Quackery of the month: Cincinnati Zoo uses chiropractic on tiger cub, adjusting spine to cure “failure to thrive”

I know that some readers say that chiropractic treatment has “helped” them, but the practice has no scientific basis, though for a simple one-time back-cracking it may be efficacious. But it’s used to treat general medical conditions, and it’s telling that even Wikipedia says this about the practice of “chiropractic” (my emphasis):

There is no good evidence that chiropractic is effective for the treatment of any medical condition, except perhaps for certain kinds of back pain. Generally, the research carried out into the effectiveness of chiropractic has been of poor quality. Numerous controlled clinical studies of treatments used by chiropractors have been conducted, with conflicting results Research published by chiropractors is distinctly biased. For reviews of SM for back pain chiropractic authors tend to have positive conclusions, while others did not show any effectiveness.

There is a wide range of ways to measure treatment outcomes. Chiropractic care, like all medical treatment, benefits from the placebo response [readers: note] It is difficult to construct a trustworthy placebo for clinical trials of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT), as experts often disagree about whether a proposed placebo actually has no effect. The efficacy of maintenance care in chiropractic is unknown.

See this paper, which supports that conclusion, even the uselessness of chiropractic for back and neck pain; and see this list of harms purported to be caused by chiropractors. Further, here’s a summary of dangerous procedures used by chiropractors who manipulate the spines of newborn humans.

The idea that adjusting spines can help all kinds of medical conditions, such as the “failure to thrive” of the tiger cub described below, is pure quackery. And it can be dangerous, as we learned recently when model Katie May died of a stroke after a chiropractor adjusted her neck after a fall. (Neck adjustments are particularly dicey because the cervical vertebrae, when manipulated, can damage the spinal cord or arteries.) In May’s case, as Orac concludes at Respectful Insolence, rapid adjustment of her neck caused that stroke. No reputable physician would have done what that chiropractor did. (See here for Orac’s other criticisms of chiropractic “medicine”, which he deems quackery—even for lower back problems.)

Now people who go to chiropractors have only themselves to blame for using a form of “alternative medicine” that, says science, produces no benefits. (And no, I don’t want comments from readers saying how chiropractic helped them. I could just as easily get similar letters from Chinese people who use “alternative medicine” like deer horns, or from Americans who use homeopathic “medicine”.) But animals have no choice. So when I saw this video (which I published recently) of a very young tiger cub at the Cincinnati Zoo getting chiropractic neck adjustment for “failure to thrive,” it made me sick. Also in the video is Thane Maynard, head of the Zoo, touting the quackery:

This chiropractor apparently has no experience with baby tigers, which aren’t the same as humans. (Need I add that the configuration of their spinal cord and brain is horizontal rather than vertical?). Look at the quack adjusting the cervical vertebrae of this thing, and listen to him assert that “there’s a lot of science behind what really happens behind chiropractic adjustment” (WRONG!) and that “if the first vertebra is out of alignment . . . you restore the nerve flow [???] to the rest of the body.” What, exactly, is “nerve flow”?

I am at a loss to know why a reputable zoo would consult a chiropractor with no animal experience to “adjust the neck” of a tiny tiger. Did they ask a vet first? Why not a human physical therapist? And to see Thane Maynard, head of the zoo, buying into this quackery shows that zoo people can buy into quackery as much as do ignorant laypeople.

I sent the email below to the Cincinnati zoo–twice–and asked for a response. Of course I have gotten none. I’d tweet my beef to Thane Maynard himself, but his tweets are “protected”, so I can’t.  Here’s what I submitted on the form used to contact the zoo:

As an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, I want to register my objection to your having used a chiropractor to deal with one of your young tiger cubs, as documented in the YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylIjr1FkBOc

Do you seriously think that a quack adjusting the spine of a baby tiger would help it? What evidence is there that this kind of spinal manipulation, which can be dangerous (it’s killed people) would be efficacious? The chiropractor’s “scientific” explanation of adjusting the first cervical vertebra is totally ludicrous, saying that it’s ‘adjusting the nerve flow to the rest of the body.’

In all likelihood, this tiger would have gotten better by itself, but, at any rate, your publicizing the use of quack medicine for animals will only promote its further use on both animals and humans.

I would like your response about why you used this method in view of the lack of science behind it and the possibility it would endanger the cub.

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Dept. Ecology & Evolution
The University of Chicago

Now what do you think the chances are that I’ll get a response? I’m not holding my breath, but I’m also tenacious.


