There has always been a bewildering selection of animal health products available, making a wide range of claims about their ability to boost productivity or prevent disease. A variety of products have appeared which claim to reduce the need for antibiotics, or even provide alternatives for the treatment of infections. However, these claims are not necessarily backed up by robust evidence of their effectiveness. Here we discuss what to look out for and how to determine if a product is all that it is claimed to be.

Animal Health Products: Are they all they are cracked up to be?

Animal Health Products: What is in them?

For any product, reputable suppliers should always be willing to tell you exactly which active ingredients are present and in what amounts. Beware of any products for which this information is not available.

Is there any evidence?

There is no substitute for good quality research data to show that a product is effective. Any claims made by the manufacturer should be backed up in this way. However, salespeople will often present poor quality research to support their products:

Who conducted the research?

Research studies carried out by companies into their own products will usually be designed to demonstrate the benefits. As such, they can be highly biased in the way that they are designed and are unlikely to give a true reflection of how the product will perform in the real world. Look out for independent research which has been carried out by academics and published in a proper scientific journal. Even this needs further consideration. Additionally, always look for who funded the research. It has been shown that industry funded research can be biased, even if the scientists themselves did not intend to be influenced and did not recognise that they were influenced. This bias is known as the ‘funding effect’.

What did the research actually show?

Did the research that is quoted in the brochure actually demonstrate that the product will do what it is claimed to do? Often, broader claims will be made than what has actually been found in the studies.

Were the findings significant and meaningful?

In many cases a difference in outcome can occur purely due to chance. If a research finding is not statistically significant, then it is possible that this was the case.

Have the benefits of the product or its key ingredients been demonstrated in multiple scientific trials?

If more than one piece of research has shown a demonstrable benefit, then you can have more confidence that the product will do the job it has claimed to do.

Beware of testimonials.

Many suppliers use farmer testimonials to demonstrate the benefits of their products. This is fine, but does not replace the need for rigorous scientific testing.

• These accounts may be embellished, or may not tell you the whole truth.

• There may be other farms where the benefits of the product were not seen. In fact, there may be some where the effect was detrimental.

• Every farm is unique in many ways, with differences including the climate, the type of animals, the infrastructure and the attitudes of the people. Are the same results likely to be experienced on your operation?

Trials on your own farm.

Many companies will encourage you to trial a product on your own farm. While this may deal with the issue of whether it will work under your unique conditions, you still need to be careful when reviewing the results.

Look at what is being compared in the trial: Are the animals given the product being compared to a group of animals who are either not being treated (a negative control) or are being treated with a different product that is known to be effective (a positive control). If all animals are treated with the trial product, then any changes observed may occur due to factors other than this product. These may include the weather, differences in stocking density, changes in personnel or management changes that have also been instituted.

Remember that changes are often made when a problem is at its worst. If we introduce a product at this time, it is likely that an improvement will occur anyway and we may falsely attribute this to the product. For example, we may start giving all cows an ‘udder health bolus’ at calving after we experience a spike in mastitis cases in early lactation. If the cause of the spike in cases was overcrowding in the transition yard due to a cluster of cows calving over a short period, then this will resolve itself when we have fewer cows in the yard. We may falsely attribute any improvement to the bolus. In this case, it is more valuable to look at the existing evidence for the use of the product and decide if and when to use it based on that.

Look for a trusted supplier.

A company with a good, long-standing reputation for supplying effective and reliable products has a lot more to loose from backing something that later turns out to be ineffective. A trustworthy company will be honest about the products they supply and any limitations in the evidence supporting them. If someone tells you ‘this product may be useful for the following reasons, but this is not fully proven’ they are more likely to be telling the truth than someone who says ‘this product will definitely solve all your problems and make you money’

As vets we are trained to review scientific evidence. We can provide you with an unbiased opinion on any sales literature that you have received. We can also advise you on what questions you should be asking to ensure that you are best equipped with the information you need before deciding to part with your hard-earnt cash.