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Integrating Holistic Therapies in Veterinary Practice: A How-To Guide

Over the course of human history, there has been an ongoing war with diseases of all sorts. Things we once considered incurable are now easily handled, and things that were once devastating are now all but eliminated. A greater understanding of how diseases work and how the body fights them has enabled a huge array of treatment mechanisms; furthermore, an increased understanding of pharmaceuticals has led to the development of many medicines, from simple vaccines and painkillers to novel immunotherapies and more.

With any kind of progress, however, there comes pushback. Some people, who have suffered under ineffective treatments or who have known others who have, show disdain for modern medical treatments. Skepticism of the benevolence of pharmaceutical companies leads to resistance to the treatments they offer. Indeed, it's hard to argue that such companies are benevolent when you have archetypical examples like insulin being withheld for profit when it could be widespread to save more lives.

Distrust of the motivations of human medicine extends to veterinary medicine as well. Some people lack the knowledge of biology necessary to understand the differences in how medicine works between people and animals; others simply don't trust veterinary pharmaceutical companies any more than they trust human providers. Some idealize the past, others fear for the future.

Whatever the case may be, there are a lot of people out there who either broadly distrust veterinary care in general, who dislike pharmaceuticals specifically, or who just believe that a more overarching approach that goes beyond a simple pill or medication will provide better overall results.

And here's the thing: they aren't necessarily wrong.

Oftentimes, using a medication to treat a disease is only going to do so much. Other more holistic aspects of treatment, from dietary management to exercise to supplementary additives, can help.

The trouble is, they can also be risky. It's very tricky for you as a veterinary services provider to recommend or prescribe any kind of holistic treatments or therapies because if they aren't certified or approved, it can have negative repercussions on your ability to practice, especially if they don't end up working.

So, we are faced with a dilemma. There are many people who believe strongly enough in holistic and alternative therapies that they will refuse modern pharmaceutical treatments. Do you offer an alternative in the hopes that something works? Do you prescribe medicine and allow for the addition of holistic therapies on the grounds that they probably aren't hurting much? Or do you stick to approved treatments and risk patients who never receive the care they need?

We don't have an answer to this question for you. You will pick the path you feel is the right choice for you and your patients. We're just here to help.

If you're interested in trying to integrate holistic therapies into your overall veterinary care options, there are a lot of concerns you need to address or keep in mind as you do so. We've put together this framework for managing holistic treatment options, and hopefully, it will help you make your choices.

Step 1: Know What People Mean by Holistic Therapies

The term "holistic" has been somewhat co-opted and means different things to different people. Therefore, it's important to know exactly what different people mean by the term when they ask for holistic options. Generally, you can break down the belief systems into three categories.

  • The people who believe treatment needs to be bodily comprehensive and who want to pair medications, supplements, dietary changes, and other practices into a more comprehensive and synergistic solution.

  • The people who distrust medications and, while they'll accept them if there's no other option, would prefer to use herbal remedies and other "natural" options.

  • The people who distrust all forms of medicine and who seek alternative therapies, ranging from untested herbal supplements to acupuncture and aromatherapy to massage to homeopathy to spiritual healing.

Two of these three can be seen by a traditional veterinary practice, though you may have your work cut out for you. The third are often, at best, difficult clients, but more commonly, simply refuse to see veterinary practitioners at all, or if they do, it's often too late. You can guess which is which.

Your goal as a veterinarian is typically to provide the best possible care you can for your patients while bearing in mind the concerns your clients have. You may need to pass over effective treatments due to their expense, as an example. Less effective care is better than no care at all, right? So, it goes with many holistic therapies.

The truth is that many holistic remedies can help, either in small ways or in an overall, systemic way. Things like dietary changes, weight loss, and some herbal or supplemental therapies are effective. Others, though, can be risky. We'll go over that more in a bit.

This is your first concern as a vet providing care: when your clients ask about holistic therapies, what do they mean, and how can you help satisfy their needs without causing or allowing unnecessary harm?

Step 2: Always Seek a Diagnosis Before Treatment

Perhaps the single biggest responsibility you have as a vet is to provide accurate treatment for whatever is ailing your patients, and that means seeking out the most accurate diagnosis you can. Many – though not all – believers in traditional and holistic medicine will still acquiesce to laboratory tests and work that diagnoses a disease, whether it's a blood test, a biopsy, urinalysis, or another set of diagnostics. Some people do object to diagnostic tests, at which point you simply have nothing to offer them.

While this is important so you know what you're fighting and what treatments are recommended, it's also critical when discussing holistic therapies with clients.

Here's the truth: as much as 30% of modern medicine and pharmaceutical solutions are derived from natural sources. We all know famous examples, like how aspirin came from a variety of plants and how penicillin came from bread mold. There are countless others. A large part of the modern pharmaceutical process is studying naturally occurring molecules for their biological impact, isolating and purifying them, and codifying their effects based on dosage.

Aspirin is also a great example of the double-edged sword that natural remedies present. While it's a viable painkiller in some limited circumstances, people who think of it primarily from a human perspective don't consider the differences in biology that make it dangerous for dogs by causing stomach ulcers and outright toxic in cats. And, while those same people might not give their pets aspirin from their medicine cabinets, they might consider willow extract or another natural aspirin-containing supplement.