  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    As I mentioned the other day on another subject but seems to fit here as well. Is it possible to shame ignorance out of people?

  2. eric
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I am at a loss to know why a reputable zoo would consult a chiropractor with no animal experience to “adjust the neck” of a tiny tiger. Did they ask a vet first?

    My pure unadulterated wildshot guess is that the vet had already been consulted, gave their opinion, some senior administrator was dissatisfied with it, and so called in the chiropractor. That seems to be the way alternative medicine often creeps in; when people are unhappy with regular treatment.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      A lot of veterinarians are into alternative medicine. It’s even invaded some of the better med schools.

      I have had people who believe in this kind of crap ask how it could be placebo when it works on animals? Animals don’t know what they’re getting. I even heard a vet use this argument after I expressed skepticism over their new treatment using iirc acupuncture.

      The animals may not know what they’re getting — but the people who observe the animals looking for improvement do. Orac and the other folks at Science-Based Medicine often point out that there is no such thing as “the” placebo effect; there are placebo effectS and only some of them involve the psychological expectations of the patient. In addition to aspects like regression to the mean and getting better anyway, there’s all the psychological expectations of the people administering the treatment. Subjective validation.

      • Derek Freyberg
        Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        I agree completely; and there’s also the psychological expectation of the zoo keepers – “they’re doing something so that must be why the tiger looks better.” Expectation of that kind is almost always going to be positive rather than negative: no-one expects an intervention will worsen things, so they’re looking to interpret anything but obvious decline as an improvement.

      • Posted March 1, 2017 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        I work at a vet school and you are so right about how alt med has creeped into the curriculum, clinical rotations and treatments offered by our teaching hospitals.

        Acupunture is a big one, but chiropractic is strong in vet med. I recall having my horse adjusted many years ago before I knew much better, I was skeptical but not yet strong enough to make sure I got the facts.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 2, 2017 at 1:19 am | Permalink

        Another factor that occurs to me is that, if alternative medicine is usually sought only after traditional med hasn’t seemed to work, then by definition it’s occurring further along in the course of the injury or disease and thus simply by coincidence often directly preceding recovery (which would have occurred at that point anyway, with or without the intervention).

  3. Woof
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    “Now what do you think the chances are that I’ll get a response? I’m not holding my breath, but I’m also tenacious.”

    Nevertheless, he persisted.


  4. Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    It’s ironic but a creature would need to have a high degree of sentience before a placebo would work.

    • eric
      Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Well, three things to thing about.

      One: as Sastra points out, knowing the treatment was done can bias the human observer’s perceptions of whether the animal is ‘better’ or not. That’s why good clinical test blinding prevents the observer from knowing which subject got the treatment. Here the observers know the tiger got the treatment.

      Two: there’s the correlation without causation problem. Many illnesses just clear up over time. Doing chiropractic today and having the tiger become more active a few days from now doesn’t necessarily mean it did anything.

      Three: I would guess that like many mammals, tiger cubs respond positively to physical contact (with their mothers or substitutes, etc.). Thus IMO it’s entirely possible that some positive effect is occurring – but not having anything to do with chiropractic or the adjustment per se. That sort of benefit the tiger could get cheaper and better from being hugged by a keeper it knows and trusts.

  5. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you’re persisting. Someone has to speak for the tiger cub and it seems that those who should be protecting it are failing in their duty of care.

    I find the zoo’s actions a complete disgrace.

  6. Kevin
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I know many PhD scientists who use chiropractors. They are not unintelligent and some are even atheists. A lot of them just don’t know their bodies or would rather substitute physical exercise for skeletal manipulation. But at least they kind of have a choice, unlike little tiger here.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Also some that believe in religion but there is no evidence for that as well.

    • eric
      Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      I have friends who use it. My opinion/advice to them has been that as long as they’re getting decent massage therapy or physical therapy at their visits, it probably doesn’t matter if they get it in a chiropractitioner’s office or a massage therapist’s office. But I also strongly suggest that they avoid any aggressive “adjustments” on their spine or neck.

      • Posted March 1, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        As a physician who specializes in the non-surgical treatment of spine problems (read: back and neck pain), for many years I took a relatively neutral stance on chiropractic treatment (always with the caveat that neck manipulation is not safe and never indicated). I now come down strongly against it. I’ve heard too many stories from people who had mild to moderate back pain until after one chiropractic manipulation they suddenly developed severe pain and numbness down a leg, sometimes with a drop foot.

