From Wikipedia: The scientific method (or simply scientific method) is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
In short, in order to have good, solid knowledge — the truth, if you will — we have to follow a specific and highly detailed process to collect and analyze data. If we are not very careful, we can come to the wrong conclusions, leading us to something that isn’t the exact truth. Until someone comes around to test what we’ve decided is true, we will operate under the information we have at hand. The system relies heavily on the integrity of the people doing the research. It’s a very murky area that’s honestly well beyond what I want to talk about this week.
The take-home message here is that scientists (and therefore the rest of us) have a duty to carefully collect, analyze, and interpret information on a particular topic so that we have a better understanding of the world around us. Anything from the way the sun produces heat and light to the way the tiniest viruses can make us sick is investigated with the scientific method. This information is what veterinarians rely upon to do our work. (We’re certainly not alone in that respect!)
What happens, though, when technology advances, or knowledge advances, and we have new data that doesn’t fit the original conclusions? What happens when there is a shift in our social and cultural morals? What happens when something completely new and original shows up that we’ve never seen before? If we’re ethical and honest, we’ll admit exactly this: we don’t know. We don’t know what, why, how, when, or where. We don’t know quite how this will change our understanding of the topic. What we DO know is that we must begin again with a new hypothesis, test again, collect and analyze data, and draw new conclusions. I have a two specific examples in mind to illustrate what I mean.
Dogs and cats don’t need pain medication after spay or neuter surgery.
Yes, horrifyingly, many veterinarians long ago believed that animals didn’t need pain control post-operatively. The truth was that we simply didn’t recognize the signs of pain as animals display them. You’d think common sense would prevail — cutting the body hurts! — but it didn’t. Some veterinarians used pain as a justification for keeping an animal from being too active after surgery, too, which is equally horrible. Thankfully, good, careful research has led us to not only know that animals feel pain, but also to a wide variety of excellent and useful pain medications for animals. I have never had an owner refuse pain medication when we’ve recommended it.
Pain control seems like a no-brainer. Looking back at a time when pain meds weren’t used frequently feels much like the dark ages. It’s an embarrassing part of our history as vets and pet owners. What about a more complex issue, such as early spay and neuter? That gets a lot tougher to pick apart.
Early Spay and Neuter is the Best Decision for Longterm Health
This one has been a contentious issue for a long, long time. Dogma said that pet owners weren’t responsible enough to control their pets’ reproductive activity, so we needed to spay and neuter to reduce pet overpopulation. We performed these surgeries as early as possible (especially at shelters or rescues) so that pets wouldn’t have a chance to reach sexual maturity and reproduce. Veterinarians also justified early spay and neuter as a way to reduce the incidence of certain diseases. Ovarian, uterine, mammary (breast) and testicular cancer were at the top of the list. Uterine infections are also essentially eliminated after a spay. Behaviors such as urine-marking, roaming away from home, and aggression were also used to push the idea of early spay and neuter.
I’ll point out before I explain that in the vast majority of Europe, spay and neuter are NOT performed unless there is a medical reason to do so. Did we get it wrong here in the US? Maybe. Partially.
There are two studies that have offered evidence that we didn’t discover the whole truth with our initial recommendations. It appears that in some breeds, early spay and neuter can increase the risk for a specific type of bone cancer. We have also observed physical differences in appearance between early- and late-neutered male dogs. There is speculation that bone and joint diseases may also be affected by a pet’s sex status (for the worse).
Notice that I said “the whole truth.” It’s not an attempt to shed blame or escape the admission that we got some things wrong. It’s an honest look at the fact that we didn’t have a complete set of data, nor did we have all of the effects of one decision observed yet. As time goes on, we learn more and more. We’re able to see the effects of a certain decision on individual pets and the population as a whole. These are complex biological systems — living things — that are affected by their genetics, environment, and medical care.
It’s truly a complex process to get down to ONE variable for a study. Can we prove that it was ONLY the spay that increased risk of bone tumors in this one breed? We thought at one time that certain types of vaccine were causing tumors in cats. As it turns out, the cats themselves have a genetic factor that increases their risk of developing that type of tumor. We have to design a study that is big enough and careful enough that we can draw conclusions for the whole worldwide population of animals in that species. Unfortunately, time politics and money end up contributing to the limits of a given study or researcher. If we acknowledge those limits, the data and conclusions may still be very useful.
So, what do we do now that there’s new data to suggest we might have been wrong before? We study some more. We try to repeat the experiments in the study that raised the question to see if the same conclusions can be drawn in other places. We reinvestigate, and reinvestigate, and reinvestigate again. New data, new tools to measure things, new technology to make the investigations go faster, and techniques that are more accurate are all part of the scientific process.
In the long run, our goal is to provide the right answer for as many pets and owners as possible. Pets and owners directly benefit from our most rigorous efforts to seek the scientific truth. It’s a strength to be able to incorporate new information and improve how we do things.
I invite you to be bold by asking me to dig into a topic that you feel cold use explanation or re-examination. What do you think we need to know more about?