Holistic pet medicine has gained increased popularity in the last decades, earning the support of many veterinarian practitioners and pet owners. On the other hand, the most ardent supporters of traditional western medicine doubt its utility and deny its effectiveness in the treatment or prevention of pet disease. However, radical and extreme positions are never helpful, especially when the subject of the argument is health (whether animal or human). So, finding an intermediate approach which takes into account the advantages and disadvantages of both types of medicine is perhaps the best and most reasonable way to face the argument and provide the best care to our pets.
Before going into the details of the possible applications of holistic pet care, it would be useful to define what holistic approach means. The term “holistic” refers to a philosophy rather than a scientific medical method. This philosophy is based upon three principles. The first principle is the view of the organism as a whole, where body and mind are not separate and all parts work together and interact to produce health or disease. Based upon this principle, it is not the dysfunction of a single body system, organ, tissue, cell or even molecule that causes an imbalance in the whole organism and lead to disease (as the traditional western medicine states), but it is exactly the opposite: it is an imbalance of the whole organism that affects the functioning of one or more of its parts, thereby leading to symptoms of disease. This distinction may appear formal, merely conceptual, but actually it has important implications from a practical point of view: the target of holistic treatment is the whole organism, while the target of conventional medicine is the specific body part involved in the development of symptoms. In simpler terms, one could say that holistic medicine treats the organism as a whole in order to prevent single or multiple organ dysfunctions, while conventional medicine treat single organs in order to prevent more complex imbalances of the whole organism. It is clear therefore that, from a health perspective, these different curative approaches mutually complete each other.
The other two principles upon which holistic health care is based are strictly related to each other. They are the concepts of “primum, non nocere” (literally: “first, do no harm”) and “self-healing”. From a practical point of view, these two concepts translate into the use of non-harmful complementary therapies, such as nutrition, phytotherapy, homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic, just to mention some, to stimulate the self-healing mechanisms of the mind and body. “Primum, non nocere” and “self-healing” are the major claimed strengths of holistic medicine. However, it should not be forgotten that conventional medicine too is not alien to these concepts. Physicians and veterinarians always start by prescribing the most conservative, less aggressive treatments for their patients, and never prescribe drugs or other medical or surgical treatments when the potentially harmful effects are much greater than benefits, perhaps the only exceptions being when the patient is in imminent risk of death and/or when there are no other effective treatments available. As regards the concept of “self-healing”, even traditional western medicine does apply it, where possible. A clear example is the relatively recent development of active immunotherapy, which uses specific drugs to stimulate the body’s own immune system responses in order to fight a variety of diseases, including cancer, allergies and autoimmune diseases.
It is clear therefore that holistic and conventional medicine share the same goal: curing or preventing disease, while not or minimally harming the patient’s health and, when possible, stimulating the self-healing mechanisms of the body. The difference between these two types of medicine relies on the means and methods by which this goal is achieved, which in turn affect their different fields of medical application.
In many cases holistic pet therapies can be used as complementary medicine to conventional medical treatments. This is particularly true in the treatment of certain chronic diseases, whose medical treatment commonly requires the prolonged use of potentially harmful drugs, sometimes at increasing doses over time to maintain their effectiveness. Such a situation can be exemplified by chronic painful conditions (cancer, osteoarthritis), in which acupuncture may be a valuable addition to conventional medical pain treatment, in order to give some pain relief and allow a reduction in the dose of analgesics required. Moreover, many chronic diseases are often debilitating and can cause severe physical and emotional stress to the pet patient: from this perspective, a well balanced nutrition with healthy food and proper supplements, as well as the use of stress-fighting herbal remedies and of massotherapy (application of massages), can be of valuable aid. The same holistic treatments are also indicated for the complementary treatment of weakness and debilitation resulting from old age and convalescence from surgery or serious illness. Since self-healing is a slow process, the effects of these, as well as of other holistic methods are gradual and slow to achieve. However, due to their safe and gentle action on the body, holistic therapies usually do not add any additional stress to the organism, but rather can help fight stress and its deleterious consequences by restoring the natural inner balance of the body.
In certain cases, holistic pet treatments can be used to counteract the side effects of some conventional drugs. For example, alterations of intestinal flora caused by the prolonged administration of antibiotics can be effectively reversed by probiotics, while liver overload caused by the action of many drugs can be relieved by the use of hepatoprotective herbs, such as Silybum marianum.
There are also certain conditions in which a holistic approach may be even better and more effective than a conventional medical approach. Stress and certain types of alopecia (such as the so called ‘psychogenic alopecia’ in cats, which results from excessive grooming from some stressful event) are good examples of such situations, where the body is involved as a whole and it is difficult to find a specific medical cause or factor for the symptoms. In these cases the gradual restoring of the overall balance of the body through holistic treatments may give better and more long-lasting results than a conventional medical approach.
Holistic pet care has some limitations, however. First it is not effective in treating acute conditions which require a targeted aggressive medical approach. Acute infections, shock and heart attack are clear examples of such conditions. Second, holistic therapy lacks of a strong scientific basis, so it is difficult to say whether it is really effective or its effectiveness is the mere result of the healing effect of time (many conditions naturally resolve on their own over time, with or without therapy). There are no doubts, however, that some holistic therapy techniques (especially nutrition) do provide benefits at least in term of general health and well-being, and can help prevent many common medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, intestinal disorders, cancer and immune system dysfunctions. Third, the concept of “primum, non nocere” is not always applicable. Many herbal remedies can be toxic if not prescribed and given at the correct dose. Similarly, holistic techniques such as acupuncture and massotherapy can do more harm than good if not performed by professional holistic therapists.
Finally it should not be forgotten that holistic care requires time, patience and commitment by the pet owner. Its results are not immediate and are more difficult to achieve compared to the rapid results achievable by the simple administration of a pill for one week or so. The holistic approach usually goes beyond the mere application of complementary therapies and involves all the aspects of the pet’s life (diet, physical activity, life environment and human-animal relationships), thereby often requiring drastic, long term changes in the habits of both the pet and its owner. All this may sound discouraging to many. However, if taken in the right way, holistic pet care can promote a good, long-lasting health for the pet, can help prevent or relieve many disease conditions and can even help restore the natural inner balance of the pet’s body that many years of cohabitation with humans may have contributed to alter. These are sufficient reasons to try holistic treatments along with conventional therapy in order to provide the most successful care for one’s pet.