Complementary, Alternative, and Holistic Veterinary Medicine

What do you do if a member of your family is given a diagnosis of incurable illness? Most people would not stop at one doctor's opinion, or stop looking for treatments when it becomes a little more troublesome. This scenario of relative desperation is how most people, and even doctors, find alternative medicine. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) gives doctors and patients an entirely new arsenal with which to treat many diseases, including arthritis, allergies, behavior problems, and many more.

What is alternative veterinary medicine? No good definition exists, although some have defined it thus: diagnostic and treatment modalities (systems of medicine) not commonly taught in medical schools. Certainly it is that, but to understand alternative veterinary medicine better, we need to describe it.

You may have heard other terms for alternative medicine. Complementary medicine just means that these methods are used in addition to, and not instead of, conventional medicine. Holistic medicine implies that the modalities take into account the whole animal and the whole situation in treating the disease. This means that holistic veterinarians "treat the patient, and not the disease". Almost all of the systems used in alternative medicine are holistic in origin. There are millions of medicines known to man and sometime it may get confusing to know which is which. Most pharmacists are trained, educated professionals and are there to assist you .

These systems all have a few things in common. A cornerstone of holistic medicine is the prevention and early detection of disease. Many holistic practitioners feel that conventional medicine treats disease in an emergency fashion - wait for something to go very wrong, then fix it. Of primary importance in preventing disease is proper nutrition, and the huge majority of pets in this country, although eating a diet that is complete and balanced for the perfect specimen, are not getting their individual needs fulfilled nutritionally. Early detection of disease means treating our pets for a problem that many conventional practitioners would ignore, or even consider normal, such as vomiting hairballs, the development of diarrhea with changes in diet, and the very common "red line" on the gums above the teeth. If we consider these signs early symptoms of disease, we have a chance to head off bigger complications later in life by dealing with small imbalances as early as they can be detected. In this way we restore balance and health.

Another important tenet of holistic, or alternative veterinary medicine, is holistic evaluation and treatment. This means that the doctor will look beyond the problem of the day, and try to determine what else may be happening in the animal's body, as well as external factors in the environment. For instance, if a cat is presented with a urinary tract infection but also has mild dandruff, dirty teeth, eats a cheap diet, lives a sedentary life style in a house that is sprayed often with pesticides, and is left alone for the greater part of the day, the treatment will certainly involve more than antibiotics for a bladder infection.

The holistic veterinarian will try to address the whole patient, in the hopes that modifying other problems will prevent a recurrence of the problem of the day. Dogs with chronic, recurrent ear infections often receive repeated prescriptions for ear salves containing steroids and antibiotics, but these poor dogs are rarely permanently cured. Experts now recognize that many ear infections are caused by underlying allergies, which might prompt the doctor to recommend diet changes, nutritional supplements, homeopathic remedies, or any number of holistic treatments. Pets with chronic skin disease and even epilepsy often respond favorably to a simple change in diet, yet many go through life living from one steroid or anticonvulsant pill to the next, unnecessarily. Holistic medicine often gives a pet with chronic or incurable diseases a new chance at health.

What are the systems used in alternative veterinary medicine? Holistic veterinarians use many of the modalities found in holistic medicine for humans. These include:

  • Herbalism
  • Basic and Therapeutic Nutrition
  • Homeopathy
  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic
  • Magnetic therapy
  • Laser therapy
  • Massage and other physical therapies
    (TTEAM, Therapeutic Touch, etc)
  • Environmental Medicine

Most of these treatments are very different from conventional drug treatment, in that they are used either to strengthen body elements, or to use the body's inherent defense systems to accelerate "healing". By contrast, many conventional drug treatments are employed simply to make the symptoms disappear. Dana Ullman of Homeopathic Educational Services uses this example: Picture a car with a low oil warning light. Extinguishing the light will certainly make the sign go away, but will it solve the problem? Many thousands of pets live on steroids to get through the flea and allergy season. The drugs do not cure the problem, and do not improve the pet's health. Holistic evaluation of the dog gives the veterinarian some insight into why only some dogs develop these horrible skin problems, and he or she will make recommendations that begin to solve the problem, and not cover it up.

Our pets, like their owners, are born with the inherent ability to help themselves recover from truly stupendous insults. Bones heal, infections are controlled, and hormonal problems balanced, but the body needs the help of conventional medicine and procedures to start in many cases. Without the animal's help, however, bones don't heal and infectious viruses don't disappear completely. Holistic medicine has a strong place in veterinary medicine because of the potential for restoring an animal's birthright - optimal health.