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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Magical Thinking and Dog Cancer

Updated: March 17th, 2022


Is using magical thinking regarding your dog’s cancer a good idea? It could be — as long as you keep it in perspective.

Reading this lovely column written by Steven Petrow and published in the New York Times re-affirmed my soul-deep, lifelong commitment to magical thinking.

Or thinking magically … AKA prayer, visualization, and lucky rabbit feet.

Whatever you call it, magical thinking may help you fight your dog’s cancer.

What You Believe Matters


According to Ted J. Kaptchuk, one of the leading researchers on the placebo effect, our beliefs matter when it comes to healing. They matter a LOT.

As Dr. Kaptchuk told the New Yorker, “We need to stop pretending that it’s all about molecular biology. Serious illnesses are affected by aesthetics, by art, and by the moral questions that are negotiated by practitioners and patients.”

Serious illnesses are affected by aesthetics, by art, and by the moral questions that are negotiated by practitioners and patients.

In other words, what we see, think, feel, hear, and believe matters.

And what influences us, influences our dogs.

Magical Thinking and Dog Cancer

Dr. Dressler writes about the placebo effect in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, too. In fact, Step Five of his Full Spectrum Approach to cancer care is Brain Chemistry Modification (see chapter 15).

While some of the strategies he lists have known physical effects in the body, the fifth step could also be called “Mind-Body Strategies.”

How does massage, Reiki (the laying on of hands), prayer, or taking a walk outside treat cancer, really?

We may never be able to quantify it. But we know from experience — and at this point, from over a decade of hearing from readers — that they really, really do help.

Dogs who get the Full Spectrum treatments — including techniques listed in the Brain Chemistry Modification chapter — in general seem to experience a higher quality of life and beat their prognoses.

Is that true for EVERY dog whose owner has read the book? No, of course not.

But just because it doesn’t happen for every dog doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen for many. I’ve heard from too many readers over the years that the ideas in the book — including those in Step Five — really help their dog.

And what those dog lovers believe is just as important as what the tests say.

It’s Weird and New-Fangled to Avoid Magical Thinking

The power of belief is perhaps more subtle and strong than we can know in our modern system of medicine. And maybe we should be using it, not dismissing it.

I am a migraineur, and I have suffered since my teens.

I’ve been to physicians and taken medicines and nothing has ever helped me.

So I started seeing a chiropractor who used muscle-testing to decide which homeopathic remedies to give me.

Yup — homeopathy, the little drops and sugar pills that literally contain nothing “real” in them.

They are by definition placebos!

My husband shook his head every time he saw the absolutely “miraculous” changes in my health after seeing him.

He couldn’t explain why I always got better after taking a few drops of liquid that are, basically, placebos.

“I think you just like his medicine,” he used to say.

What he meant by that was that I liked and trusted Dr. Morrison. I liked the way he thought, I liked his approach, and I trusted his methods.

In fact, it turns out that KNOWING a placebo “does nothing” does not prevent it from helping … so I even liked that. I could use my strong, rational, intellectual mind in service of the belief that it might help.

Therefore, what he did worked for me, perhaps better than it would work for someone else who didn’t like his approach as much.

My husband might be right.

Maybe I do “just like” his medicine.

But who cares, if it works for me?

I certainly liked not having migraines as often. Eventually, I found several other non-medical approaches that helped me control my migraines so much that I rarely get them now, at all, and I don’t take any homeopathic remedies at all.

Oh, and where did I find those? In a book written by a neurologist who specializes in migraines … who talks about all sorts of non-pharmaceutical interventions, including meditation and lots of other “non-medical” things.

The book is “The Migraine Brain” and it is written by Carolyn Bernstein, M.D., who writes not just from her long career experience, but from her own personal experience with migraines.

As a patient, I care about results more than methods.

So I don’t mind being sort of super-old-fashioned about these things, and believing in, as a favorite author once put it, “six impossible things before breakfast.”

Let’s Keep Believing

Maybe the power of belief is something we should keep.

Maybe we should be allowing ourselves the comfort and sweetness of carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot, a worry stone, a stuffed animal, an amulet.

Or if those sound ridiculous, maybe we should allow ourselves the comfort of the white coat, the sterile lab, and the safety glasses.

Maybe the country doctors of a hundred years ago, and the shamans and healers before them knew something we’re just beginning to remember.

That what we THINK and BELIEVE matters.

Medicines and surgeries are one kind of medicine, and I think they are important.

I wouldn’t ever hesitate to treat with pharmaceuticals and surgeries that had a record of helping and were being prescribed by veterinarians I trust.

When Dr. Dressler found a lump in Kanga’s belly, and it turned out to be a tumor, I absolutely wanted him to take it out!

And if chemotherapy protocols had been available to help her, I absolutely would have considered those, too.

But maybe a prayer, and the laying on of hands, and carrying talismans are another kind of medicine, too, the kind that we can do for ourselves and our loved ones at home.

Using one doesn’t have to negate the other.

That’s why Dr. Dressler calls his approach “full spectrum.”

