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Holistic Health Care for Pets

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM

Have you made any healthy lifestyle changes lately? Maybe you’ve switched your diet, or started practicing yoga, going to the chiropractor, or getting acupuncture treatments.

Might these same practices keep your pet in better health, too?

More veterinarians than ever are practicing holistic medicine today. Holistic vets look at a pet's overall health, and use traditional and alternative therapies. They rely on lab tests and prescription drugs, but also on acupuncture, massage, and herbal remedies to keep pets healthy. They encourage changes in pets' diets and lifestyles to help ward off illnesses like obesity, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer.

“As a doctor, I want any tool that's going to work. Having more tools in my tool kit has made a huge difference,” says Barbara Royal, DVM, president of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.

Here are some of the alternative treatments available for your dog or cat:

Acupuncture

A certified acupuncturist inserts thin needles in specific points of the body to relieve pain and pressure throughout your pet's body. Pets with back pain, arthritis, muscle spasms, a limp, or other problems may benefit from this treatment.

“Although acupuncture has been around for 5,000 years, only in the last 10 to 20 years has the scientific community been able to see why this works,” says Claude D. Grosjean, a small animal veterinarian who practices holistic medicine in Southampton, NY. “There's very good research, a lot of it done in China.”

Chiropractic Treatments

Chiropractors move the bones in the spine and other parts of the body to relieve pain. Pets with neck or back problems can benefit from these treatments, just like people do. But for pets, you won’t hear cracking. There's not as much aggressive force used. “It's a gentle procedure, and it can make a great difference on the alignment of the spine,” Royal says.

Massage

Massage can improve blood flow, reduce swelling, and help with anxiety issues. “Pets like it,” says Grosjean, who practices Tui-Na, a traditional Chinese form of massage. 

“It's a powerful therapy tool,” Royal says, “but you need someone trained in animal massage -- that's what makes the difference.”

Aromatherapy

The pleasant scents of natural oils can help pets relieve stress.

“Scent is so important in an animal's life,” Royal says. “It can change the way your brain functions, whether you're feeling alarm or discomfort.”

Because pets have a more sensitive sense of smell, ask your veterinarian for advice before trying aromatherapy.

“Pets can smell over 20 times better than we can,” Royal says. “You don't need the whole room to smell like lavender to calm them down; you don't want to overwhelm them.”

Nutrition

A better diet can improve overall health, reduce inflammation and ease symptoms of chronic diseases like arthritis.

Because dogs and cats are carnivores, the higher the protein percentage they take in, the better. Carbohydrate-rich kibble food usually isn't best for their diets. Royal recommends avoiding pet food containing corn, wheat, soy, or peanut butter. “Once you eliminate those, you're in a better tier of nutrition,” she says.  Talk to your vet before making a food change, though.

Herbs

Herbs can help calm pets. Some holistic vets prescribe the herbs chamomile, kava, or valerian to soothe animals. They may recommend combinations of 5 to 20 herbs that are made specifically for your pet.

“It's not a good idea to just go on the Internet, find an herbal formula, and give it to your pet,” Grosjean says. “You choose the wrong formula, you're going to make the situation a lot worse.”

Reviewed on February 24, 2014

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