Over the last decade, “natural” treatments have become mainstream in veterinary medicine. But as with the human variety, there can be confusion about what the term actually means. One question that often comes up, for instance, is whether “natural” medicine is different than “holistic” medicine, and if so, why it may be relevant to you–or any pet parent, for that matter.
In certain respects, there’s an important difference between the two. The word “holistic” can be applied to a variety of treatment approaches, including those that involve either traditional or nontraditional methods and remedies, though the latter are more commonplace. In essence, a holistic approach means that individuals–or pets–are evaluated in a broad context, and not simply by body system or through targeted diagnosis. Once a problem has been identified, the focus tends to be on creating a “balance” that is conducive to good health.
Nowadays, many holistic practititioners use a variety of minerals, herbs, and food therapies–that is, products viewed as natural rather than artificial–in an effort to bring the patient’s physical being into a healthy alignment. But the process doesn’t necessarily have to involve only alternative therapies. In some cases, treatments may also include the use of traditional pharmaceuticals, though such a combination is often characterized as an “integrative” approach.
Regardless, whether the care being provided is considered holistic or simply includes some form of natural medicine, pet parents and healthcare professionals alike are increasingly relying on such approaches to treat a range of ailments and illnesses, including:
- Urinary problems
- Digestive problems
- Cognitive dysfunction (e.g., “doggie dementia”)
As with the traditional methods for dealing with health-related issues, there’s more than one way, so to speak, to skin a cat (apologies to feline lovers everywhere!). Among the more popular alternatives nowadays are:
Supplements. These are generally comprised of minerals and other ingredients that are believed to have a medicinal benefit, either based on formal research or anecdotal experience. Also known as nutraceuticals, most are considered all-natural and are intended to help manage particular conditions. Examples includes joint support supplements that contain glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate and skin support supplements that include high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Bear in mind, however, that not all brands are alike. In recent times, independent testing on some over-the-counter supplements has found that some contain miniscule amounts of the active ingredient they claim to have. For the most part, nutraceuticals are not regulated by government entities such as the FDA, so inaccurate labeling and even fraud are rampant. If you are interested in giving these sorts of products to your pet, you may want to check with a healthcare professional to see which are the most trusted brands.
Traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM). TCVM is a popular type of natural healthcare for pets. Many, if not most, veterinarians who consider themselves to be holistic practitioners have been specially trained to use these non-Western methods. Generally speaking, practitioners assess internal imbalances–typically, yin, yang, heat, cold, moisture and dryness being taken into account–and recommend therapies tailored to a pet’s needs. Once a diagnosis has been made, the vet will typically prescribe acupuncture, herbs and other natural remedies in an effort to bring things back into balance.
Acupuncture. Increasingly, this ancient technique is being viewed as a conventional therapy–in fact, in the human world, it is not uncommon to see classically-trained doctors recommending its use for various ailments, and insurers reimbursing the cost as they would for a traditional procedure. Generally speaking, acupuncture is designed to balance two energy forces within the body–yin and yang–that flow as energy fields along paths called meridians. TCVM practitioners believe that many diseases stem from these two forces being out of whack.
To address the asymmetry, practitioners employ specially designed needles to stimulate points along the meridians in an effort to create internal harmony and eliminate the perceived source of an illness or disease. Historically, there have been some doubts about its effectiveness, but traditional research studies have shown that acupuncture is more than a placebo. Although the process is not fully understood, stimulating the meridians appears to trigger a biological response that encourages the release of certain chemicals within the body that can promote healing.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the fact that a healthcare professional has had some training in the area does not necessarily mean your pet will experience the full benefits of a non-western approach. While many veterinarians are certified to perform acupuncture and certain diagnostic techniques, they may not be TCVM practitioners, as such. In other words, they may be capable of conducting an examination along these lines but may not be able to prescribe the herbs and other remedies that are typically used in a natural medicine-based practice.
Homeopathy. Homeopathy is a treatment methodology that incorporates “remedies” derived from natural sources. It is believed that these tinctures stimulate the healing process within the body and can help align “chi,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally.” Typically, they are derived from minerals, herbs or other substances that are sometimes diluted down to the point where they are barely measurable.
While many over-the-counter varieties are comprised of dilutions containing 20 or more substances, which can be helpful in certain situations, classical homeopathic practitioners tend to prefer single remedies. Regardless, homeopaths have much in common with other holistic and natural medicine practitioners who believe that any health problems we or our pets may be experiencing tend to stem from things being out of kilter internally.
Certainly, there is more to the subject than can be distilled down into one article. If you are interested in alternatives for treating your pet, you may want to check with your veterinarian about what services and treatment options are offered in your area. As alluded to earlier, many larger pet healthcare practices have professionals on staff who practice acupuncture and who are familiar with non-tradtional therapies.
Otherwise, if you are in the U.S. or Canada, you may want to visit the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association website or our “Other Pet-Related Resources” page for more information about natural treatments and other ways of looking after your pet’s health-related needs.