Because it includes every approach that has been shown to help.

Full Spectrum Means Using What Has Been Shown to Help

As you find yourself navigating your dog’s cancer, do what makes you feel confident, after consulting with actual experts.

After all, some of the things Dr. Dressler writes about in his book were considered crazy in 2007, but today are basically standard of care!

Go to the vet, get the surgery, and give your dog the medicines.

Ask your vet to help you decide on which supplements are appropriate (most of Dr. Dressler’s recommendation can be used in every case, including those that are declining conventional treatments).

Change the diet, and help boost your dog’s life quality in any way you can.

There are no guarantees, and I’m not advocating for blind irrationality, or for using things that are untested and unsafe. There is a lot of advice out there, particularly in social media forums, that makes me cringe.

As Dr. Dressler always reminds us, what works for one dog will not always work for all dogs. That’s true whether you are talking about surgery and chemo or reiki and crystal magic.

The same goes for magical thinking. My magical thoughts might sound silly to you, and yours might sound ridiculous to me. If something feels fake to you, it’s not magical.

So keep it real, and believe in what you feel is true for you.

Then choose the things that you feel will work best for you, for your dog, and for your life situation.

And that does NOT mean do EVERYTHING you hear about. I think this is where people get into real trouble!

Less Is More

But, what if you “believe” in something that might not be good for your dog?

I always worry about this. Some people are so excited to be able to help their dog at home that they go overboard.

For example, some people read about curcumin’s benefits and go to extremes.

They believe so hard that it will help their dog that they give five different forms and way overdo it.

That’s not what I’m advocating here, and neither would any veterinarian I’ve ever talked to.

I’m not advocating using a ton of supplements thinking more is better.

Why give ten forms of curcumin, and risk over-dosing your dog when one curcumin supplement is all your dog needs?

Why give five mushroom supplements, when she only needs one?

I’m not suggesting that magical thinking makes you a pharmacologist overnight. Leave the medication, supplement, and dosing decisions to your veterinarian, who can assess your dog’s unique case and balance everything.

You wouldn’t try doing surgery at home, right?

But if you feel better when you wear a certain piece of jewelry, or when you pray on a rosary, or when you lay your hands on your dog, or give your dog homeopathic remedies that technically “don’t have anything in them” …

… as long as it doesn’t hurt, but it makes you feel better … and it seems to have a positive effect on your dog’s mood or stamina, go for it.

In other words, if you like the medicine, if it’s non-invasive, it may work better.

Use a light touch, and it will work even more.

Ways to Offer Magic to Your Dog

Here are just a few suggestions for things you can do to enhance your magical thinking powers and make your dog feel great:

  • Exercise. Dogs all love to move, even those with limited mobility. Movement reassures us that we are alive, and that is in itself the best medicine.
  • Play Dates. We’ve written before about how important social activity is.
  • Training. Believe it or not (believe it!) your dog likes to be mentally challenged. It reassures us that we have something to learn.
  • Manageable Challenges. Your dog will live longer if she feels like there are still challenges to overcome. It’s invigorating!
  • Joys of Life. Dr. Dressler’s Joys of Life are powerful reminders to our subconscious that life is worth fighting for. Make sure your dog knows how wonderful life is!
  • Meditation. Simply being present with your dog is a reminder of how strong your bond is.
  • Visualization. Join elite athletes and NASA astronauts in this amazing practice. If you can see it in your mind, it can happen in your life. Use visualization to imagine everything from a calm vet visit to a tumor shrinking. Will it always work? You won’t know if you don’t try.
  • Pray. There are actual studies that show that prayer helps not only those who pray feel better, but those who are prayed for. Warm thoughts and sending good vibes count, too. Whatever this means to you, do it.
  • Massage and Acupressure. There are endless ways to give your dog bodywork, and they all offer profound stress relief. Reiki, T-Touch, and Healing Touch are just a few of the many modalities that can help.

Many warm and magical thoughts to you and your loved ones,

Molly Jacobson, Editor
The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Leave a Comment

  1. Teresa Sheehan on March 17, 2022 at 10:03 pm

    Great article. I consider myself agnostic. Never had a strong faith. But I feel hey it couldn’t hurt? So I pray alot with my dog. I express thanks for our many blessings, and I list them, I ask for forgiveness for my mistakes, I ask for God’s holy spirit to help me make good decisions for my Louie. I pray for Louie’s body to receive the treatments well and that his body will rid itself of the cancer. I pray for the doctors and techs to do their best work. And I ask for help. When things go well I say thank you. And I feel its been really helpful.

    • Molly Jacobson on March 18, 2022 at 11:04 am

      I am glad it’s been helpful. The really nice thing about prayer is that you don’t have to believe in a higher anything in order for it to help you feel better. People who DO believe might be offended by that, but it’s just a weird quirk of the human brain, that when we talk to someone, even someone who isn’t there, it makes us feel better. I think there is also value in having a moment of quiet, focused attention. It makes us feel like we are “doing something” when we can’t maybe physically “do something.” Thanks for your comment, Teresa.

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