What is Holistic Pet Care? What is Integrative Medicine?

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By Emily Taylor Yunker, DVM, CVMRT, clinical veterinary herbalist

When I first became interested in natural and alternative medicine, close to 20 years ago, it was immediately clear to me that the language used to discuss this area of medicine and lifestyle was very unclear.  As a professional, I have found that this continues to be a frustration.  Without a common language, communication cannot occur.  So this opening blog entry is meant to give us a little bit of a common language to work from.  There will many other terms used throughout but hopefully this will help.

Holistic medicine

Holistic medicine is an approach and a perspective toward health and healing rather than a specific set of practices.  Holistic medicine seeks to take into account not only the “presenting complaint” of the client or patient, but the overall wellness of the patient.  This includes physical findings as well as emotional state, overall temperament, relationships with others (human and animal), environment (both macro and micro), diet, history of wellness and illness, concurrent or underlying conditions, financial resources available, family dynamic and the needs of other family members, stated health goals (this includes the “purpose” of the animal esp if food products are involved).  To some extent all veterinarians practice holistic medicine whether they think of it that way or not.  There is no way to practice animal medicine without being aware of how caregiver expectations and limitations effect the outcome and goals.

Additionally, and more specifically, holistic practitioners seek to include treatments that address all of the above areas.  So “mind, body, spirit” medicine is often a calling card.  Treatments may include some kind of capsule or pill or injection, but will also include food, body work, grooming, behavioral therapy, exercise, bonding, environmental accommodations, etc.

Supplements

The supplement industry is a billion dollar industry worldwide.  Yet it is largely unregulated and there are an endless variety of ways to run into trouble using supplements.  Some supplements are mostly “superfoods” mainly composed of specific healthy foods in concentrated forms.  Some are more like pharmaceuticals with purified and extracted specific compounds designed to act like a missing puzzle piece in an incomplete diet.  Some are powdered or encapsulated forms of oils and herbs packaged for convenience and marketing.  The quality is variable.  The price is variable.  The marketing is excessive.  The research is spotty.  I highly encourage informed consumption and proactive client-led healthcare, but even the most well-read and informed people can make major missteps when it comes to supplements.

Supplements are essentially meant to “supplement our diets”.  They should be seen as ways to boost an already healthy lifestyle for a specific purpose above and beyond normal needs.  This may mean supplementing calories or protein in an athlete, or supplementing iron in anemia, or supplementing antioxidants for immune system support.  But you have to start with a healthy diet to get the worthwhile effects and “bang for your buck”.

Alternative medicine

By definition, “alternative” refers to something that is not mainstream.  There is a wide variety of things that fall into this category.  Some are treatments that focus on “alternatives to medication” specifically.  A caregiver may try acupuncture or laser for pain management instead of pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories.  Or someone may choose not to use chemotherapy for their dog’s cancer, so they are looking into alternatives.  

However, some entire practices are considered “alternative” in that they are not widely used by American or Western scientifically trained medical professionals.  These can be entire areas of medicine or specific techniques.  One example is curanderismo or Mexican healing medicine, which includes herbs, prayer, ritual, and other techniques to heal.  Another example is stem cell therapy, which was being used in many ways with little scientific evidence 10 years ago to treat a variety of diseases.  Stem cells have largely moved from the “alternative” realm to the “conventional scientific” realm more recently as research has been conducted and word has spread.  This exemplifies the wide variety that all falls under “alternative”.

Complementary or Integrative medicine

Integrative is the new buzzword in many health communities, replacing the previous “complementary”.  These words refer the use of more “alternative” approaches combined with more conventional “scientific” approaches.  The Veterinary Rehabilitation Hospital uses science-based exercise therapy and pharmaceutical pain management alongside acupuncture, energy modalities like laser and shock wave,  and herbs.  

Many humans are seeking out this approach to care for themselves and their pets and it is my personal focus.  I see my role in pet health as finding techniques, products, and approaches to “complement” what primary care veterinarians are already doing.  Personally I am not seeking to replace the primary care provider, but to provide an additional level of support, services, and products.

Natural health

Natural health is an approach to health and healing that attempts to avoid pharmaceuticals, surgery, anything given by injection, or anything produced by modern industrial techniques (purified synthetic vitamins etc).  This approach seeks to meet all needs with diet, body work, mental and energy techniques, and spiritual practices.  When additional support is needed, there is an emphasis on herbal medicines, essential oils, dietary supplements, and “cleansing” methods.

This is a flexible term that is very subjective and can include or exclude a variety of things, depending on who is using it.  While it is used widely amongst caregivers, I try to use more specific terms personally.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy is a horribly misused and misunderstood word that is often used interchangeably with “holistic” and is not really closely related at all.  I only mention it here to differentiate it clearly from “holistic”.

Homeopathy is a specific technique and approach to medicine popularized by Hanneman and the early American and German physicians seeking to separate themselves from the “eclectic” style physicians at the turn of the 19th century.  Basically instead of focusing on “sweating and purging” to get rid of disease, they sought to find gentle remedies to bring about more safe and healthy results.  There are several branches of homeopathy today, but all focus on very gentle safe remedies with little-to-no presence of toxic compounds in the final product.  This is controversial because it means that there is no actual measureable chemical in the final product.  It is essentially energy medicine, but is sometimes marketed similar to herbal medicine.  This is very confusing to most consumers and I have frequently been asked about various homeopathic products commonly carried in pharmacies and grocery stores because they are so widely available but misunderstood.  I do not practice homeopathy but I have general-consumer level knowledge as well as some theoretical basis.

The Integrative Medicine Service at The Veterinary Rehabilitation Hospital

As an Integrative Medicine Veterinarian, I use modern scientific diagnostics and attentive physical exam findings, alongside detailed history taking and personality assessment to determine the unique needs of each patient.  Then I create a plan utilizing an individualized nutrient-dense diet recommendation, specific targeted supplements, customized herbal tincture formulation, other botanical medicine recommendations including aromatherapy, and referrals for appropriate body-work and energy modalities.  In some cases this may include an additional in-depth rehabilitation consultation to create a plan involving therapeutic exercise, massage, laser, shockwave, acupuncture, dry needling, therapeutic ultrasound, platelet-rich plasma joint injections, TENS, hydrotherapy, and more.

I work with primary care veterinarians and specialists to ensure that the therapies we are using are complementary to medications and therapies used elsewhere.  I also work with clients specifically looking for alternatives to conventional medications and treatments.  At this time, I am not providing general wellness care such as vaccines, spay/neuter, dental cleanings, and wellness blood work.

Together, we work to support wellness and wellbeing for pets and their caregivers.