THE SCOOP ON HOLISTIC PET CARE
by Larry K. Fried
As Americans have turned increasingly toward Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) for their own health needs, more and more want to provide the same helpful options to their companion animals. Many of us consider our pets members of our immediate family, and want to do the best we can for them. Here in the Willamette Valley we’ve seen a surge in holistic veterinary practices offering a full range of CAM offerings, sometimes integrated into full service animal clinics, sometimes offered more as ancillary services. What is available to you may depend on where you live in the Valley.
Holistic vs. Conventional
A holistic practice is defined less by the services and modalities offered than by the central philosophy of the practitioner or clinic. In a holistic practice, the care giver is going to view the whole animal, most often will see symptoms as clues to an underlying systemic issue, and be most concerned with strengthening the body’s immune system, supporting its ability to heal itself.
In a conventional practice, the practitioner concentrates on symptomatic relief, often missing the underlying connection between various symptoms emanating from very different parts of the body. These practitioners are also likely to rely on allopathic remedies, particularly pharmaceutical drugs and surgery. Allopathic medicine is often said to be particularly well-suited to acutely severe conditions or trauma, such as severe bleeding or broken bones, while CAM is better for chronic conditions that are not immediately life threatening or highly traumatic.
Holistic practitioners may still use conventional diagnostic techniques, such as blood-work, x-rays, and other testing , but are likely to be considerably less reliant on them. Similarly, they may offer vaccines, but are going to be much more judicious in their use, understanding that over vaccinating can weaken the immune system of the animal.
In addition to their doctorate degrees in veterinary medicine, holistic vets have usually done some post-graduate studies in CAM modalities, such as becoming certified veterinary acupuncturists.
Teri Sue Wright started out practicing in a conventional vet hospital setting, before she began her own mobile holistic practice, My Home Vet. She described the differences this way: “Primarily, in conventional medicine you learn to recognize symptoms and associate them with a specific disease, so it’s kind of isolated. If you see bad teeth in a dog, and he has bad skin, and he has kidney disease, then I immediately think the teeth is something different, and then think dental, to have the teeth (cleaned) . Then for the kidney, I think kidney disease. I have to give the dog a certain diet for kidney function. Then for the skin, I have to manage phosphorus and certain things in the blood.
“From a holistic perspective, I look at the whole dog, and say the dog is deficient, in what? Likely nutrition. I look at the whole history of the dog and what the dog has eaten. I try to find fresh food I know the animal is designed to eat, feed him that kind of food, to support his body, to support appropriate kidney function. I don’t get so caught up in the details of managing phosphorous. If it is high, I certainly will, but I try to look at the dog as whole.”
Diet and Nutrition a Central Concern
Dr. Wright’s small animal practice revolves around food and diet, and what she calls “foundational diet.” As it turns out, diet is a central concern of nearly any holistic vet, as it should be for any pet owner. Over the past couple of decades much has been written about the low quality and unsuitability of many popular pet foods. Many ingredients are selected, not for supporting optimal health to the animal, but for maximizing profits for the pet food manufacturers, while providing low-priced choices to the consumer. It has been reported that these ingredients are sourced from a variety of unpalatable and sometimes impossible-to-identify sources that when fully revealed to pet owners evoke feelings that include revulsion and deep worry.
These ingredients are often by-products of industrial food operations that are not considered suitable for human consumption. A careful reading of ingredients list can help identify pet foods where the most worrisome ingredients occur, but they occur under a slew of euphemistic names like “poultry by-products” , “animal fat”, “meat and bone meals”, “corn gluten meal” and “animal digest.”
To take one example, “animal fat” translates to the fat that rises to the top of vats of a rendered liquid. That liquid may contain nearly any part of a variety of animals from many questionable sources, including euthanized pets from shelters and clinics. Not only does this suggest the possibility of cannibalism, but significant residues of the drug used to kill the pets have been detected in some batches of pet foods. There are also chemical preservatives, flavorings and synthetic nutrients included in many of these foods.
Pet owners may remember the wide spread pet food recall in 2007. It was found that gluten ingredients were widely contaminated with melamine, a very toxic chemical. Thousands of pets fell sick and hundreds died after eating contaminated foods. The melamine may have been intentionally added by Chinese companies to boost the protein value in tests of their products.
No wonder Dr. Doreen Hock, who established one of the first holistic vet practices in Eugene, strongly advocates for avoiding commercial cooked pet foods altogether, and instead feeding the cat or dog a raw food diet consisting of meat and vegetables. Dr. Wright agrees that prepared raw foods are the optimal choice. “However,” she says, “not all animals can tolerate a raw food diet.”