        The speech I always give is this: You have a disc in your spine which is injured, inflamed, and painful. Think of it like a badly sprained ankle, which is swollen, tender, and painful to move. Now imagine someone comes along and says, “I know how to fix that! I’m going to grab your foot and jerk it as hard as I can so that the joint cracks.” You would run away and never look back. Why does this make sense for your back?

        Note that this only applies to discogenic pain. Not all back pain is disc pain.

  7. Billy Bl.
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Just the thought of someone messing around with my spinal cord gives me the willies.

    • kevinj
      Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Orac on Respectful Insolence occasionally has posts giving cases where it has gone wrong. Its the neck manipulation that freaks me out.

  8. Sastra
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    . Look at the quack adjusting the cervical vertebrae of this thing, and listen to him assert that “there’s a lot of science behind what really happens behind chiropractic adjustment” (WRONG!) and that “if the first vertebra is out of alignment . . . you restore the nerve flow [???] to the rest of the body.” What, exactly, is “nerve flow”?

    “Nerve flow” is a deepity, an ambiguous term which can be interpreted in different ways. The average member of the public might think that the chiropractor is talking about a “pinched nerve.” We’re familiar with that problem and thus it won’t set off any alarm bells. Little tiger has a pinched nerve and it’s making him hurt.

    But the chiropractor is really talking about vitalism, the prescientific belief in a life “energy” or force which flows through all living things in order to animate them. It’s basically a spiritual concept, very similar to mind/body dualism.

    • Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

      It makes as much sense as “re-routing the EPS converters through the main deflector dish”.

      I visited a chiropractor for a free consultation once out of curiosity, prepared to refuse all attempts at manipulation, physical or otherwise.

      I was treated to pseudo-science word salad, a clumsy “cold reading” of my past injuries and a recommendation of weekly appointments at $80 a crack (4x the cost of a GP) for preventative maintenance.

      All delivered with the typical manipulative techniques of a door-to-door salesperson.

      I wonder what his recommendation would have been had I actually suffered from any symptoms?

      Preventative maintenance was recommended because I had no problems whatsoever.

      • Jon
        Posted March 3, 2017 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        It makes as much sense as “re-routing the EPS converters through the main deflector dish”.

        Damnit Jim! I’m a doctor…not a chiropractor.

  9. Paul S
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    My dad just had his L2 and L3 replaced with wire mesh and two titanium rods bolted to his spine.
    After seeing what can happen when a spine breaks (collapse from bacterial infection), I would never let a chiropractor anywhere near me.

  10. darrelle
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    It seems relatively plausible that claims that chiropractic techniques that involve making adjustments that relocate improperly aligned bones back into normal alignment could be efficacious and beneficial. So, why are chiropractors so resistant to submitting their discipline to the methods of science? If they both truly believed that their discipline was legit and had a reasonably accurate understanding of science then you’d think they would embrace scientific study of chiropractic techniques. It could only be of benefit in honing the efficacy and benefit of their techniques and, most importantly, in legitimizing their discipline.

    But it is really much worse than just “adjustments.” Chiropractor’s also claim that they can cure diseases of all kinds from cancer to dietary disorders and who know’s what else. Claims for which there can be no plausible mechanism except magic. Pure quackery. It really pisses me off because my own mother, who has suffered for years, was taken in by just such a chiropractic quack. She seems to believe anything this person feeds her. I only hope that somehow it brings her some lessening of her suffering, even if it is only in her own mind.

  11. Mark Reaume
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I went to a Quackopracter to help with a pinched nerve in my neck (I was desperate). All of the adjustments he did seem to relieve the pain momentarily but didn’t resolve the issue. In the end, stretching and exercise were the only things that helped.

    • Posted March 1, 2017 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      “In the end, stretching and exercise were the only things that helped.”

      Or, it got better over time and stretching and exercise are what you did while waiting for the time to pass.

      • Mark Reaume
        Posted March 1, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        Hard to say, it was a very frustrating ~6 months though.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 1, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        “Or, it got better over time and stretching and exercise are what you did while waiting for the time to pass.”

        Very valid comment.

        I had severe back pain a few months ago. Neither the doctor nor the physiotherapist could pin it down (apparently about 50% of back pains can never be conclusively determines). It might have been muscle strain due to lifting an engine block (though I felt nothing at the time and it didn’t quite fit the description of typical muscle strain to the physio).

        But given that uncertainty, it’s quite difficult to derive any statistics for efficacy of various treatments.

