We explore the role of traditional veterinary medicine and holistic therapies in pet care and discover that combining the two approaches in the veterinary practice may provide more for the patient and close the communication gap between vets and their clients.

Veterinary medicine plays a crucial role in keeping our pets healthy and happy. It aids in treating animals when they become sick or injured and offers a lot in preventative care, protecting our pets from potentially becoming ill and helping to extend their life.

With rapidly advancing veterinary medicine, it’s no surprise pet owners today depend a lot on traditional vet care for health issues that arise with their animals.

With the rise in awareness about pet care, animal lovers are also investing more in the care of their pets, as reported in Animal Medicine Australia’s Pets in Australia research. People are also becoming more educated about natural pet care and demanding holistic alternatives to what traditional vets are prescribing to support the health and wellbeing of their animals. 

Traditional veterinary medicine is also referred to as Western, mainstream, allopathic, biomedicine, orthodox or conventional veterinary medicine, and its medical treatments and protocols involve medications, vaccinations, examinations, diagnostic testing (such as blood work, faecal exams) and surgery.

Western medicine saves the lives of millions of animals every year. For instance, deadly rabies, parvovirus, and heartworm can now be treated and prevented thanks to Western veterinary medicine.

Holistic veterinary medicine is defined by the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) as a form of healing that considers the ‘whole patient, body, mind and spirit’ in its approach to achieving optimum health and eliminating the root causes of disease.

Rooted in thousands of years of tradition, holistic medicine is designed to enhance, rather than be an alternative to, traditional veterinary care. Some examples of holistic treatments include herbal medicine, acupuncture, physiotherapy, chiropractic care, and naturopathy.

Sunshine Coast-based animal naturopath, energy practitioner and pet nutritionist Ruth Hatten works as a nutrition consultant for pet food companies and with pet parents supporting their animals with nutrition and natural remedies.

“Vets provide a fantastic and essential service when it comes to acute and emergency care. But they have a heavy reliance on artificial products, drugs, pharmaceuticals, and processed prescription foods, which for chronic health issues can do more harm than good, especially over the long term,” said Hatten.

“Holistic therapies honour animals with reference to their evolutionary history, their natural state. They reduce and remove the negative effects of toxins and optimise health (eg. gut health, skin issues, allergies).”

Yet, unlike Western veterinary medicine, which uses scientifically proven methods to improve overall health, holistic treatment can lack the peer-reviewed, research-backed evidence to support its effectiveness.

“Evidence is subjective,” argued Hatten. “Anecdotal evidence is science and there is plenty of that in natural medicine because ancient cultures have been using it for centuries and still stand by those medicines, because they work.”

While traditional veterinary medicine is excellent at diagnostics, the holistic community suggests Western medicine mostly treats the animals’ symptoms, in some cases not addressing the root cause of why the illness occurred in the first place.

Pet and equine veterinarian Dr Leigh Davidson, founder of online vet service Your Vet Online, maintains that the entire holistic movement is based on a misnomer that Western veterinary medicine does not treat the whole or overall wellness of an animal.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “All aspects of traditional veterinary medicine look at the whole body when considering treatment and preventative strategies. Take diabetes in cats, for example. We can use insulin to regulate blood sugar levels, but we also advise on specific diets and will always try to use diet to manipulate a cat into remission.

“Even with an orthopaedic disease or broken limb, we must consider not only a potential surgical repair but also look at diet to improve bone and joint health, weight and consider the mental wellbeing of the animal while it is recuperating and healing.”

While the general holistic approach is to avoid medication, occasionally holistic vets will recommend surgery or medication in combination with natural therapies if they think that will be the best treatment for the pet.

Similarly, vets in general practice also commonly use Chinese medicine, such as Yunnan Baiyao (to help stop bleeding), suggested Dr Davidson.

She expressed concern for “unproven and unregulated substances or procedures that ultimately waste time and can prove detrimental to the health and quality of life of animals,” adding “There is no such thing as alternative medicine, only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t”.

Western veterinary medicine a game changer for pet health

The veterinary industry boasts cutting-edge veterinary surgeries, technologies and medications that have been a game changer for pet health.

“Pharmaceutical drugs play a pivotal role in helping animals and our community,” said Dr Davidson. “They drive medical progress for animals and humans, improving life span and quality of life for all.”

There is now revolutionary treatment for dogs who struggle with painful allergies and cats with deadly Feline Infectious Peritonitis, plus protection against ticks, fleas and mites, treatment for mast cell tumours, and much more.

