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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: October 1st, 2018


Is combining magical thinking and dog cancer a good idea? Yes. In fact, it’s a GREAT idea.

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. Or prayer, visualization, and lucky rabbit feet. Whatever you call it, magical thinking and dog cancer is a great combination.

Why? Because it helps. 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.”

In other words, what we see, think, feel, hear, and believe matters. And what matters to us, matters to our dogs — so what influences us, influences them.

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, that step could also be called Mind-Body Strategies, or more whimsically, Magical Thinking. (Err, Dr. Dressler would never, ever let me call it that!)

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 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 then we can know in our modern system of medicine. And maybe we should be using it, not dismissing it.

For several years I saw a chiropractor who used muscle-testing to decide which homeopathic remedies to give me. 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. Therefore, what he did worked for me, perhaps better than it would work for someone else who didn’t like his approach as much. He might be right. But who cares, if it works for me.

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

Medicines and surgeries are one kind of medicine, and not the only kind. Prayer, the laying on of hands, and carrying talismans are another.

So as you find yourself navigating your dog’s cancer, do what makes you feel better, even if you know it might sound “crazy” to others. There are no guarantees, of course, and I’m not advocating for blind irrationality. What I believe is not necessarily what YOU should believe, and vice versa.

As Dr. Dressler always reminds us, what works for one dog will not always work for all dogs. 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.

Less Is More

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

I’m not advocating using a ton of supplements thinking more is better. In fact, in my way of thinking, and certainly according to Dr. Dressler, less is usually 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 dosing decisions and surgery strategies to your veterinarian.

But if you feel better when you wear a certain piece of jewelry, or when you pray on a rosary, or if you 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, or seems to have a positive effect on your dog’s mood or stamina, go for it.

In other words, if you like the medicine, it will 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

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

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