The Vegetarian’s Dilemma
What about vegetarians and vegans who want to be consistent in their ethically-based choices and avoid purchasing meat and other animal products for their pet? “I have a lot of clients who are vegetarians,” says Dr. Wright, and I ask them if they are going to have trouble feeding their animal meat. Some say yes, some say no. I do have one potential client, a friend, who recently changed her dog over to a vegetarian diet. And they had good reason to, and it works, so I am not going to change them back any time soon.”
Dr. Hock was more resistant to the idea, and stated that dogs, and cats even more so, need meat. Her advice to vegetarian dog and cat owners, “If you can’t put your morals aside, then maybe this is not the pet for you,” and suggested that an animal that is a natural plant-eater would be a better choice.
For more germane advice on providing a healthy vegetarian/vegan diet for a pet dog or cat, owners may need to do their own research or reach outside the Willamette Valley for a consulting vet. The task is much simpler for dogs, who are considered omnivores, than it is for cats, who are true carnivores. According to Vegan Outreach, “there is probably no issue more divisive in the vegan community than whether cats should eat a vegan diet.”
Beyond getting the dog or cat’s diet right, Dr. Wright provides supplement recommendations, because even with the right food choices, she thinks foods produced today are deficient in nutrients, and that supplementation is likely necessary. Consistent with her view on the importance of food, she favors the line made by Standard Process which are formulated from whole foods.
Acupuncture Prominent Modality
Corvallis-based vet Dr. Becky Jester also really likes the Standard Process line, and she includes a good deal of diet and nutrition guidance in her practice. Yet, the mainstay of Dr. Jester’s business is acupuncture. Similarly, Dr. Hock, who has always included acupuncture as part of her practice, has narrowed her practice down in the last couple of years to doing nothing but acupuncture and other energy work. She no longer offers diet and nutritional guidance, except in interviews. In fact, it seems most Willamette Valley holistic veterinary practices include acupuncture.
Acupuncture , which involves the insertion of hair-sized needles into certain points of the body, is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a 3,000 year-old system of health care. The longevity of TCM is a clear indication of its efficacy, but does it work on pets? Will they even sit still for it?
Dr. Hock says, “What I do, they love coming in. They come running in the door, jump up on the bed and wait for their treatment. They get it, you know.” Often her animal patients just go to sleep while doing acupuncture. Dr. Jester has had patients that have made remarkable turnarounds. One example she gave was of a St. Bernard who had lost so much weight due to malabsorption that they were going to euthanize the dog. She was able to save the dog with acupuncture treatments, and restore it to normal gut function.
A Happy Client
Monica Miles is a longtime client of holistic veterinary care, but as the Program Director of RideAble, could not be said to be typical. Maintaining a stable of seven horses and ponies for the RideAble horse instruction programs, Monica has a distinctive experience with holistic equine care.
“Our students are special needs and they don’t have a good sense of balance,” Miles explained. The horses, “quickly get joints out.” To address this, her vet, Dr. Mark DePaolo, visits the RideAble farm after each session, four times a year, and gives acupuncture and chiropractic to all the horses.
Miles has been utilizing the care of Dr. DePaolo for some six years, and prior to that the horses at RideAble were under the care of a conventional vet. For Miles, the difference between the practices is quite dramatic. “Rather than treating the symptoms, Dr. Mark (sic) seeks to find the cause, and usually it is nutrition based or lack of. So, then we work on what the nutritional needs are, and that will clear up a lot of weight issues, or digestion problems or metabolic issues.”
For the RideAble horses that means relying almost entirely on quality hay and pasture grasses. Miles says, “We feed them very little grain, they don’t need it.” And what little grain they do use is free of molasses, sugars, hormones and other impurities. “So, we are not dealing with Cushings and diabetes,” Miles explained. “We don’t do any vaccinations. If someone gets a cut that is serious enough, then we give a tetanus vaccine, other than that we do not vaccinate.
“For us the most significant change was Dr. Mark formulated his own vitamins and minerals, and that really shifted getting the horses vitamins and minerals where they should be. One of the things that is interesting to me is that people in the horse community come out and one of the first things they say is, ‘Wow your horses look good.’”
Larry K. Fried is Publisher/Editor of the Natural Choice Directory and really enjoys his canine family member, Milo.
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