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Holistic Medicine Trends

By: Dr. Amy Wolff

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Holistic medicine is a very controversial subject. There are passionate opinions on both sides. Opponents claim that if "alternative" treatments really worked, they would be more widely accepted and many illnesses and ailments would have been cured long ago. This side of the debate feels that herbs and medications are often used inappropriately without adequate training and understanding of the potential side effects or dangers and without scientific evidence that they actually work. These treatments have not been thoroughly investigated nor tested for efficacy or safety and in some cases may actually be harmful.

Proponents feel that holistic treatments provide a more 'natural' way to heal the body in a world full of chemicals, preservatives and synthetics. Many times, "alternative" treatments are used to augment more traditional treatments and are not commonly used as the only treatment method.

This article is intended to explain the different terms and treatments used in "alternative" care. The final decision to add these treatments to your pet's current regime should be decided between you and your veterinarian. Remember, these treatments are best used in conjunction with traditional medicine and should not be used to completely replace proven, effective treatments. To read the other side of the debate, see the article The Appeal of Alternative Therapy.


Just what does the term 'holistic' really mean? The word holistic means the body as a whole. In regard to holistic medicine, the pet's environment, lifestyle, disease, relationship with the owner or other pets, current medications as well as nutrition are taken into consideration when determining the best treatment for the pet. Another term often used to describe holistic medication is 'alternative' treatments. Treatment options vary and may include homeopathy, herbal medication, acupuncture or even nutritional changes.

Holistic medicine alternatives have become more commonplace treatment options in veterinary medicine. The goal of holistic medicine is to promote wellness, not just to treat the symptoms of a disease. It is most often used to augment traditional medical therapy or surgery.

Homeopathic Remedies

Homeopathy is often misunderstood. It is not the same as holistic nor is it the same as herbal treatment. The system of homeopathy used today was originally developed by a German physician in the mid 1800s. The basic principle behind homeopathy is that 'like cures like'. The primary concept of homeopathy is that medicine, plants, minerals, drugs, etc. that cause illness can also be used to cure the illness. Symptoms of illness are thought of as due to an internal imbalance.

Homeopathic remedies include the use of plants, vitamins, minerals and other natural substances to treat illness. Homeopathic practitioners believe that homeopathic remedies contain vibrational energy essences that work with the disease state and help heal the pet.

Herbal Medicine

The use of herbs for their medicinal value is an old practice that has regained new interest. Rather than the use of drugs, which can alter the body's natural immune defenses, these remedies are used to help stimulate the body to heal itself. Often, herbs are used in conjunction with traditional drugs to help heal an ill pet.

Many of today's commonly used drugs were discovered and isolated from plants. Taken in this purified and concentrated form, these drugs are fast acting but often have potent and undesirable side effects. The concept behind herbal remedies is to ingest an extract or dried form of a plant known for its medicinal properties.

Since the active compounds are present in smaller concentrations, the desired effect is often achieved with minimal side effects. Herbal medicines are available for a wide variety of problems and many people feel they are providing safer more natural medicine for their pets. Not all veterinarians dispense herbal medicines. If you are interested in supplementing your pets diet with any herb, vitamin or mineral, be sure to check with his veterinarian first. Some pets may require smaller than recommended doses or be on medications that can cause interactions.

Some of the more commonly used herbal remedies include:
  • Calendula for wound healing
  • Raspberry to help with pregnancy
  • Echinacea to stimulate the immune system
  • Milk thistle for liver disorders
  • Chamomile for wound healing and respiratory diseases
  • Gingko to improve memory (mainly used in dogs)
  • Lavender to promote restful sleep
  • Oats to reduce itching - used in a bath
  • Yeast as a skin supplement and for diarrhea
  • Asian ginseng for low grade fevers
  • Flaxseed for constipation and irritable bowel syndrome

    These should be treated as medications and not given to your pet unless recommended by your veterinarian.

    Popular but not recommended:
  • Garlic or onion - can result in anemia
  • White willow - used to reduce inflammation but contains salicylates, which can be very irritating to the stomach, especially in cats.

    Acupuncture, Acupressure and Massage

    As better health care and preventative medicine increases the life span of your pet, sadly some dogs and cats will acquire chronic diseases that may require periodic pain relief. Common examples of this are osteoarthritis and degenerative joint diseases. Dogs especially may have arthritis in hips, elbows, and spine that causes pain and limited activity as the pet ages. Anti-inflammatories prescribed by your veterinarian may control pain and inflammation but in some pets these drugs cause stomach upset and are not well tolerated. These pets may benefit from acupuncture, acupressure or massage to limit or relieve pain. Even pets treated with traditional medications may also benefit from the added help acupuncture and massage may provide.

    Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese method of pain control that causes the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals by the brain. The stimulus for the release of these substances is accomplished with the use of fine needles placed in strategic locations on the body. It is generally a non-painful procedure, and well tolerated by many pets. Acupuncture is also thought to strengthen the body's immune system and help improve organ function.

    Acupressure is a version of acupuncture, except that in place of needles, firm pressure is applied to pain relief sites. The amount of relief is generally less and of shorter duration than that of acupuncture.

    Physical massage is often beneficial in relieving chronic pain or rehabilitating an injury. Your veterinarian can demonstrate how to massage a sore limb or use range-of-motion exercises to increase circulation, strength and flexibility. For pets with sore hips or elbows, these joint exercises often extend the your pet's activity and comfort level. The use of heat or cold with massage may provide added benefit. For a more intense massage, consider consulting a certified massage therapist. These animal loving professionals are trained in the proper ways to massage and strength your beloved companion. Ask your veterinarian for further advice on massage therapy.

    Nutrition

    Nutrition is an important part of maintaining wellness in your pet. Some people feel that commercially prepared pet foods can contain excessive preservatives and chemical. There are a variety of 'natural' pet foods available as well as some homemade diets. Be sure to ask your veterinarian before switching your pet's diet. Homemade diets are not as easy as they may seem. Consult with your veterinarian before making any changes.

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