Since the deadly dog disease Ehrlichiosis was first discovered in Australia in 2020, the Seresto™ Collar for Dogs (Elanco) has been specifically used to reduce transmission of the disease between dogs by brown dog ticks, according to Elanco’s Technical Veterinarian Dr Liisa Ahlstrom.

“Whether it’s parasite prevention, treatment of infections or management of medical conditions such as heart and kidney disease or osteoarthritis, pharmaceutical products (like those developed by Elanco) significantly improve the quality of life of cats and dogs,” she said.

Dr Davidson added: “Without pharmaceutical companies we would not see the complex research, discovery and development that goes into producing and ensuring safety of many of the medications we use for ourselves or our animals on a daily basis.”

This is where traditional and holistic veterinary medicine differentiate. Unlike holistic therapies, scientific research on pharmaceutical drugs is done and paid for by manufacturers to ensure their drug does what they want it to do, so they can make marketing claims around it.

“If all research money that went into pharmaceutical medicine was applied to natural medicine, we would have ‘scientific evidence’,” said Hatten.

Consultation lengths also differ between GP vets and holistic practitioners, like in the human health system. Where pet owners generally have about 15 minutes for a general consultation with their local vet, they can get one hour with a holistic practitioner, which of course costs more.

Dr Davidson said GP vets can certainly offer longer consultations to address all their clients’ concerns, not just the problem they came in for, but it would consequently cost them more for the time. If this is something pet owners want, they just need to ask their vet.

Furthermore, many pet owners often like to think they want to use a ‘natural’ product; however, these are often far more expensive than a regulated medicine, she added. 

For instance, Dr Davidson had a client with a horse suffering from ulcers. To treat the painful gut issue, she advised two options – “A seemingly effective but expensive herb and a pharmaceutical drug backed by substantial research that proved efficacy and safety but costs far less. The client ultimately chose the cheaper pharmaceutical option,” she said.  

“Sometimes people spend a lot of money to go ‘natural’ and it stretches them financially. It’s not that I’m against the use of natural products. As a veterinary professional, I’m offering them a product with evidence that it will be effective and won’t harm their animal.”

Transition to integrative veterinary medicine

Integrative veterinarian Dr David Ward from Sydney’s All Nature Vet Care gained many years of experience in the veterinary industry – from treating wildlife and large animals to small pets, where he practiced for more than 20 years. Over time he became frustrated with chronic illnesses not responding to or developing side effects to Western conventional medicine.

Driven by his interest in complementary therapies, particularly acupuncture, Dr Ward pursued a diploma in integrative veterinary therapies (which combines Western and holistic veterinary medicine) and what he learned changed the way he practices veterinary medicine today.

In the past, Dr Ward would immediately take a conventional medicine approach to treating a patient, whereas now he begins with an integrative approach, combining conventional and complementary treatments with sound holistic nutritional advice.

He said: “I don’t believe in the word ‘alternative’. I believe in ‘complementary’ – that alternative treatment complements the current conventional approach to provide holistic medicine. You have more ways to treat diseases than currently available in conventional treatments.”

Dr Ward said he understood, only after studying integrative therapies, that as a traditional vet he knew “nothing about being holistic”.

“It felt like I was in the left wing of the house and the rest of the house was unexplored. Once you know all these other complementary therapies, you have so many other ways to provide benefits for patients,” he said. “We have to be more open-minded, that there is more than one way to treat something.”

Dr Ward said integrative veterinarians work with many GP vets who embrace complementary therapies, adding “we don’t want to steal their business. We want to treat diseases together and add to better outcomes.”

Osteopath and co-founder of Sydney’s The Animal Rehab Klinik Dr Rhys Donovan believes in an integrative approach to supporting pets recovering from surgery or suffering from other painful musculoskeletal conditions. His clinic offers post operative rehabilitation therapies like physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, and laser therapy.

“Unlike human doctors, vets are often unfamiliar with the concept of rehab or when it’s appropriate. It is well established in human medicine that post-op rehab improves clinical outcomes,” he said. 

Dr Donovan said he’d like to see vets be more proactive about offering complementary therapies or referrals without pet owners needing to prompt it.

“Vets have quite a stressful job and are being overworked. That’s where we can help take some of that workload,” he said. “In an ideal world, we’d have vets recommending rehab services to all post operative patients, including cases that have gone well and don’t need much rehab. We can give owners extra advice and exercise recommendations, and the ability to feel more confident in their dog’s recovery.”

Queensland veterinarian and Aussie Mobile Vets Co-Founder Dr Alison Shen (featured on the popular TV show Bondi Vet with her sister Dr Audrey Shen) is a big fan of complementary therapies.

