Would the principle of an organisation prevent you from donating money/time/items if you disagreed with those principles? This is a question I posed a short time ago on Twitter, when I wondered if atheists felt that they couldn’t donate to religious based charitable organisations, because of the conflict in belief. There was a mixed bag of answers, though many seemed to think that, as long as they were providing valuable aid, and not leaning too heavily on the bible-bashing, that it was worth donating money to help those in desperate need. Leaving religious clashes aside, is there ever a point at which you would question your charitable donations, based on your knowledge of what the organisation will do with that money? For me, this question was raised again yesterday, when I discovered that a dog sanctuary in Ireland regularly uses its donations to fund alternative therapies for its animals (see note below – 16/11/11).

Dogs Aid is an animal sanctuary in Dublin, primarily for dogs, but also housing other animals on occasion. The following is from its website:

Dogs Aid is a charity set up by three ladies in 1987 to help dogs that were unwanted and abandoned in Dublin, Ireland. Since then we have helped rehabilitate and rehome hundreds of dogs. Dogs Aid has a no destruction policy so we never put a recoverable dog down, and as a result the sanctuary is a permanent home for many forever dogs that are “too old or too bold” to be rehomed. From time to time we also take care of other animals including rabbits, bats, birds, foxes, feral cats, hedgehogs etc.

Dogs Aid is entirely staffed by volunteers and entirely funded by public donations, and all of our money goes to help the animals. We are currently in the process of building a new sanctuary on our permanent site and look forward to moving the dogs to their new home later this year.

Dogs Aid, like many animal sanctuaries, is funded by public donations, and they are the kind of organisation that I would have donated to in the past, but yesterday, while looking through their website, I found the following paragraph describing the condition of one of their “forever dogs” (emphasis is my own):

When Daisy came into us it was clear that something wasn’t quite right. The vets diagnosed her with brain damage and blindness resulting from the brain damage. After regular meals and regular reiki healing she’s doing really well. Daisy doesn’t spin as much as she used to and is a happy, confident girl.

At Dogs Aid, Daisy benefits from regular reiki healing.

Reiki healing focuses on the manipulation of chi, in conjunction with meridian lines and chakras. The practitioner can use many techniques (but often a “laying on hands” approach) to manipulate the chi and flow chi energy into the patient in order to heal them of many ailments. Despite repeated attempts to demonstrate the effectiveness of reiki, it is widely discredited as having no stronger effect than a similarly administered placebo. In 2008, a review of clinical trials involving reiki concluded that there was no evidence to support its efficacy for any condition, and serious methodological concerns were noted with regard to the trials (many of which were so poorly constructed that they had to be excluded from the review).

One, off-hand mention of the use of reiki might not be enough to discourage one from donating to, or otherwise helping, Dogs Aid, but a look at their “Useful Links” page was enough to discourage me. Pride of place, above even links to Veterinary services, is a link to a Pet Healer, who practises “Small animal healing, specialising in Reiki and Seichem which is great for relieving stress, boosting energy, vitality and immune system responses.”

The Pet Healer in question is Marese Hickey, and she treats both animals and people. In people, she uses a combination of therapies that she has learned, mixing hypnosis with other “energy medicine” techniques. In animals, she uses both reiki and seichem, which she says allows her to safely perform “psychic surgery”. Further examination of her site yields a story of her own cat, who outlived her expected death by several months – a situation which Hickey attributes to her own healing, and to homoeopathic remedies prescribed to her by Emily McAteer, a homoeopathic vet. The cat in question suffered from cancer of the ear (squamous cell carcinoma) and chronic renal failure, and in the last 6 months of its life, received no treatment for either condition.

It’s clear from her own website that Hickey believes her cat lived as a result of her healing, and the fact that she consulted a homoeopathic vet cements her attachment to alternative medical treatments. Many people point to the response of animals to alternative medicine (such as homoeopathy) as proof that it works, stating that animals cannot know about placebo responses and other explanations for feeling better after alternative medical treatment, and therefore must be healed by the treatment in order to seem better. It is true that animals probably aren’t aware of the concept of placebo treatment, but it is also true that their owners are susceptible to confirmation bias – simply, the owner expects the pet to  improve, and so sees an improvement. This effect may be enhanced by the owners behaviour toward the pet – the owner’s behaviour may change, and the pet may respond to this change by also changing its behaviour. Finally, if a pet is receiving no treatment for a serious medical condition, it is possible that pain and sickness will cause it to change its behaviour, and that this behaviour will be misinterpreted as an improvement in condition (e.g. pet moving around much more attributed to an improvement in the condition, but could equally be due to the pet’s discomfort and inability to find comfort in any position).

I’m afraid that this is, absolutely, enough for me to question further donations to Dogs Aid. I don’t support alternative, unproven therapies, directly or indirectly. It is clear that, at least some of the volunteers there do support these therapies, and will continue to use them, and advertise them as a viable method of treating your sick pets. As a donor, I can’t stipulate where my money goes – I can’t simply phone Dogs Aid and say that I will only donate money toward veterinary bills with real, qualified vets using actual medicine – so the only choice left is to raise an objection, and withdraw support. Sorry, Dogs Aid, but I’m out.


Update: Dogs Aid have been in touch to clarify their position, and state that “Marese Hickey comes to the sanctuary regularly to volunteer her reiki skills, entirely without cost to Dogs Aid.”.