Furthermore, diagnosis is critical because of the simple mechanics of treating disease. A dog with an upset stomach shouldn't take a medicine or supplement that can cause further stomach disease, right?

Seeking out a diagnosis is the first step to developing a treatment plan, whether that treatment plan is surgery, pharmaceuticals, holistic therapies, or a combination thereof.

Step 3: Know Why People Seek Holistic Solutions

So why do people seek out holistic treatments and therapies in the first place? Generally, there are three motivating factors.

The first is the belief that the body is an interconnected system and that bringing it all into balance is beneficial to treating any ailment. And, indeed, it's hard to argue against this. A simple and common example is diabetes; while a purely pharmaceutical solution in the form of insulin is available, dietary changes can help reduce the amount of insulin required and, in the case of new and minor diabetes, can even potentially send the disease into remission. While changing a pet's food, feeding schedule, and exercise habits may be generally expected as veterinary treatment, it's truly part of the overall holistic picture of care.

The second reason people seek holistic solutions is general distrust. Maybe they've experienced the struggle of ineffective medicine themselves. Maybe they've had friends or family who have lost pets to expensive pharmaceuticals that didn't work or have seen pharmaceuticals that have such strong side effects that they aren't worth the cost. Some also hold the belief that nature provides more than humans can and that natural remedies are somehow better, more powerful, or otherwise a more viable option.

The third reason is one of more practical concerns: the cost. When a financially challenged client is presented with the choice between a medication that costs $250 per month or a supplement that costs $25 per month, and they hold the belief that they're equally viable – or at least that the pharmaceutical isn't 10x more effective to warrant 10x the cost – they may lean towards the holistic option.

Knowing why your clients are leaning towards holistic therapies helps you argue the benefits of verified medicine, address concerns they may have, and expound upon the value of established treatment. You may be able to offer combination therapies, a payment plan, or literature proving the efficacy of your choice of pharmaceutical treatment.

Step 4: Understand What Works, What Doesn't, and What's Harmful

As a veterinary care provider, you generally have two options with regard to holistic therapies. The first is to simply reject them entirely. Pharmaceuticals have been tested and proven, while holistic therapies have not.

After all, if an herbal remedy works, surely a pharmaceutical company would have experimented with it, isolated the effective compound, and found a way to sell it at a markup, right? And, indeed, that's very frequently the case. In fact, in some cases, you can even convince a troubled client that the pharmaceutical you prescribe is derived from a natural ingredient.

The second and potentially more viable option is to study these holistic options and provide recommendations along the way. This is what we recommend, if for no other reason than that it allows for harm reduction.

Again, aspirin is a great example. Many herbal holistic remedies include one of the many plant extracts that are chemically very similar to aspirin. Aspirin can be very dangerous to animals, and by knowing what the holistic suppliers use to include aspirin, you can warn clients away from potentially dangerous supplements without a blanket rejection that breaks trust.

And, as mentioned, sometimes holistic therapies work, either as complementary treatments or for comfort and quality of life, to counteract the side effects of a harsher pharmaceutical. Knowing what works can be important.

Broadly, you should consider learning enough about holistic therapies to be able to say what can work, what isn't going to be harmful and can bring your clients peace of mind, and what can be harmful and should be avoided. This, too, is part of veterinary care.

Step 5: Discuss the Risks of Holistic Treatments

One of the trickiest parts of holistic therapies is that they aren't studied or approved by the FDA or other governing bodies. And since many of them are derived from plants and plant extracts, it's difficult to maintain consistency.

Think of it this way. You've certainly had the experience of eating a fruit or vegetable where one example is nearly flavorless, and another is delicious and rich, right? Well, the same thing happens with herbal remedies. Plants grown in some conditions aren't as potent as others, and some can have dangerous chemicals from the soil infused within them. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell without expensive lab tests what a given batch of a supplement might contain. This, truly, is one of the main reasons to avoid many holistic therapies.

Other forms of holistic therapy can have their own dangers. Something like acupuncture can be a good complementary option for certain inflammatory conditions and is otherwise generally harmless unless it puts a client into financial distress. On the other hand, something like chiropractic treatment can have a wide range of value, from benefits to permanent damage. Options like aromatherapy can be harmless, but if a toxic substance is used, it can be harmful, and since pets have much stronger senses of smell than we do, it can be much more irritating to them.

Step 6: Provide the Best Care You Can

At the end of the day, your job as a veterinarian is to provide the best care you can for your patients. Sometimes, that means the strongest pharmaceuticals and most advanced treatments you can find. Other times, it means proven effective therapies and holistic attention to diet, exercise, lifestyle, stress, and medication. And sometimes, it means working with, through, and around the skepticism and distrust a client has of medicine to provide care to an animal that deserves the best.

If you aren't sure what to do or what options you can provide, we may be able to help. At Hope Vet, we provide consulting services for a variety of specialties, including oncology, neurology, dermatology, and other cases where holistic attention to detail can be part of an overall effective treatment plan. We're more than happy to provide our input and help you evaluate your options; just contact us to get started.

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