Alternative medicine adds to your options

by b j Altschul, APR

In recent years, complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM) has become an increasingly available and accepted part of animal health care.  Among the more common treatments are acupuncture, chiropractic, Chinese herbs, massage therapy, and Bach flower remedies.

Some vets specialize in these holistic methods; some offer them in addition to conventional therapies, offering their clients an expanded choice depending on the animal’s condition.  Hence the term complementary medicine.  In any case, practitioners are interested in every aspect of the animal’s life, from physical to emotional conditions, diet and environment, and the human-animal bond.

The basic philosophy

Dr. David Handel, chief vet at Kentlands Animal Hospital, prefers yet another term: integrative medicine. His practice combines traditional Western medicine with nontraditional therapies such as Chinese herbs and massage.

“Complementary means ‘on top of,’ and holistic looks at the whole pet, the whole patient,” he explained.  “I’m not a ‘parts’ doctor -– treating the heart, the kidney, etc.  I think about the pet’s nutrition, lifestyle, activity, and try to help you through it all.”

Different staffers at Kentlands are certified in different therapies. “We attack and maintain the patient’s health from many angles,” Dr. Handel said.

Illness may be thought of as a state of “dis-ease.”  Holistic vets first try to determine the underlying cause of the disease and then to reduce or eliminate it, rather than treating only the symptoms. According to the website of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, a humane approach is the essence of this kind of medicine. “The techniques used in holistic medicine are gentle, minimally invasive, and incorporate patient well-being and stress reduction. Holistic thinking is centered on love, empathy and respect.”

Practitioners who use Chinese medicine offer herbal treatments to address illness or infirmity. Their approach is to ease the body’s dis-harmony, not just to reduce symptoms.

CAVM does not mean ignoring conventional medicine. For example, for animals that are experiencing extreme trauma or infection, AHVMA says that combining surgery and drug therapy from conventional practice with alternative therapies “often outperforms other methodologies.” Urgent symptoms get immediate attention, and underlying causes are identified as quickly as possible thereafter.  Then a real recovery can get underway and the animal’s health can be redirected to manage everything from nutrition and hygiene to stress factors and family relationships more effectively.

General guidelines on when and whether to use holistic therapies

Arthritis is one of the most typical ailments that vets may choose to treat with alternative modalities (therapies that involve physical treatment). In classical or traditional medicine, treatment is usually prescribing an anti-inflammatory medication such as Rimadyl, along with a pain medication.

If that doesn’t help, said Dr. Handel, “You’re done.  In my own practice, we offer a number of options such as acupuncture with or without Chinese herbs, chiropractic, physical therapy, massage, or a combination. The choice depends on what I feel and what the animal’s owner thinks. If an owner is needle-phobic, we won’t start out there although we may end up there. We teach exercises for your dog, stretching, therapeutic ultrasound or laser. We’ll have an underwater treadmill coming in the future.  It’s really exciting.”

What are some of the specific treatments?

Acupuncture — Needles inserted into specific acupuncture points cause a desired healing effect by restoring a balance of energy. The technique also may prevent some problems. Functional problems are the ones most commonly treated, among them, paralysis, allergies, pain, arthritis, skin problems, and minor sports injuries. One of the safest treatments when performed by a properly trained vet, acupuncture may cause some sensation but is virtually painless.

Chiropractic — This modality is often used for back, neck, leg or tail pain; disc and movement problems; degenerative joints or arthritis; and injuries from falls.  Misalignments of vertebra in the spinal column, known as subluxations, are adjusted by directly thrusting the vertebra to place it back in its normal position.  This reduces stiffness and resistance caused by trauma and stress. With normal motion restored, nervous system functioning is also improved, and further degeneration may be prevented.

Chinese herbs — Energy, or Chi, flows normally along channels in the body called meridians. Specific herbs and plants have veterinary medical applications that help balance an animal’s emotional, physical and mental state. Herbs and acupuncture may be combined as a treatment, to unblock energy flow that is stuck due to a disease. Many herbal treatments do not have negative side effects, resulting in less pain and a faster healing process.

How effective are these kinds of treatments?

Kentlands has treated several cancer patients. Dr. Handel’s sister’s dog developed lymphoma and other metabolic issues. At age 17, traditional chemotherapy was not a good choice. “We’ve been using Chinese herbals and the dog has been doing well since September,” he said. “That far exceeds the traditional medicine expectations of two months.”

Dr. Handel is realistic about the prognosis for animals with advanced disease.  “Not everything succeeds all the time, but I do have something to offer. For an older dog with arthritis or cancer, you can use herbs and  nutritional supplements. Diet is part of Chinese treatment; it’s just the starting point. You have to tailor nutrition to each specific pet. For example, if you’re a ‘hot’ (person), you should eat foods that are cooling to the body, and vice versa. Fish is a cooling food, for one. You can feed your pet home-cooked or pre-made food, available from several good holistic pet stores in the area.”

What about the cost?

End-stage diseases are stressful, Dr. Handel noted. But there are a number of options to keep pet caregivers from feeling they are at the end of their rope. As for the cost, “I try to keep things reasonable because I want to do it. The initial visit may be more costly but follow-ups cost less. We use packages where you prepay for several visits. My goal is to encourage use of a modality, not necessarily that we’re going to cure your pet today. We let you know how much it may cost before you visit.”

Pet caregivers should shop around. There is enormous variance among vets in charges for the same procedure, based on factors such as how long the vet has been in practice, how many vets are in the practice, cost of the practice’s physical plant and equipment, and so on.

How do you find a good practitioner?

Just as with looking for any other professional, it’s helpful to talk with friends and neighbors.  Ask whether they liked the professional they visited.  Also, be sure to check out reputable websites. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society at and the Chi Institute, which teaches Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine at, provide good information. The AHVMA website at lists all of the holistic modalities and allows you to search for a vet in your area.

A licensed veterinarian should be formally trained in acupuncture for animals before doing acupuncture treatments. In Maryland, a licensed acupuncturist can be certified to treat animals if they have taken the Maryland State Certification Course in Animal Acupuncture which is 188 hours of additional training. As Susaanti Follingstad, a licensed and certified animal acupuncturist herself, explains, they may treat only those animals that have been seen by a vet within two weeks prior to the beginning of treatment, and they must notify the veterinarian of the acupuncture treatment. Care is thus fully coordinated among all professionals involved.

For chiropractic practitioners, the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association makes referrals.

b j Altschul is former director of community and educational relations for MCHS.

This page created 6-22-09