Modern veterinary medicine has made many advances. New vaccinations, medications, diagnostic aids, and surgical techniques that were once undreamed of are realities, helping pets live longer, healthier lives. But some veterinarians are looking to the past to find successful treatments that rely on natural substances like herbs or homeopathic remedies, or physical manipulations like massage, chiropractic, or acupuncture. Alternative therapies for dogs have been used to treat skin problems, digestive upsets, and other conditions. Of course, an accurate diagnosis must be made before you begin any type of treatment, but many dogs can benefit from a skilled and sensible combination of traditional and alternative therapies.
Some veterinarians incorporate alternative medicine for dogs into traditional practices, while others specialize in treatments like acupuncture or homeopathy. A veterinary degree is not required to practice some alternative therapies, although many states require that these therapies be administered to animals with veterinary supervision. With the proper training, however, both veterinarians and nonveterinarians can perform acupressure or massage on a pet. Here are some alternative therapies and their uses.
Acupuncture. The use of acupuncture and acupressure is thousands of years old. These therapies were developed in ancient China and are based on the theory of energy flowing through a system of channels (called meridians) that flow through the body and are linked to certain internal organs. Disease is seen in large part as disharmony in this internal energy flow, and the purpose of acupuncture is to restore the balance. Acupuncturists may do this by using needles, finger pressure, heat sources, or other methods to manipulate certain specific points (or acupoints) along the meridians. Western scientific research is still at a loss to explain why acupuncture works. Some theories suggest that inserting the needles increases the body's production of endorphins (substances that make you feel better and more comfortable) and blocks the transmission of pain signals from the spinal cord to the brain.
When acupuncture was widely introduced in the West in the 1970s, the medical establishment didn't believe it worked. Since then, acupuncture has gradually gained respect as a viable treatment in many cases. In veterinary medicine, dog acupuncture has been used to treat allergies, arthritis, constipation, diabetes, kidney disorders, and liver disease.
With direction from a trained acupuncturist, you can provide home care for some conditions by manipulating your dog's meridians with finger pressure. Acupressure can be beneficial for dogs with arthritis, digestive disorders, and muscle strains.
Chiropractic. Developed in the 19th century, chiropractic is based on the idea that nerve energy flows through the spinal column. The energy becomes blocked if the spinal column is misaligned. Chiropractors manipulate the musculoskeletal system with fast, gentle motions (called adjustments) to restore normal movement or function to joints and surrounding tissues. As with acupuncture, we don't have a solid scientific explanation as to exactly why or how chiropractic works, but it has been used to treat a number of problems, from upset stomachs to arthritis.
Herbology. Herbs and flowers were probably among the first ways human beings treated sickness. We also know that animals will eat plants in response to certain illnesses. Today, some of our most widely used medications and treatments are plant-derived, including digitalis (foxglove), for certain heart conditions, and pyrethrins (chrysanthemums), a main ingredient in many flea-control products. The chemicals in herbal remedies have been found to strengthen the immune system, provide relief from pain, and calm the mind.
You may like the idea of using herbal remedies because they are natural, but like any other medication, medicinal herbs are dangerous if they're not used properly. They should be given only with veterinary supervision and in consultation with someone trained in the use of herbs. The safest, most effective way to use herbs at home is for treating external problems such as flea infestations or skin conditions. Before treating your dog with any herbal preparation, check with a qualified holistic veterinarian.
Homeopathy. Homeopathic medicine has been practiced for about 200 years and was originated by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. Through testing and observation, Hahnemann discovered that substances that produced certain reactions in healthy people -- such as the itchy, swollen bumps caused by bee venom -- could stimulate a healing response in someone with an illness that had similar symptoms. Thus a homeopathic preparation of bee venom given to a person with a rash looking and feeling like bee stings alleviated the symptoms. This fundamental principle of homeopathy ("like cures like") was observed by the ancient Greeks and again in modern times with drugs like ritalin (a stimulant used to treat hyperactivity) and birth-control pills (the hormones that regulate fertility).
Before prescribing anything, a homeopathic veterinarian will question you about your dog's lifestyle, diet, and behavior. Once the environment is analyzed, the vet will prescribe a homeopathic remedy. In addition to homeopathic medications, the veterinarian may use tissue salts or flower essences to stimulate the body. Homeopathy is a true holistic healing modality: In addition to treating medical problems, homeopathic remedies are designed to take into account and treat related behavior and emotional issues.
Homeopathic remedies are prepared by successive dilutions and agitation of the original substance until there is little, if any, physical trace left. Because the active ingredients in common potencies of homeopathic remedies occur in such minute amounts, physical side effects are not an issue, making homeopathic remedies a safe, natural way to treat minor injuries and illnesses at home. Note: Homeopaths warn that using the wrong remedy may bring on a mild case of the symptoms that the remedy treats.
Common problems that respond to homeopathic remedies at home include minor stomach upset, bee stings or other insect bites, and minor injuries like cuts and scrapes. Other popular remedies include those that soothe the itching caused by flea bites and the anxiety caused by car travel or veterinary visits. Formulas for relieving the aches of arthritis; maintaining clean, healthy ears; and resolving mild cases of diarrhea are also available.
Massage. Massage does more than just feel good. A rubdown can help a dog recover more quickly from injury or illness, improve her flexibility and mobility, stimulate blood circulation, relieve muscle tension, and help keep her tissues supple. Depending on the strokes you use, a massage can energize or relax your dog.
Giving your dog a regular massage is a good way to become familiar with the feel of her body so you'll notice any unusual lumps, bumps, or other changes. A dog massaged also gets your dog used to being handled -- something your vet and groomer will appreciate.
We've covered myriad facets of the medical treatment of dogs. Congratulate yourself on being a well-informed dog-owner; your family and your pet may thank you someday.