Finding a Holistic Vet and What to Expect from Your Doctor’s Visit

by Shawn Messonnier, DVM
A resource from Pet-Togethers

What should you expect when you visit a veterinarian with a sick pet? Unfortunately that depends upon your doctor. A "100% conventional" doctor who is closed-minded towards natural therapies will have one approach (most likely involving frequent use of prescription medications and recommending annual immunizations,) while a "100% natural/alternative" doctor who is closed-minded towards conventional therapies will offer a totally different experience (refusing to use drug therapy even when it is needed to give the pet temporary relief while waiting for natural therapies to take effect.) The doctor who is "100% conventional" won't be open-minded towards therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, and nutritional supplements. Instead, he will prefer to use unlimited medications. Some of these doctors will also not offer much in the way of diagnostic testing, instead preferring to try various medications and taking a "wait and see" approach.

Conversely, the doctor who is "100% natural" will probably not be open to using approved prescription medications for even short-term relief from clinical signs. These doctors too may not use a lot of conventional diagnostic testing, instead preferring to treat your pet based upon clinical signs or "alternative" diagnostic techniques such as reflex testing.

I believe the best doctor is one who is truly "holistic" or “integrative,” that is one who offers both conventional and natural therapy options. By being open-minded to doing whatever is in the pet's best interest, holistic veterinarians offer the pet the best of both worlds, namely the best care possible.

Let me explain. There are a variety of terms designed to explain "natural pet care," including holistic care, alternative therapies, complementary medicine, and of course natural care. What do all of these terms mean, and how can you use them to evaluate which doctor should care for your pet?

I'll give you my definition of holistic care in just a moment; so let me quickly define these other terms often applied to "non-conventional" therapies.

By being open-minded to doing whatever is in the pet's best interest, we are truly offering the pet the best of both worlds, namely the best care possible.

Alternative therapy means any therapy that is an alternative to conventional medical treatment. This would includetreatments such as homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and nutritional medicine to name a few common ones. Complementary therapies include the same therapies mentioned under the heading alternative therapies. The term complementary therapy is used interchangeably with alternative therapy, but this practice is not really correct. "Alternative" implies "something other than." The term "complementary therapy" implies the chosen treatment is "complementing" the standard treatment, and not necessarily replacing it. Since most holistic doctors are open-minded to both forms of treatment, the preferred term "complementary” or “integrative” therapy means that our treatment, such as acupuncture or homeopathy, is used in conjunction with and complements the traditional medical therapy that may be prescribed.

For example, in my practice I will often use a conventional therapy for a pet when it is in that pet's best interest, but also supplement my treatment with a few well-chosen complementary therapies.

Your goal as a pet parent is simple: Do what is in the best interest of your pet. If that includes conventional therapies such as the rational use of safe, short-acting medications, so be it. If your dog is better treated with a complementary therapy such as herbal medicine, homeopathy, or acupuncture, that's great too. Many of my patients benefit from a combination of complementary and conventional therapies. And that is what holistic medicine is all about: simply keeping our minds open to do what is in the best interests of our 4-legged friends.

In order to be open to doing what is in the pet's best interest, doctor and pet parents alike must develop what I call a holistic mindset. Remember that "holistic care" refers to a way of thinking. The holistic doctor and guardian view the dog in its entirety, rather than just blindly focusing on a set of problems or signs and symptoms. The goal of holistic care is disease prevention. As a holistic doctor, I prefer to "treat the pet" rather than "treat a disease " (at best) or "treat signs and symptoms" (at worst). Ideally the holistic approach seeks “healing” of the patient rather than simply “treating” the disease or pet. Also, keep in mind that the holistic approach also prefers to prevent or minimize disease, and your doctor should spend time with you developing a preventive health care plan (for a comprehensive, easy-to-follow, inexpensive preventive program, you can purchase my book Visit "8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog" today for more information.

How do you and your doctor go about developing a holistic mindset, and why is this even important? By changing our thought processes and becoming more holistic, everyone, especially our pets, benefit. Simply put, we must be open-minded and always put the pet's interest first. With every treatment performed, we must always ask "Is this in the pet's best interest?" Having a holistic attitude means that doctors and guardians refuse to focus just on the problem at hand, but instead prefer to focus on total wellness for the pet.

This sounds great, and I think we all would agree that every doctor and pet parent should become more holistic, since the end result is that ultimately the pet will benefit from this way of care.

As I talk with pet parents, I'm often asked why more doctors don't practice holistic medicine. I believe there are several answers to this question.

First, we really aren't trained to be holistic doctors. Few if any veterinary schools truly teach about wellness programs and disease prevention. We are just now beginning to see a focus on wellness and holistic care in medical schools; I believe the veterinary schools will also eventually adapt to this philosophy, although it will take some time.

When I was in school, the focus was on diagnosis and treatment of diseases through recognition of signs and symptoms. While it certainly is important to diagnose and treat diseases, it's more important to prevent as many of these problems as possible.

Second, practicing holistic medicine takes time, and a lot of it. While many doctors find it useful to book 4 or more appointments per hour thanks to a well trained, fully leveraged staff, the holistic practice books at most 1-2 appointments per hour on a typical day! It takes this long to develop a complete patient history and personalize a wellness "disease prevention" program for each patient.

Practicing holistic medicine takes time, and a lot of it.

Third, there are still a large number of doctors who believe that anything other than conventional medicine is “Quackish”. While there are certainly some charlatans out there, and some complementary treatments of questionable value, by and large there is considerable evidence for the success of most mainstream complementary therapies.

As you can see, there are some stumbling blocks to finding a really good doctor who has this much-needed holistic philosophy.

So how do you go about finding a holistic veterinarian for your pet?

First, evaluate your pet's current veterinarian. Is he or she open to natural? Many are, even if they don't offer these specialized therapies themselves. Your current doctor can treat your pet's basic needs with a holistic approach, and refer you to a doctor who performs natural therapies when those are needed. (As an aside, most doctors, even those that do not offer services like acupuncture and herbal medicine, are using limited nutritional supplements as part of their therapy of sick pets. This means your own doctor might be able to offer your sick pet some basic natural supplements therapy without the need for referral. Hopefully this trend towards using supplements, as part of the treatment of various diseases will continue.)

Second, ask friends for referrals. If you know someone who uses a holistic veterinarian, ask that person for a referral.

Third, try asking for a referral at the local health food store, pet store, or natural grocery store. These places get requests for referrals all of the time (and refer a number of clients to my own practice.)

Fourth, consult your phone book for veterinarians advertising holistic care. Stores often have directories with ads of holistic doctors and holistic veterinarians.

Finally, consider contacting the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. You can reach them at 410-569-0795 and ask for referrals of doctors in your area.

None of these methods of tracking down a holistic doctor is foolproof; rather, use these as a starting point. Compile a list of as many names as possible from these sources, and then make an appointment to visit with and interview each doctor on your list. Make sure you and the doctor get along, as your relationship with your pet's doctor is key to your pet's health. Make sure the doctor is open-minded to a variety of conventional and natural therapies, and places your pet's health first.

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