the remedies work,” she continued to claim that it was effective and safe. She added that the saliva was so diluted that it wouldn’t contain any trace of rabies virus.
Health officer Henry wasn’t the only one rolling over the claims. Stephen Hoption Cann, a public health researcher at the University of British Columbia, called the clinical evidence in favor of using rabid-dog saliva “clearly lacking.”
Timothy Caulfield, a health law and policy professor at the University of Alberta, agreed, calling the claims “scientifically absurd.”