There is no practical limit to the made up magical nonsense that people will use to sell snake oil to the public. I was recently asked to take a look at this particular product - the Only Natural Flea and Tick tag.  

The product promises to be all-natural and to employ the latest holistic science. Of course I am always fascinated by the section on such websites titled "how it works." Let's see:  

"The EasyDefense tag is treated with a bio-energetic process and sealed in an electro-magnetic shielded envelope. When opened and placed on your pet, it uses your pet's own inherent energy to send out frequencies that repel pests. The process operates with quantum mechanic's refined frequencies, and is somewhat similar to the basic principles of homeopathy. (It does not use traditional energy forms like electrical, chemical, thermal, magnetic, or radioactive.)"  

This reminds me of the wisdomofchopra website. If you haven't seen it yet, take a look. Essentially the site randomly chooses words of which Deepak Chopra is fond and strings them together into phrases that are just as dense with wisdom as Chopra's own pronouncements.  

In this case we have a random string of alternative babble that is just as coherent as if you chose from among such words out of a bag. Most of the popular ones are there. As I said the site already used "natural" and "holistic" and here they add "energy," "frequencies," and "quantum mechanics." As a further hook they claim it's loosely based on the basic principles of homeopathy (namely bullshit and deception).  

For only $80 you can get this little chip (not sure what's its actually made of) so that your pet can continue to be tormented by fleas and be vulnerable to ticks.  

In the FAQ on the site they answer the question - is there any scientific evidence that this works?  

"Although it has proven to be completely safe and effective, no large scale studies or clinical trials have been done on the EasyDefense Tag because the application of the underlying technology when used as a pest repellent for pets is relatively new. The energetic technology itself has been well tested and proven effective and has been used in Europe for many years in other applications for humans."  

Short answer - no. They cite anecdote and some vague reference to the "energetic technology," whatever that is, but admit they don't have any actual science to back up their claims. They claim because the application is just too new. The next question in the FAQ is how long the tag will last, and they confidently claim the effect lasts for three years. How could they know that without studies lasting at least three years?  

The claim is often made that such products used on animals must really work because animals can't have a placebo effect (the same is often claimed for babies). This is not true, however, and is based on a gross misunderstanding of what makes up placebo effects. They include things like regression to the mean, a statistical phenomenon that is independent of the knowledge or expectations of the creature being treated.  

Further, bias is assessing the outcome of an intervention occurs with the person making the assessment, and does not have to be on the target. In this case the pet owner is deciding whether or not this tag works. Reading the customer reviews we see a mix of positive and negative - 22 out of 87 reviews said that the product does not work. That is actually a pretty high percentage, even for a worthless product, given the bias of the people buying such a product in the first place and bothering to leave a review.  

The website claims it works better as a preventive than a cure for an existing flea infestation. Of course - if you already have fleas, then a worthless chip that works only by magical non-existent energy isn't going to do anything. If your pets do not have fleas and you put the tag on their collar and they still don't have fleas, you might be convinced that it works. Most of the negative reviews are from owners who already had a flea infestation, and were disappointed that the magical chip didn't work.  

I don't like to blame the victim. So in addition to the company itself for making such claims, I guess we can blame the educational system for its failure to teach basic scientific literacy and critical thinking skills.


Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.

Dr. Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society and the host and producer of the popular weekly science show, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. He also authors the NeuroLogica Blog.