When it comes to veterinary care, there are a growing number of options available. Some people choose to go completely holistic. Others want to combine the best of both conventional and alternative treatments by taking an integrative approach. Whatever your preference, you need to educate yourself about the different care options for your dog or cat. For example, do you know what the term “integrative” really means? It involves being open to all possible ways of healing an animal, and embracing a wide range of both conventional and holistic possibilities without focusing on any specific treatment.
More and more veterinarians are welcoming alternative as well as traditional treatments, but everyone has a responsibility in bringing this vision to life, including you. When you work with your veterinarian, you need to become a fully informed, collaborative partner. You also have a role to play in the holistic and integrative philosophy beyond your vet’s office. What every one of us does and says integrates into a larger system of belief and action. Let’s start by looking at why two vets made the move from conventional medicine to a more holistic and integrative approach.
Making the shift to integrative
Dr. Mark Newkirk has been a veterinarian in New Jersey since 1981. For 16 years, his practice was entirely traditional. But like many veterinarians, he became frustrated whenever he ran out of treatment options for his patients. “I found myself telling people to just watch problems or keep trying different steroids. I hated saying, ‘I can’t help your pet anymore.’”
In 1997, Dr. Newkirk attended a conference on holistic care. He was skeptical. “I went in resisting it, saying, ‘No way I’m doing any of this.’ On the other hand, I was unhappy with available offerings for my clients.” Dr. Newkirk tried holistic nutrition, suggesting a range of alternative diets to his clients based on their animals’ needs. To his delight, patient after patient improved. That got him thinking. “You know, I go to a chiropractor, and he keeps me walking. Maybe this would work for animals.”
Dr. Newkirk did a few referrals to chiropractors, and was thrilled to see positive results. As each new idea worked, he added it to his practice. He became convinced there was a world of new possibilities out there.
Today, Dr. Newkirk continues to use traditional treatments, but he is also a strong believer in holistic methods. His practice is a perfect illustration of the integrative philosophy: a smooth blend of “alternative” and “traditional” thinking. Veterinarian Dr. Paul McCutcheon, meanwhile, established the East York Animal Clinic in Toronto in 1962. He began adding holistic elements 18 years later. “There’s no ‘holistic way’ of doings things,” he explains. “There’s a ‘holistic philosophy’ behind what you do. That’s a very important distinction.” In other words, it’s not the particular methods used, whether surgery, homeopathy, radiology, acupuncture, chemotherapy, or herbs – it’s how smoothly veterinarians weave these therapies into care situations.
Going beyond symptoms
How do you know when a veterinarian works in an integrative manner? “It’s all about looking for underlying reasons for problems,” says Dr. McCutcheon. “If a dog has cancer, don’t just kill the cancer cells. Let’s see if we can also get at why cancer cells are forming.”
Integrative and holistic practitioners look at as many factors as possible to get a full picture of the environment in which a disease or problem arises. “If a cat has a skin problem, we don’t want to just soothe the irritation,” says Dr. McCutcheon. “We figure out the patterns so we can change the terrain that creates the irritation. If you think that way, you’ll change things, which means you’re doing a proper holistic job.”
Veterinarian Dr. Narda Robinson, director of the Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine and Natural Healing at Colorado State University, teaches holistic principles to veterinary students. She applies rigorous standards to the holistic label. “You must have an open mind, but you must also keep your critical thinking,” she explains. “We should ask, ‘who is this dog?’ Look at the dog’s father and mother, then the dog’s whole social, physical, mental, and emotional context.”
Outside the box
To see all these factors, veterinarians and animal guardians need to think beyond one dimension. “Often, people have narrow approaches,” says Dr. Robinson. “Surgeons think surgically, and radiologists think of their methods. But it can be the same with holistic practitioners. Just using a particular holistic tool does not give you access to all corners of an animal’s life. You may be wasting precious time if your veterinarian only wants to treat cancer with herbs, or treats it as an allergy to wheat. First, seek traditional therapies like chemotherapy or radiation to halt the disease. At the same time, your doctor should integrate antioxidant support.”
Collaborate with your vet
A crucial part of making sure your animal gets the best care demands that you, the client, empower yourself to be a full partner in his treatment plans. Form a proactive partnership with your vet. Veterinarians have a responsibility to welcome you into the methods and logic behind any decisions affecting your companion. And you have a responsibility to be collaborative. Ask questions. Make sure you understand what’s being offered. Determine for sure that a vet who says he/she is integrative is really taking that approach.
“Your vet should be able to lay out the treatment plan,” Dr. Newkirk says. “What are the expected outcomes? Exactly what does he plan to do, in what order? He should give you materials to read so you can learn more and know what to ask.”
As a client, seeking the best integrative care for your animal means asking your veterinarian to bring the power of all available methods into play. “It’s not all one way or the other,” says Dr. Newkirk. “If a dog has a liver infection, your veterinarian should offer antibiotics, but also say, ‘here’s some milk thistle.’ They should complement each other to offer the best of all worlds.”
“Ask your veterinarian if he is willing to accept non-conventional approaches to situations,” adds Dr. McCutcheon. “Someone may not want to do acupuncture or herbal care, but they should be able to refer you to someone who does. I don’t do dental surgery, but I refer patients to traditional surgeons. If I see a dog with a skin irritation, I investigate what’s going on in the body to cause that reaction. But I’ll prescribe Prednisone to treat immediate discomfort.”
An integrative veterinarian should not discredit any type of treatment. “It’s not about ‘leaving your Western mind at the door,’” Dr. Robinson cautions, citing a phrase she often hears at holistic conferences.
“I still vaccinate and use antibiotics when there’s a need,” Dr. Newkirk adds. “Traditional methods like ultrasound and steroids help with acute problems; holistic methods help when there’s a chronic condition and vitamins or amino acids are healthier long-term than steroids.”
Spreading the word
Taking charge of your animal’s care with your vet also means you can assume a powerful role in advancing the idea of a more holistic or integrative worldview. Talk to your friends and acquaintances about it. When speaking with skeptics, strive to communicate the importance of balance between an alternative and traditional view. “People sometimes say ‘no vaccinations at all,’ or ‘raw food is best’,” adds Dr. Newkirk. “But this may not be the case all the time. That’s not a true holistic approach.”
“If you believe in the holistic way, you should not be too dogmatic about it,” Dr. McCutcheon suggests. “It’s not helpful to announce ‘never use antibiotics!’ Antibiotics can be very useful. This philosophy is a universal approach to care and thinking.”
When discussing and determining a treatment regime with your vet, don’t be afraid to ask him/her to explain the various treatments and modalities being offered, so you can become more involved in helping to decide what or what not to try. Do your own reading and research as well – there are lots of books available on holistic and integrative healthcare for dogs and cats, or your vet may be able to offer some literature or references to look up. (And don’t forget your back issues of Animal Wellness!)
A lot of people head for the computer when doing health research for their animals. Like magazines and books, the internet is a good resource, but make sure you’re getting your information from reputable and accredited sources. Not everything you read online is true. Rumors and false stories about both holistic and conventional treatments abound, and they spread incredibly fast once they get started.