Visits to the acupuncturist and the chiropractor aren’t just for humans anymore.
Interest in alternative health options for dogs has grown so much that the American Veterinary Medical Association now recognizes alternative medicine as a valid form of treatment, as do the 800-plus members of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. But what exactly are the options — and when might they be right for your canine companion?
According to, Michael Dym, DVM, a New Jersey-based veterinary homeopathy specialist, when vets talk about alternative health care, they’re typically talking about the following:
- Acupuncture involves placing needles into the body’s energy channels to relieve pain, increase blood flow, relieve muscle spasms, stimulate nerves and regulate the immune system. Though the prick of a needle may cause momentary discomfort, many animals become immediately relaxed, or even fall asleep, after the needles are in.
- Homeopathy is a system of medicine that looks at the patient’s entire emotional and physical symptom history — from the beginning of a dog’s life onward — as one illness. A sequence of herbal remedies is then prescribed over many months, or even years, to stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself.
- Holistic medicine also focuses on stimulating the body’s innate healing capabilities, but it does so by looking at — and ultimately adjusting — everything that is going onto or into your pet’s body, such as diet, vaccinations and oral and topical pesticides, like heartworm and flea medications.
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners do a physical exam to determine where there is too much heat or dampness in the body, indicating disease-causing blockages of chi, or energy. Based on their findings, they prescribe a course of herbs to restore the energy flow.
- Veterinary chiropractic is relatively new for dogs that have vertebrae out of alignment or other spinal problems. Treatment often is by hand or with a hand-held tool. Some dog chiropractors believe spine misalignment is linked to other problems, including ear infections, organ dysfunction and constipation.
When to Visit the Holistic Practitioner
“From puppyhood on,” says Dym. “A holistic veterinarian can help you make the best choices for your dog from the beginning [of its life].”
The second best option is to visit an alternative practitioner as soon as your dog begins manifesting symptoms of a chronic illness (skin diseases and allergies being the most common of these for dogs, but any chronic or infectious symptoms that are not mechanical — e.g. a malformed hip — can be addressed with alternative treatments). What is key is to get an opinion from a holistic veterinarian before beginning any potentially long-term conventional treatment.
If you or your dog become unable to tolerate a conventional treatment, it is not too late to see an alternative practitioner, though what they can offer at that point may be limited. “I get a lot of visits from people at the end of their rope,” says Dym. “After years of therapies, I’ll tell them that I can improve their animal through supplements to help with the negative effects of the medications, but in some cases, by that point, the bodies are too sick to get healthy on their own. In those cases the patients may still need their medications to allow them to live comfortably.”
What to Expect From Alternative Treatment
While traditional practitioners will give your canine drugs to suppress its symptoms, a practitioner of alternative medicine will determine root causes, and prescribe dietary and lifestyle changes — as well as possibly herbs, acupuncture or chiropractic treatments — in order to eliminate the problem altogether. Says Dym, “Clients will spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on drugs to suppress symptoms, but these drugs are Band-Aids. They don’t work at making the immune system stronger.”
Once you and your pet have started an alternative treatment, a good deal of patience may be involved. “Treatment can last months, and improvement might not be immediately evident,” explains Dym. “Before choosing, say, homeopathy and acupuncture, pet owners should become comfortable with the fact that medicine does not have to be about, for example, killing bacteria, but rather about helping the body be better able to withstand that bacteria.” That understanding will enable a smoother treatment relationship between doctor and dog owner.
When to be Conventional
Alternative treatments, of course, are not always the best medicine. “You need conventional medicine when there are mechanical things, like malformed joints — there are wonderful orthopedic treatments for dogs. Additionally, if there is too much pathology, or a condition requiring surgery, conventional medicine is also more viable, though homeopathy can help with the healing process,” says Dym. Consult with your veterinarian, or a specialist, when in doubt as to whether an alternative treatment might be right for your pet’s specific condition.