She offers acupuncture, which she has found to have no adverse side effects nor any drug interactions, can be performed in the comfort of the pet’s home, does not require hospital stays and is a very effective and non-invasive treatment for many conditions including pain.

Complementary therapies vital in palliative care

Complementary therapies also play an important role in palliative care especially where conventional medicine and surgery treatments are no longer an option.

Dr Shen feels more vets are not only starting to embrace complementary therapies, but also considering them for their own pets.

“Veterinary medicine will continue to improve and evolve. We are constantly learning and hopefully more awareness, education and research will enable veterinarians to see how alternative therapies can complement traditional vet medicine well,” she said.

Currently, traditional vets interested in holistic therapies, particularly acupuncture, pursue a degree after finishing veterinary school – if they haven’t burned out by that stage, said Dr Ward. His dream is for integrative veterinary medicine to be incorporated into the Undergraduate university degree.

 “If acupuncture was included in universities, the myth would disappear with the science, and break down barriers,” he said. 

Having met many veterinary professionals at vet expos curious about particularly acupuncture, Dr Ward sees a definite move towards incorporating integrative therapies into the general practice.

“I think the new generation of vets are more open and inquisitive,” he said. “At vet expos, I saw a lot more complementary therapies being offered, and natural supplements and herbals being distributed through vet practices.”

Finding the right balance for optimal health outcomes

Small animal veterinarian Dr Christopher Lee believes optimal health outcomes are a result of finding the right balance of preventative care, appropriate nutrition, addressing the underlying causes of specific diseases when present, the use of medication when necessary, and the utilisation of holistic treatments.

Also, the Veterinary Director of CBD Vets Australia, which supports vets with education and provides access to legal medicinal cannabis treatment options, Dr Lee believes conventional medications are often necessary but are not effective enough or contraindicated.

“As veterinarians, it is difficult and distressing to see traditional treatments fail to control a pet’s symptoms or improve their quality of life. It’s times like this that treatment options like holistic and plant-powered medicine (like medicinal cannabis) have an essential role to play in exploring how to achieve the best possible outcome for the pet patient,” he said.

“And increasingly consumers are becoming more aware of cannabinoids’ medicinal properties and are actively seeking out natural, plant-based treatments to help their pet live their best life. Such an integrative approach can significantly improve the quality of life of patients. Cannabinoids have strong anti-inflammatory, pain relief, antioxidant and mood balancing effects. It just comes down to finding the right balance.”

Dr Noam Pik, CEO and Co-Founder of leading genetic testing company Orivet, also believes a collaborative approach in veterinary medicine can benefit an animal’s overall health.

“More and more vets are looking at animal health in a more holistic, high-level way to examine what happens in their patients. Combining knowledge from traditional and holistic vets and integrating tools from both when appropriate can absolutely improve clinical outcomes,” said Dr Pik.

“Given DNA is a natural part of any being, using information obtained from DNA to manage health is invaluable in both traditional and holistic disciplines.”

Online veterinary business community Vetanswers founder Judy Gillespie has worked in the industry in various capacities for more than 20 years, including roles in consultancy and business manager of the Australian Veterinary Business Association (now called The Veterinary Business Group as part of the Australian Veterinary Association).

Gillespie sees integrative veterinary medicine as one of the future growth areas within the veterinary industry but believes some vets are not embracing it as quickly as pet owners seem to be. What’s holding them back is ‘Science’.

“Vets are scientists and take their role of advocacy for animals very seriously,” she explained. “In general, vets will only consider using therapies once they have been proven to work via multiple peer reviews studies.”

However, it can be a challenge to prove the benefits of holistic therapies in pets as animals cannot tell us when a treatment is making them feel better.

“So often studies have to rely on the feedback and observations of their owners, which is problematic in itself. Studies proving the efficacy of a drug like Monepantel can show the reduction in tumour size, etc, but proving a dog has reduced arthritic pain after acupuncture treatment is more difficult,” she said.

“What we need for vets to embrace holistic veterinary medicine is more science. More peer reviewed studies that prove the efficacy of holistic therapies. The veterinary industry should be driving the introduction of complementary therapies, but I suspect it’s pet owners who are pushing it to their vets.”

Gillespie believes the veterinary industry will continue to mirror human health, so as more humans experience the benefits of natural therapies, they’ll expect the same treatments for their animals.

“It wasn’t so long ago that acupuncture was seen as ‘alternative’, whereas now it’s a common treatment option for most physios,” she said. “Vets will need to keep up with this expectation from their clients. It shouldn’t be the clients driving the introduction of complementary therapies.”

This article was written by Caroline Zambrano for the Feb-Apr issue of Pet Industry News.

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