        I think the physiotherapy probably helped, but I can’t prove it – it’s perfectly possible my back would have got better at the same rate anyway.


    • Brujo Feo
      Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      I have always favored the locution “chiroquacktor,” and for other woo (Reiki comes to mind), “quacktitioner.”

  12. Steve Pollard
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    People reading this website probably don’t need more information about chiropractic, but here’s a link anyway: http://www.ebm-first.com/chiropractic.html Scroll down to an article on the dubious veterinary use of chiropractic.

    The home site, Evidence-Based Medicine First, has similar source articles on most of the woo that goes to make up “alternative” medicine.

  13. Posted March 1, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Some of the modern practices, over the last 20 years, have started using low impact techniques that “work better” or rather “avoid killing people”. The “actuator” is a small, spring loaded device that makes “micro-adjustments” to the spine and is often paired with various massage techniques and stretching exercises, or what they call “sports medicine”. This form of chiropractic tends to also avoid the “subluxation” explanation for everything from general discomfort to colo-rectal cancer.

    I’ve been to several types of chiropractor over the years, and even one that seemed to change his technique after every chiropractic conference to keep up with the trends, and transformed from “crack and hack” to “I’m going to tap your C1 slightly and it will eventually straighten your back like dominos”. I was usually more satisfied with the “crack and hack” because it felt that more was happening, and that the micro-adjustments were simply keeping me coming in regularly.

    This was me in my teens and twenties. Come to find out that, in my thirties, I get more out of sleeping on a decent bed and taking hot showers than years of chiropractic care. Go figure.

    Regardless, “chiropractic care” is hard to test because it’s all over the map in regards to methods and philosophy. Some are simply massage therapists that focus on posture and others fully buy into the “full quack model” where everyone NEEDS chiropractic care and that it cures all from headaches to warts. I’ve also noticed a creepy trend where certain chiropractics build a hero narrative with their children, having “adjusted” them at a very young age and apparently “saving their lives”. I had a friend in fifth grade who would tear up while telling the story about how his dad “saved his life”. I’ve seen similar videos since and there has to be done pathology in place where otherwise unskilled people can adopt the mantle of super-hero with so little training.

  14. TJR
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I’d love to see a clip like this where the chiropractor gets his face bitten off by a maddened tiger.

  15. Terry Sheldon
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I have never subjected myself to chiropractic treatment, but Katie May was the sister of a dear friend of mine so there is no way in hell I would ever consider it now. More importantly in this case, I’m appalled that someone with no training whatsoever in feline anatomy (let alone that of a newly born tiger cub) would have the chutzpah to perform spinal manipulations on an animal like that.

  16. rickflick
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I had a dog which had some heart symptoms associated with the breed – a doberman. Her vet said he’d recently gone through training in the use of chiropractic techniques for animals and that he wanted to try an alignment. I was skeptical, but let him give it a try. He felt along her spine and stopped around midway down. Pressure was applied with his thumb and the dog yelped loudly. The condition was not improved and later I moved to a different veterinary practice. People keep telling me I should see a quack, but I just smile.

  17. Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Not only could the vets at the zoo be into quackery, another alternative comes to mind. Namely, what if a chiropractor in the community volunteered his time with the zoo? This is by analogy to the ID conferences which seem to have rented rooms at a university to hold their bogus conferences, and then can advertise the “fact” that they had a conference “at a university”. Similarly here, a chiropractor can now say they worked at the appropriate zoo.

  18. Brujo Feo
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    My form submission to the zoo:

    Well, this one would be for Thane Maynard…

    Mr. Maynard–one might think that with your record of high-profile incidents, from the mauling of your own daughter by a tiger to the shooting of Harambe, you might have developed a taste for discretion.

    But alas, one would be wrong. Chiroquacktic “treatment’ of a tiger cub? Have you completely lost your mind? Tell me–what training has this “Doctor” Sperbeck had in the anatomy and physiology of large cats? (Apparently about the same as he got in the anatomy and physiology of humans, in between his chiroquacktic school’s marketing classes.) Or were you just happy to get sucked in by his nonsense about “nerve flow,” and his maudlin (and obviously pure horseshit) story about “one of [his] teachers at chiropractic college” rescuing an infant from the NICU?

    Don’t get me wrong–chiroquacktic does have one known salutory application–the treatment of a particular manifestation of sciatica caused by “fat wallet syndrome,” which it can cure by thinning your wallet.

