By Nancy Scanlan, DVM, MS, CVA
Holistic (or Integrative) Veterinary Medicine is the examination and diagnosis of an animal, considering all aspects of the animal’s life and employing all of the practitioner’s senses, as well as a combination of conventional and complementary (also known as holistic or alternative or CAVM) examinations and modalities of treatment. The word “holistic” can also be viewed as “wholistic,” involving both mind and body, and a deeper ways of looking at some conditions that are not included in a conventional veterinary examination.
When a holistic veterinarian sees a pet, besides giving it a comprehensive physical examination, performing laboratory tests where indicated, and asking about past medical and dietary history, he/she wants to find out all about a pet’s behaviors, the relationship of pet with owner, and its environment including current diet, emotional stresses, genetics, nutrition, family relationships, hygiene and stress factors. The disease pattern is important. A disease with a lot of variations, such as Cushings disease, considered as one disease in conventional medicine, will be treated in a variety of ways depending on which pattern within that disease that an animal is demonstrating.
By a series of analytic observations and appropriate testing the goal becomes finding the true root source of the pathology, which can be different or deeper than a conventional medical diagnosis. A simple appearing symptom may have several layers of causation. Only when the true cause of the ailment has been found is there the possibility for a lasting recovery.
The holistic veterinary practitioner will then develop a treatment protocol using a wide range of therapies for healing the patient. The most effective, least invasive, and least harmful path to healing is selected. In many acute situations, treatment may involve surgery and drug therapy from conventional western technology, along with alternative techniques to provide a complementary, integrative whole. Herbs, acupuncture, nutraceuticals, or other treatment modalities may be included. In less acute situations holistic treatments may be used either along with, or instead of, conventional medicine.
This form of treatment has great value for chronic disease, severe trauma and certain infections. In such cases it often out-performs conventional methods. It is also at this time that other treatment plans such as those listed below are brought into use. Once the symptoms have been treated, the task is not complete until the underlying disease patterns have been addressed. The patient, as well as the client, will be guided to a new level of health.
Modalities Used in Holistic Veterinary Medicine
Modern Drugs, Surgery and Diagnostics:
A holistic veterinarian selects the ones which best conform to holistic traditions. They stay current on the latest advancements.
Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine:
Acupuncture has been used in China for at least 3500 years. It is the main treatment for a quarter of the world’s population. Thousands of years of acupuncture treatment prove its efficacy, as well as thousands of current research articles. The primary aim of veterinary acupuncture is to relieve pain and to improve the function of organ systems by stimulating acupuncture points on the surface of the body. Acupuncture treatments elicit responses which decrease pain and regulate physiological processes. Acupuncture practice spans from ancient Chinese knowledge to state-of-the-art electroactupuncture.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believes that Qi (pronounced “Chi”), is a vital force that flows throughout the body, traveling along channels of energy flow called meridians. Acupuncture points along the meridians are treated whenever a disease condition exists that blocks the normal flow of energy along these meridians. TCM also believes that disease often is because the body’s natural processes are out of balance (excess or deficient). The aim of TCM is to bring a body back into balance using acupuncture and/or herbal formulas.
The majority of acupuncture points have lower electrical resistance and can be found by instruments called “pointfinders” which can measure the flow of electric current in the skin.
This incorporates ethology, biology, nutrition, pharmacology, lifestyle evaluation and aspects of modern psychotherapy. Every discipline listed here affects behavior (particularly homeopathy, Bach Flowers, acupuncture, laser therapy, and herbal medicine), disease and health. Humane considerations are often at stake.
Detox, or detoxification:
All bodies have waste products that build up at times when the liver can’t process them. Initially they are stored in the fat, but may spill over into other parts of the body. Drugs or toxic substances may also be stored there. Too many of these can cause chronic inflammation or disease. Detox is a process which helps the body eliminate them safely.
Herbal medicine is a system of treatment using whole plants and plant extracts in the treatment of disease and maintenance of health. Whole plants provide a broad spectrum of desirable effects, from specialized nutrition (herbs contain vitamins and minerals that drugs do not) to synergy of the various components, and may allow lower doses of drugs to be used. They can also reduce side effects of drugs. Herbal medicine also recognizes that certain traditional methods have validity today. For instance, almost nothing but nutrients in conventional medicine allow the practitioner to safely strengthen chronically ill patients, while herbalists utilize tonic herbs as well as nutrition for this purpose. Herbal medicine has always recognized the whole body approach and that the mind and body interact in health and disease—this knowledge is reflected in the use of herbal adaptogens and alteratives.
Various cultural systems of medicine (such as Chinese, and western European) may be used in diagnosis and prescription, in addition to current scientific knowledge. Herbs are unique in “complementary and alternative medicine” because we have a tradition informing us about their use, often dating back thousands of years. Herbalists use ancient knowledge and modern science to develop treatment plans for their patients. Herbal medicine requires that the herbalist be aware of the world around us, because the tools of the trade and the environment in which they grow may be endangered by indiscriminate use. Good herbalists are conservationists and are often active in sustainable agriculture and medical initiatives worldwide.
Becoming involved with plants as medicine transforms veterinarians. They become aware of broader clinical effects when herbs are used, even as they become aware of the broader global effects related to their new interests. Herbal medicine is healthy for doctors as well as for pets.
Homeopathy dates back to the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates. Samuel Christian Hahnemann, a German medical doctor in the mid-1800’s, developed the system we are using today. Homeopathy works on the principle of “Similia Similibus Curentur”, or “like cures like.” When a large dose of a toxic substance is swallowed, it can produce symptoms of illness, but when a homeopathic, diluted, minute dose of the substance is given, it can reverse those same symptoms. In a similar way the drug digitalis in large doses will cause heart problems, whereas in small doses it can help heart disease.
Homeopathic remedies are made from plants, minerals, drugs, or animal substances. Classical homeopathy seeks to treat the deepest constitutional causes of the illness. Acute prescribing addresses current symptoms.
Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT):
Low-level laser light influences a number of processes in the body. It is especially good at stimulating healing, decreasing inflammation, and relieving pain. LLLT is increasingly used by a wide variety of veterinarians.
Mega-nutrients, Nutraceutical Therapy:
Sometimes known as Orthomolecular Medicine, this uses supplemental minerals, vitamins and nutrients that correct deficiencies, prevent pathology and reverse tissue damage. Supplements are prescribed that support the organs and body tissues, aid body detoxification and assist in the healing process. Some vitamins in high doses have specific effects on specific diseases.
Conventional medicine recognizes that specific diets can help in the treatment of specific diseases. Holistic diets do not have artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives and emphasize the use of whole ingredients. Proper nutrition is the best preventative medicine. Each pet patient is different and may need a different diet or additional supplements for optimum health.
Trigger Point Therapy
A trigger point can weaken a muscle by as much as 30%, and can cause both local and referred pain. Trigger point therapy will help release the trigger and provide instant relief. Owners can learn to perform this themselves.
Chiropractic can be used to treat conditions involving the spine or muscle groups along the neck and spine. It is especially good for senior pets with difficulty in standing or walking. In chiropractic, the problem area of the back or neck is identified and through hands-on specific adjustments the problem is alleviated.
Virtually every form of medicine and therapy used in holistic medicine for humans exists for veterinary medicine. Many have programs for veterinarians which provide training and certification, or continuing education which enables veterinarians to keep up with the latest discoveries and techniques. The new and the old combine to make the future of veterinary medicine a healthier, more humane endeavor.