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Mixing It Up: Holistic & Traditional Veterinary Medicine

Katie B. Kangas, DVM, CVA, The Animal Healing Center, San Diego, California

Integrative Medicine

|March 2011|Peer Reviewed

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As the general public gains awareness of the benefits of preventive health practices and healthier lifestyles, it has become appealing to focus on nutrition, wellness, preventive medicine, and more natural methods of health care and healing.

Many people have become interested in providing the same care for their pets, including turning to holistic options or alternatives to traditional veterinary medical care.

What Is Holistic Medical Care?

Holistic practices emphasize evaluation of the whole patient, including the physical, nutritional, environmental, and emotional aspects of its presentation. Rather than focusing on “disease” as a separate entity, it defines disease as an imbalance in the body within the context of all of these aspects.

Holistic health care seeks to employ methods of disease prevention and treatment that enable the body’s innate healing capabilities to function at their best. Holistic medicine is often times called complementary or alternative because the medical techniques used are distinct from the methods taught to allopathic or conventional practitioners.

A more inclusive perspective is integrative medicine, which combines holistic modalities with conventional or traditional veterinary care. Practitioners who utilize integrative medicine can provide more options to their patients, optimizing healing and wellness.

There are many different holistic health care modalities, such as acupuncture, chinese herbal medicine, western herbal medicine, food therapy, chiropractic care, massage therapy/tui-na/reiki, physical therapy and rehabilitation, homeopathy, and homotoxicology (biotherapeutics). A brief description of several commonly used modalities follows.


Acupuncture stimulates specific points on the body, resulting in a therapeutic homeostatic effect.

  • Although the use of acupuncture dates back thousands of years, modern research shows that acupuncture points are located in areas where there is a high density of free nerve endings, mast cells, arterioles, and lymphatic vessels.1,2
  • Each acupuncture point has a unique location and physiologic effect.1 Many reports have indicated that the stimulation of acupuncture points induces the release of beta-endorphin, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters.2,3
  • The use of acupuncture for pain relief is well supported by scientific studies, but it can also be effective for treatment of all types of diseases.4–7

Clinician's Brief
12-year-old Doberman pinscher receiving acupuncture treatment

Herbal Medicine

In a holistic context, herbs are used to stimulate, regulate, or adjust natural body functions back into healthy harmony with the rest of the body.8

  • Most drugs are composed of specific chemical compounds that have been isolated from their source and concentrated to maximum potency. A medicinal plant, however, consists of dozens or even hundreds of interactive or inert chemical components.
  • Most herbalists prefer to rely on the whole plant, or a part of the whole plant, to provide the synergistic benefits. In other words, the whole plant is considered to be superior, and usually safer, than the sum of its parts.9–11

TCM = traditional Chinese medicine

There are some differences between western and Chinese herbal medicine:

  • Western herbalism primarily treats specific diseases or clinical signs, typically using the same prescription for all patients with similar signs.
  • Traditional Chinese herbal medicine chooses a prescription based on an individualized pattern diagnosis in addition to the disease diagnosis. A patient’s pattern is defined by its emotional temperament and bodily constitution as well as its specific clinical signs. Two patients with the same conventionally labeled disease and similar or identical disease signs may be best treated with different prescriptions, based on other aspects of their individual pattern diagnoses.

Clinician's Brief
Utlizing acupressure points during massage therapy

Food Therapy & Nutrition

Nutrition is the body’s fuel and provides the building blocks for maintenance of health, tissue repair, and energy. Consequently, most holistic health practitioners focus a great deal on diet and nutritional supplements.

  • Because food can be considered the most important medicine we take every day, feeding fresh wholesome vital nutrition is paramount in maintaining the health of the patient.
  • In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), foods are often viewed as an extension of herbs. Thus, TCM practitioners will recommend certain foods for maintaining and balancing health and improving a variety of conditions.

Clinician's Brief
Canine massage therapist performing stretching exercises and evaluating range of motion in the pelvic limb of a 15-year-old Labrador retriever


Chiropractic care is centered on the role of the spine and the nervous system in maintaining good health.

  • Chiropractic manipulation focuses on obtaining optimal range of motion for the axial and appendicular articulations.
  • Restrictions in the motion of these joints can lead to a variety of manifestations in the patient, affecting the nervous, musculoskeletal, and various organ systems of the body. These effects can be seen as lameness, pain, or other systemic problems.
  • Chiropractic adjustments aim to reestablish optimal range of motion, thereby reducing or eliminating neuropathy and allowing the body to self-regulate, adapt, and heal.

Massage Therapy

Massage increases blood and lymph circulation and disperses pain in tense muscles.12,13

  • The goal of massage is to restore maximal functional capability and flexibility for the patient. Massage can also help stimulate the immune system and expedite the removal of waste and toxins from the body, aid in digestion, and calm anxieties.
  • Tui-na is an ancient Chinese method of medical manipulation combined with massage and acupressure that helps to move energy past blocked areas, stimulate nerve function, and ease muscle tension. It offers comfort and provides an energy lift to the patient.
  • Animal patients can benefit from massage, and many pets enjoy it. Simple techniques can be performed by pet owners and can also serve to strengthen the bonds and relationships between owners and their pets.

Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation

The indications for physical therapy for pets include postoperative care for any bone or joint surgery, neurologic conditions, hip or elbow dysplasia, osteoarthritis, pain management, geriatrics, and obesity. The benefits of using this modality include faster recovery, improved strength, prevention of muscle atrophy, improved range of motion, pain reduction, mental stimulation, and improved quality of life.


The demand for holistic veterinary health care is on the rise. Offering holistic medical services in an integrative approach can provide more options and perhaps greater overall success in the care and treatment of our animal patients. With proper training, holistic modalities can be incorporated into general practice, or alternatively, patients can be referred for specific therapies. There are numerous organizations and educational institutions that provide training in holistic veterinary medicine (see Holistic Medicine Resources).

Holistic Medicine Resources:
American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association
American Veterinary Chiropractic Association
Canine Rehabilitation Institute
Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine
International Veterinary Acupuncture Society
Lang Institute for Canine Massage
University of Tennessee Canine Physical Therapy Program
Veterinary Botanical Medical Association

Addressing Skepticism

It remains common for integrative modalities to be met with a good deal of skepticism from the conventional veterinary community. Typically, skeptics point toward the lack of controlled scientific studies to back up the efficacy of these modalities. Because many of the modalities used by integrative practitioners are tailored to each individual patient’s presentation, it is difficult to generate a study that takes into consideration all of these variations. 

Fortunately, there are now several organizations including the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA), American Association of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (AATCVM), and Veterinary Botanical Medical Association (VBMA) that are making significant advances in funding research projects to allow validation of integrative modalities by accepted scientific standards. Moreover, although skeptics may make some valid arguments, many integrative practitioners and related group associations are being proactive in validating their modalities by current research paradigms. 


For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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