by Deborah Straw
As is true in human medicine, alternative therapies are becoming more popular in veterinary health care. This is true even in the case of large animals; acupuncture is being used increasingly in horse treatments. An increasing number of practitioners are using alternative modalities along with the more conventional treatments to offer a full spectrum of services to their animal patients -- and to fill their human clients' desires and requests. Use of the term alternative is somewhat controversial; many veterinarians prefer the term holistic or complementary.
According to Myrna M. Milani, D.V. M., in her book The Art of Veterinary Practice, studies have indicated that as of 1993 as much as 37 percent of the American public sought out alternative treatments. As a rule, these people tend to be more highly educated and more affluent than average. Dr. Milani notes that many individuals seek out alternatives for their animal companions because they have lost faith in the treatment, not because they have lost faith in their longtime doctor.
Based on my research, those alternative treatments most widely accepted and used today are acupuncture; dietary changes tending toward more natural or homemade; use of more vitamins, minerals, and herbs; and homeopathic treatments. Western Europeans, Australians, and Canadians seem to be more accepting of these treatments than we in the United States. In Canada, for example, more than one hundred veterinarians belong to the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association; in a 1996 survey 60 percent of responding vets believed they should be allowed to use alternative therapies on their patients.
However, acceptance in the United States is changing as well. When I speak of alternative treatments to my friends, neighbors, and colleagues, many of them have tried either acupuncture or dietary changes. Many of them are cutting back on the number of vaccines they give to their dogs or cats. And many, too, have offered their pets chemotherapy or radiation rather than just let them go downhill after a couple of surgeries. I know that these latter treatments are not alternative, but they are still relatively new -- and not well known -- to the entire population of animal lovers. People are, in general, willing to do more and spend more money on their pets' health these days. They are not willing to accept only the options of surgery or euthanasia.
In The Nature of Animal Healing: The Path to Your Pet's Health, Happiness, and Longevity, Martin Goldstein, D.V M., defines holistic medicine this way: "Holistic medicine is nothing if not a therapy of hope: until an animal actually dies, there's hope of recovery from even the direst condition, because when you allow for miracles by persisting with the right natural supplements, sometimes they occur." He states that a basic principle of alternative practices is "that there are no coincidences."'
Randy Kidd, president of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, says that the past three to four years have seen a tremendous increase in consumer interest. "People are seeing good results with alternative medicine on themselves, and they want the same thing for their pets." Membership in his group is now at eight hundred and growing. Kidd also notes that the interest in holistic pet care has even prompted a few veterinary schools to add short courses on such topics as acupuncture and homeopathy.'
Edward C. Boldt Jr., D.VM., executive director of the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS), recently told me the group currently has approximately eleven hundred members, and that number increases each year. Members come from around the world and courses are taught in the U.S., Britain, Norway, Belgium, and Australia. The majority of the certified members (now 650) also offer conventional veterinary medicine.
Dr. Milani says that many veterinarians decide to offer alternative treatments because they see that the old ones do not work in all cases. If veterinarians see their purpose as helping animals regain and maintain their health, rather than just completing the process of conventional treatments, then it "seems that any treatment which accomplishes that purpose is valid."
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Most veterinarians choose to look to alternative therapies for two reasons, Milani notes: The conventional approaches are not working in a particular type of case; or the client requests an alternative therapy. Perhaps that client has done some reading or has heard positive reports about some therapy from friends or family. Milani believes that most veterinarians do not use alternatives "to flout the system," but instead find themselves in situations where they have done everything else and the animal is not improving.
She notes that, as with all treatments, "the probability of any alternative curing an animal is fifty-fifty: it either works or it doesn't." But she points out wisely that treatments may work in less obvious ways: For example, sometimes a veterinarian's willingness to try new techniques may help the client keep the animal alive a bit longer, even if the disease is not truly cured.
One of the problems that may arise is that you, the caregiver, may want your veterinarian to try some alternative treatments, but he or she may not want to do so. This can happen for a number of reasons. The vet may not believe in them, or may not have the expertise to offer them. This can pose an ethical and moral problem for some doctors. However, as Dr. Milani notes (and I heartily agree), veterinarians ought to at least listen to your requests and try not to dismiss the less traditional treatments out of hand.
Milani is clear that practitioners should not do anything that violates their belief system, but she does believe it makes sense for them to at least recognize their clients' beliefs as different rather than wrong. Rather than alienate their clients, they should be able to explain why they don't believe in or trust the alternative treatments. In many cases they could also refer owners to a veterinarian who does believe in these treatments and has the expertise to perform them.
This article is excerpted from the book Why Is Cancer Killing Our Pets, by Deborah Straw. ?2000. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Healing Arts Press, a division of Inner Traditions International. www.innertraditions.com
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About The Author
Deborah Straw is a longtime animal, health, and lifestyle writer who is based in Vermont. She is the author of Why Is Cancer Killing Our Pets, as well as Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys, an ecotourism guide. She is a widely published essayist and book reviewer and a writing and literature instructor at Community College of Vermont.