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A Primer on Complementary Veterinary Medicine

The interest in holistic approaches in veterinary medicine is growing rapidly, and pet owners are looking to treat their dogs with the same type of care as they would every other member of their family. For many Bay Area residents, this includes complementary or holistic medicine.

Complementary medicine is a term often used interchangeably with holistic medicine when doctors provide “nonconventional” treatments for a variety of ailments. Bay Area residents have been familiar with holistic health care for themselves since it became popular in the 1960s and ’70s. Pets can now enjoy better health, too, as many veterinarians and pet owners increasingly embrace these techniques and treatments. According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s 2003 National Pet Owner Survey, 21 percent of pet owners have used some form of complementary medicine on their pets.

Holistic practitioners consider your dog’s entire well-being and lifestyle, not just individual symptoms or conditions, and carefully mix and match treatments to best serve your special individual dog’s needs. A holistic approach to health care looks at the reasons your pet is ill or out of balance and focuses on fixing the underlying health problem.

Many veterinary clinics are offering integrative medicine by combining traditional medicine and surgery techniques with holistic modalities providing pets the best of both worlds. Integrative veterinarians can use all the tools available to traditional veterinarians (X-rays and blood panels, for instance) to help understand why your dog is having health problems. They can also use a much wider set of tools to heal your pet by offering many holistic modalities to complement or even replace routine medical treatments and surgery. The more common complementary medical therapies available to pets include acupuncture, chiropractic care, physical therapy, massage, homeopathy, herbal and nutraceutical remedies, diet, and lifestyle.


Acupuncture, practiced by the Chinese for more than 3,000 years, can relieve muscle spasms, increase blood circulation, stimulate nerves, and help release natural pain-control hormones and other helpful chemicals produced by the body. Although acupuncture traditionally uses needles, sometimes electricity, heat, massage, or lasers are also used to stimulate acupuncture points. You may want to consider acupuncture for your dog if it has chronic pain, spinal or musculoskeletal issues, or skin, respiratory, or digestive problems. It also helps in many cases of anxiety and behavior issues, especially when used in conjunction with herbal therapies.

Chiropractic Care

Chiropractors believe that some illnesses result from misaligned vertebrae that diminish the flow of impulses from the spinal cord to the body’s muscles, organs, and tissues. By manipulating and adjusting specific joints in animals, veterinary chiropractors try to restore the flow of impulses. Chiropractic treatments may help if your pet has a spinal disability, such as a slipped disc or pinched nerve; or even in some cases of epilepsy, skin disorders, and behavioral problems.

Physical and Massage Therapies

Physical therapy and massage are used to rehabilitate an injured animal. It may include simple techniques such as stretching exercises or applying heat or cold to the affected area. Or it may consist of more extensive treatments, including hydrotherapy, treadmill therapy, or stimulation with low-level lasers, electricity, magnets, or ultrasound. A veterinarian may recommend just one or a combination of these treatments. Many traditional veterinary surgeons refer dogs to physical therapy after orthopedic surgeries to speed return to mobility. If your pet is experiencing mobility issues and muscle degeneration, spinal degeneration or disk injuries, pain or soft-tissue injuries, physical therapy and massage therapy should be considered.


Homeopathic treatment relies on the administration of substances that can produce symptoms similar to those of the disease being treated. The idea is to provide the substances in small enough amounts to be harmless, yet enough to encourage the body to develop a curative response to the disease. The substances most often come from plants, but may also be extracted from animals and minerals. The substance is diluted and made more potent, after which it’s usually put into pellet or liquid form. Administered properly, homeopathic treatment can help a wide variety of ailments, including skin allergies, chronic infections, pain and weakness, behavior issues, and many other diseases.

Herbal Medicine and Nutraceuticals

Plants provide a wide variety of remedies for a range of ailments. Many modern drugs, such as aspirin, are derived from plants, but these drugs go through chemical processing that is thought by some to diminish the plant’s original healing power. Chinese herbal formulas are often prescribed in conjunction with specific acupuncture therapies to work synergistically to heal your pet. Your veterinarian may prescribe a variety of Chinese or Western herbs that work together to treat your pet’s problem(s). Herbal remedies may be appropriate if your pet has digestive problems, kidney or chronic bladder infections and incontinence, parasites, skin problems, or injuries to bone or tissue.
Nutraceuticals are nutritional supplements derived from plants or animals. They can be used to help pets with a wide variety of illness and diseases, such as joint, respiratory, or digestive problems, for instance, or to promote the well-being of healthy pets. Many of these supplements are available over the counter, but it is best to rely on the experience of your holistic veterinarian to provide you with the safest and most effective recommendations.

Diet and Lifestyle

Integrative veterinarians understand that true health and well-being start at home. Many dogs will benefit from an improved diet, and it’s important to make sure you are feeding your dog high-quality foods that are balanced. In some cases the best health option for your dog is to make his or her own food yourself; however, we are fortunate to be living during a time where many “holistic” brand dog foods are available. Many of these labels are misleading, but an experienced integrative veterinarian can help direct you to the healthiest diet for your dog.

This type of medicine takes many years of additional training in addition to being a licensed veterinarian. Make sure your holistic veterinarian has received extensive training and certification in the modalities you are seeking for your dog’s care. A good resource to find a local holistic veterinarian is the American Holistic Veterinary Medicine website VetFinder:

Jenny Taylor, D.V.M., graduated from UC Davis Veterinary School in 1995 and later trained in acupuncture, herbal therapies, and homeopathy. She has been practicing integrative veterinary medicine for 18 years. Taylor opened Creature Comfort Holistic Veterinary Center in Oakland, where the doctors offer a unique balance of holistic and traditional veterinary medicine in one location, 15 years ago.

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