An overview
By Dr. Anna Maria Gardner MA Vet.MB MRCVS

Holistic medicine is becoming more and more popular for people. Once they discover the benefits for themselves they are starting to realize that their pets can also enjoy similar results. It is estimated that two-thirds of all Americans will consult some form of “alternative practitioner” every year. Often holistic medicine or veterinary medicine is sought as a last resort, when there is nothing that conventional medicine can do. In these cases it may well be that alternative medicine may have something to offer. For example, acupuncture has helped many animals that were paralyzed or in severe pain and discomfort from arthritis. Homeopathy can offer an alternative to treatment of chronic skin disorders that are conventionally treated with cortisone, which has many long term side effects. However, when animals are treated holistically and naturally before this stage develops long term benefits can result. These include excellent vitality, healthier immune systems and increased resistance to disease. Indeed, holistic or complementary medicine can prevent many diseases from developing, or if they do healing will often be faster due to the enhanced immune system of the animal or person.

So what is holistic veterinary medicine and what can it do?

Holistic is derived from the word whole, and refers to the treatment of the whole organism, rather than the treatment of individual body parts, or the removal of symptoms. Conventional or Western medicine tends to concentrate more on the removal of symptoms. Holistic veterinary medicine encompasses many modalities, including conventional medicine where it is required or appropriate. Modalities such as acupuncture, homeopathy, herbalism or nutrition are better referred to as complementary rather than alternative, as they can complement more traditional methods not just be last resort alternatives. It is required that the practitioner treating animals with whatever holistic method be first and foremost a licensed veterinarian. This is because veterinarians are rigorously trained in the diagnosis of disease and the practice of veterinary medicine and can determine the best approach for an individual patient. For example a broken leg often requires surgical intervention, although homeopathic remedies can subsequently be used to increase healing, and decrease pain and inflammation. This is an example of true complementary medicine, where the best of all worlds is available. Holistic veterinary medicine includes many modalities and the following is a brief overview of the most commonly used .

NUTRITION

The key to good health and a healthy body is directly related to what is put into that body, and this applies to both animals and people. Good nutrition is the basis of a healthy pet. It is essential to feed as healthy a diet as you can. Many commercial pet foods include by-products and also chemicals that are known to have serious side effects. By-products include chicken heads and legs, tumors, diseased organs, and many other things that are not considered good for human consumption. If you wouldn’t eat it why should your pet? Chemicals to avoid include BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin, as well as any artificial coloring or flavoring. Ideally a natural home prepared diet is a lot healthier, providing that an appropriate vitamin and mineral supplement is added. With cats it is essential to add the essential amino acid taurine to their diet, as lack of this can lead to blindness. Foods that are good to feed include natural whole grains, such as brown rice, organic vegetables, and meats such as chicken, beef or rabbit. There are many good books that suggest detailed diets and some suggestions are given below. If it is not possible to prepare a diet then a good quality commercial pet food should be considered. Look for a food that is preserved naturally and keep away from artificial additives or by-products. Read the labels, and don’t just look at the bag, as this can sometimes be misleading. Many good natural pet foods are available, but even so it is good to add some natural foods in with the pet food, such as some left over vegetables or meat. Try and give as natural a food as possible and your pet will start to look and feel more healthy, vibrant and energetic.

ACUPUNCTURE

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese method of treatment that most people have heard something about. It is based upon the concept that the body has meridians, or energy lines, running along it, and when the body is out of balance the energy lines are blocked or deficient in some way. The use of needles at appropriate acupuncture points will rebalance or redirect this energy and balance the body. The acupuncture points have been mapped over thousands of years by the Chinese and now have even been identified with modern scientific techniques. Some of the effects of acupuncture include pain relief, a strong sense of well-being, decreased inflammation and increased blood flow to the area being treated. By appropriate use of acupuncture, conditions such as hip dysplasia, intervertebral disc collapse, arthritis and nerve damage can be treated successfully. Additional benefits can include longevity and this refers to an increase in both the quality and quantity of life. Many old dogs treated with acupuncture live longer than average and enjoy less arthritis and increased energy and it is a joy to watch them respond. Acupuncture certainly offers a viable alternative to the use of pain killers and steroids, as well as surgery and has few, if any side effects when used appropriately.

HOMEOPATHY

Homeopathy is a system of medicine that was developed in Germany by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann in the late eighteenth century. It is based on the Greek words meaning similar suffering and the concept that a substance that causes a symptom in a healthy patient will treat that same symptom in a sick patient. A single homeopathic remedy is chosen to treat the whole animal, including their mental, emotional and physical symptoms. This is in contrast to conventional or allopathic medicine where symptoms are suppressed or removed by the use of drugs such as antibiotics or pain killers. Of course there are certain life threatening situations where antibiotics are essential, but homeopathy actually stimulates the body to heal itself, and strengthens the immune system, and consequently leaves the body in a better state of health than before it became sick. It can treat many conditions effectively, and it is said that there are no incurable disease, just incurable patients. What this means is that many diseases can be treated, which conventional medicine cannot cure, but some patients are so sick and suppressed that they will never be truly cured, though they may be helped and given some comfort. People and animals that are treated all their life with homeopathy are overall healthier and live longer, because their immune system is continually being strengthened and challenged rather than suppressed and weakened.

OTHER MODALITIES

Other holistic modalities include magnetic therapy, that is useful for painful conditions such as arthritis in older pets, and this can be applied with electromagnetic devices, or by the application of strong magnets to the body, Many people use a magnetic bed for their animals to sleep on and report improved health. The animals seem to know that the bed will help them as they will often go and lie down on it, when they are feeling bad. Bach Flower remedies are another wonderful tool that the holistic practitioner can use, and these work more on the emotions and can help modify behavior such as aggression, fear or behavioral problems. Rescue Remedy is a flower essence combination that is used to calm scared animals and is also excellent for helping sick or injured animals on the way to the vet as it removes shock and calms the animal (and person) down. Other modalities include herbs that strengthen the body and improve immune system function, as well as many specific healing effects and these include both Chinese and Western herbs. There are many other methods of natural and holistic treatment that can offer hope and health to pets, and the books listed below provide additional information on this subject. While few veterinarians use holistic treatment, the number is growing and there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing a holistically raised and treated animal full of vibrancy, joy and good health.

Reading List:

  • The New Natural Cat by Anitra Frazier, Plume Books, 1990. 
  • Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Dr. Richard Pitcairn DVM, Rodale Press, 1996. 
  • Natural Healing for Dogs and Cats by Diane Stein, Crossing Press, 1993.
Dr. Anna Maria Gardner is a holistic veterinarian, based in Washington State, and is certified in acupuncture and homeopathy. She lives in Washington with her daughter, two dogs, seven cats, sixteen chickens, two goats, a donkey, a horse, two ducks, a pair of geese and one bossy parrot.