    If adults want to fool themselves with such nonsense, who’s to stop them? But a baby tiger?

    You should be ashamed. And failing that, unemployed.

  19. dabertini
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I can go one better. Why is it that my insurance which is publicly funded covers PSEUDO medical (massage, chiropractic, naturopathetic, homeopathetic etc) but many people do not have basic dental coverage? WTF?!!!!!

    • Randy schenck
      Posted March 1, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      There are a few lucky among us who get free medical insurance but that was a condition of the group plan and it has long since be discontinued. And most likely never to be seen again.

      • dabertini
        Posted March 1, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but I am Canadian!!

  20. Posted March 1, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    The only quacks heard around a zoo should be the ducks.

  21. Posted March 1, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    My only experience with chiropractic was horrible, I was very overdue with my third child and my back was hurting so much that I couldn’t sleep.

    My friend swore her Chiro could help with the pain and I was desperate for relief so I went to see him.

    I do not know what he did but he not only gave me an extremely bad headache but he “adjusted” me somehow and cause my uterus to fall forward and tearing the muscles and tendons that keep the uterus in place, at least this is how my OB explained it to me.

    So my back no longer hurt but I had to bind my abdomen with a special girdle-type garment to keep the baby where it should have been instead of very forward and painful.

    So yeah he helped with the backache but at the cost of endangering my ability to continue carrying my baby.

    Never again will I let those quacks near me or my family, every time I hear someone say how great they are I practically roll my eyes right out of my head.

  22. J Whaley
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    “it’s telling that even Wikipedia says this about the practice”

    Actually it’s not, since Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at any time to say anything they want (so the sentence you cite could literally have been written moments before you cited it). Never forget that “according to Wikipedia” is 100% equivalent to “according to someone on the Internet”. It’s a mistake to cite Wikipedia as a credible source, and especially so for an academic of your stature.

    Many people think Wikipedia pages are iteratively improved over time and slowly approach “perfection”, but a little experience with editing any page that’s remotely controversial would quickly disabuse them of that notion.

    • Mary Sheumaker
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      I think that is a little harsh on our host.

      Wikipedia is a good resource for ‘background information’ and this isn’t an academic research paper, as noted in this from Harvard Guide to Using Sources: http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page346376

      and this from LiveScience describes the checks that Wikipedia puts in place for controversial posts: http://www.livescience.com/32950-how-accurate-is-wikipedia.html

      So it seems to me that when it comes to Wikipedia, the answer to the question of accuracy is: it depends. Background information? Yes. Main source on a research paper? No.

      In my humble opinion, I think Prof Coyne is using it appropriately here.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        It never ceases to amaze me just how much information there is in Wikipedia.

        There are tens of thousands of pages, dealing with technical aspects, which are extremely well-written and informative, obviously by experts in the field. (Check out for example the pages on Stephenson Valve Gear, PETN, Fluid Dynamics, Steel Guitars, Monty Python, Phasmatodea (stick insects), Christmas Island. All highly detailed and complete with numerous references to allied topics. Examples off the top of my head.)
        Those were just topics I conjured up at random, and sure enough Wikipedia had them.
        I just thought ‘Moscow Metro’ – yes, there’s a detailed page on it. Now I am absolutely prepared to trust, in my travels, the route map, the fare structure and the station descriptions in that article.

        I would be willing to bet that the information in the pages I’ve described is at least as reliable as in a textbook (not least because sometimes textbook authors have an axe to grind too). I would take it at face value and I certainly would not consider it suspect because hot topics such as ‘Scientology’ or ‘Milo Yiannopoulos’ or ‘third wave feminism’ might have been the subject of edit wars.


  23. Leigh Jackson
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    It happened to be chiropractic, but it could easily have been homeopathy or TCM – acupuncture or Chinese herbalism. The veterinary profession has been sucked into the same alternative world as has mainstream human medicine.

    I hope you do receive a response, lame as it will be.

  24. Mary Sheumaker
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Ask any Radiographer and we will tell you the horror stories of post-chiropractic victim’s x-ray exams. Yet I know of nurses who swear by their chiropractor. (Of course that does mean Radiology’s sample size is skewed towards the extreme cases.) I have had Doctors roll their eyes and say well, maybe that nurse is at least getting the massage benefit out of it. Reminds me of the false sense of support from religion.

  25. Posted March 7, 2017 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    In my country, Australia, many if not all health insurers will allow you to claim visits to the chiropractor. This pushes up the premiums for those of us who see through the quackery. Grrr…

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