Magical Thinking and the ‘Tongue Worm’

Faustino-Rocha, A.I., Henriques, N. and Venâncio, C. (2017) ‘Lyssa lingualis: debunking the myth of the “tongue worm”‘, European Journal of Companion Animal
Practice, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 63-66. [Link]

There is a fascinating article in the latest edition of the European Journal of Companion Animal Practice concerning a phenomenon I hadn’t been previously aware of.

Apparently in the days of Ancient Greece it was believed that rabies was caused by a worm which lived in a dog’s tongue. This structure can be seen as a pale streak in the midline of the underside of many dogs’ tongues and is referred to as the Lyssa (Lyssa was the goddess of madness); it does indeed look a little like a worm. The ancient remedy to ‘cure’ rabies was to remove this supposed parasite after which the dog would allegedly recover and then the Lyssa itself (which would ‘wriggle’ convincingly after removal) could be used in remedies to ‘cure’ humans who had been bitten. This was performed on the dog using a blade and without any sort of sedation or anaesthetic. Who would be mad enough to perform this procedure in a rabid dog I have no idea, but it must have been agony for the dog.

So far this sounds like nothing more than a piece of interesting, if gruesome, historical information. That is until you realise that this appalling procedure is still carried out in parts of Europe today as a supposed cure for a variety of diseases including rabies, but now also distemper and parvo-virus, still with no anaesthetic.

It turns out the Lyssa is a perfectly normal anatomic structure, possessed by all dogs, it is composed of muscle and fat. Its precise function is unknown but it’s easy to imagine it might be part of the supporting structure of the tongue. What it most emphatically is NOT, is a worm, it is part of the dog and removing it serves no purpose whatsoever. The authors of the paper describe the procedure as ‘witchcraft’ and inform us it is a criminal offence.

Just another example of magical thinking in the world of veterinary medicine (although I would hope the procedure isn’t carried out by actual veterinary surgeons) and how suffering can be caused in the name of wishful thinking.

This paper is a brilliant and simple example of how science can help counter superstition and barbarity.

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