I had an interesting situation with a client last week and her 7 year old chocolate Labrador who recently went into remission with lymphoma. She chose to do chemotherapy along with weekly massage, acupuncture, species-appropriate nutrition, herbal medicine and nutritional supplements. She belongs to a Facebook group intended to support pet parents going through lymphoma with their dog. Someone in the group asked about the use of flea and heart worm preventatives. She replied that she stopped all flea preventatives but still administers monthly heart worm protection as advised by her holistic vet. A woman replied to her, saying that her vet was obviously NOT holistic if she recommends heartworm protection.
Is prescribing heartworm prevention holistic?
Is using acupuncture as a treatment modality holistic?
Is using a pin to secure broken bone fragments holistic?
Is using a single herb formulation as an antibiotic holistic?
In my understanding and use of the term holistic to describe my practice philosophy, the answer to all of those questions is:
It depends! (a quote my acupuncture teacher, Dr. Xie, is famous for)
There are many terms to describe medicine and healing that is outside of the current conventional practice of medicine that tend to get thrown around in our internet culture. As a veterinarian who intentionally earned her DVM degree 20 years ago in order to practice holistic medicine, I’ve seen my share: holistic, alternative, complementary, integrative, and recently functional. In fact, we used to debate in the AHVMA student club in vet school over which term to use, which term would be “more acceptable”, “more appropriate”, “more inviting” for those new to these unconventional modalities.
This Google definition of Holistic sums up my use of the word:
“Holisticmedicine is a form of healing that considers the whole person — body, mind, spirit, and emotions — in the quest for optimal health and wellness. … Aholistic doctormay use all forms of health care, from conventional medication to alternative therapies, to treat a patient.”
Let’s look at each example listed above:
With regard to heartworm disease and preventative, if you lived in a heart worm endemic area, that means an area where heartworm is in the mosquito population, mosquitoes are present year round, it never gets cold enough for long enough to kill the microfilaria in the mosquito and there is a large population of stray dogs to serve as a vector population, I would more than likely recommend giving your dog heartworm preventative. The exception to that rule would be an owner who is super dedicated to testing for microfilaria on a regular basis, is feeding an excellent species-appropriate diet, works diligently to keep the dog’s immune system at peak performance and understands the pros and cons of the use of preventative.
I know this is a contentious subject in “holistic dog world” right now, but having seen dogs suffering in the end stages of heart worm disease when I practiced at a humane society in the Rio Grande valley, and rescuing hundreds of dogs off the street and personally witnessing the high incidence of the disease in the stray population in south Florida including the 1 year old Shepherd I adopted 5 years ago, I recommend giving preventative in many cases. There is nothing like seeing a heart with worms that look like spaghetti filling up all 4 chambers to make you think twice about skipping it.
If you live in a northern climate where the world is frozen for half the year, then yes, you are at less risk and may not need to give it. This is where the true meaning of the word Holistic comes into play. A holistic practitioner takes into account the environment and seasonal factors where the patient lives, as well as the prevalence of certain diseases and conducts a risk-benefit analysis, hopefully educating the pet owner along the way so they may make an informed decision regarding the care of their pet.
The use of acupuncture as a healing modality does not make a veterinarian holistic. The healing modality employed is not what determines whether something is holistic or not. I hate to say it, but I have witnessed acupuncture being used as an almost mechanical intervention, with no regard for the animal’s nutritional state, other health conditions, or lifestyle factors. There are even some veterinarians trying to take the concept of Qi out of a 3000 year old plus medical system with Qi as it’s foundation.
On the other hand, a purely mechanical treatment of pinning broken bone back together is holistic in that it brings the animal back to a state of wholeness, quite literally. Adding in some herbs like Comfrey to help the bone heal and Arnica or even stronger pharmaceutical pain meds (bone fractures hurt!) makes it even more holistic, as does referring the client to an adept dog trainer to prevent the dog from running into the street in the first place.
And now for the last example. Herbal medicine has been around probably as long as humans, or before, if you consider animals in the wild self-medication by foraging on plants. All indigenous cultures have traditions of plant medicine that foster respect for the cultivation, harvesting and preparation of plant medicine.
Conventional pharmacology is so embedded in our culture and thought process that many times “herbalists” will attempt to use an herb like a pharmaceutical drug, by treating the herb as the one active chemical component that has been investigated by science while forgetting about the 500 other components that make up the plant. In fact, that is how the modern science of pharmacology got started, famous examples being salicylic acid, aka aspirin, from willow bark, silymarin from milk thistle, vincristine, a chemo agent, from periwinkle. A modern example is the hemp plant and CBD. By trying to find that one magic compound, many others are removed and those other compounds often act to mitigate side effects or to assist the primary compound in healing. I see herbs being used similarly to pharmaceuticals quite frequently, prescribed to treat a particular symptom instead of based on the patient’s pattern of dis-ease.
The traditional, and I consider holistic manner, of using herbs uses whole plant extracts, takes into account how the plant was grown and prepared and prescribed based upon the pattern of imbalance in the patient. Many times the herbs are combined together in formulas to prevent any side effects from developing or to work synergistically to provide a stronger effect. They are administered with the intention to strengthen the body’s natural healing capacity versus depleting it and leaving it in a state of imbalance. As a simplified example: a bitter herb with antibiotics may be combined with a lung tonic to strengthen the underlying organ that is infected.
Ultimately, for myself, holistic medicine means evaluating all aspects of my patient’s health and well-being, including the environment they live in, and in the case of animals, the belief system of the human caretaker. Yes, I said belief system. I attempt to understand where the human caretaker is coming from regarding their belief systems, primary concerns and resources and try to meet them where they are and proceed to make improvements to the situation from there. Proceeding in this manner, and gaining the client’s trust, I have actually guided people to see their own health and their animal’s from an entirely different perspective.
I then look within my toolbox of modalities for things that will help that individual animal achieve a better level of health and well-being, including emotional happiness and fulfilling their spiritual mission which usually circles back to their human companion.
The consent of the animal to any treatment is an important factor as well because if the patient refuses a particular modality or their human cannot administer a particular treatment, it is not going to do them any good. I have opened up drawers and cabinets filled with pills, potions and supplements that were never administered to the patient.
What is your idea of holistic? I would love to hear your experiences, concerns and questions. One thing I do know, there are far fewer holistic practitioners out here in the world than I would have expected 20 years ago looking into the future.
By the way, my client, an intelligent person who loves her dog, responded on FB by saying, how would she feel if her dog survived lymphoma only to die later from heartworm disease that could have been easily prevented? She ultimately felt most comfortable with the decision to administer preventative and I supported her in that decision.