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.
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 dog’s needs. A holistic approach looks at the reasons your pet is ill or out of balance and focuses on fixing the underlying health problem. Most holistic veterinarians use the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbal therapies to heal your pet on a deeper level and get to the root of the problem.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is an ancient approach to wellness that originated in China thousands of years ago. As a whole, TCM’s overall philosophy encompasses a broad range of approaches, including acupuncture, massage, and dietary therapy as well as Chinese herbs.
The earliest evidence of TCM dates back to the Shang Dynasty. At the time, both TCM and its veterinary counterpart, often referred to as Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, or TCVM, were developing side by side, because people relied on animals for transportation, food, and assistance with work.
The philosophy of TCM is deeply rooted in Taoist teachings. These teachings encourage an understanding of the natural world and its influence on the body. One of the central ideas of Taoist philosophy is the concept of opposing but mutually dependent forces, Yin and Yang. These two forces represent opposite ends or aspects of everything but can never exist without each other. The gentle balancing of these forces creates and maintains life. Without this balance, bad things occur. A TCM practitioner is taught to recognize and manipulate these two forces within the body to maintain or restore balance.
This holistic view of the body allows a TCM practitioner to not only address symptoms but to also attempt to fundamentally alter the balance within the body. Symptoms can be treated, but the practitioner is always striving to restore the delicate balance of Yin and Yang. If balance is restored, symptoms should not return and no further treatment is needed. This is known as treating the “root” of the problem, not just the “branch” (or symptoms). This is in contrast to modern medicine where the approach focuses on eliminating the symptoms while never identifying the underlying dis-ease, and inevitably the symptoms return again and again.
In TCM, herbs are rarely prescribed singly but are combined into formulas. Each herb is carefully selected for a different purpose. Formulas may consist of only three or four herbs or more than 20. Because there are thousands of different combinations, subtle differences in symptoms and disease disharmonies can be addressed.
Herbal formulas are not meant to work like pharmaceutical medicines, which create strong and rapid effects. Instead, their effects are gentle and slower, but the underlying purpose is always to help restore balance. They do not necessarily work directly to abate symptoms, but rather fix the underlying problem so symptoms simply go away.
TCM herbal prescriptions are usually not available over the counter; they are prescribed by trained practitioners or doctors. The herbs used in these prescriptions are from the same companies as those used to treat humans. They have been tested for purity and quality and are safe and effective when used with minimal to no side effects when prescribed and used appropriately.
Chinese herbs can be used to treat most conditions recognized by conventional medicine. They can be used alone or combined with other therapies for an enhanced effect.
Often a TCM herbal formula and a conventional prescription will be used together. There’s no need for an either/or decision; both have their place; we’re now fortunate that we can add TCVM and Chinese herbal use to conventional veterinary medicine. Using Chinese herbs often allows your vet to decrease the amount and/or frequency of stronger pharmaceutical drugs that have harsh side effects— especially important when an animal needs long-term support, as is often the case with arthritis. A dog can enjoy the benefits of Chinese herbs for years, without the negative side effects that come from drugs like Metacam or Rimadyl, which can then be held in reserve for times when pain is most severe. Chinese herbs let you save ‘the big guns’ for when you need them.
TCM herbs are especially helpful in the treatment of chronic diseases and diseases of the geriatric dog. They can be used to relieve pain, help improve and restore organ function, as well as strengthen and support the immune system. TCM herbal prescriptions are specific for the individual patient and are directed at the root cause of an illness to correct it, and are not given to control symptoms alone.
In general, TCM herbal prescriptions must be given for longer periods than pharmaceutical drugs because we are attempting to treat the underlying problem and not just clear the symptoms, but the benefit lies in their natural ability to gradually return the body to a state of balance and health, without side-effects. Clinical results from TCM herbs can be seen in three days to two weeks depending on the formulation; full effect can take longer.
Herbal medications come in a variety of formulations: pills, tablets, capsules, liquids, tinctures, and concentrated herbal extracts in powder or granule form. The formulation depends on the of condition treated and the species.
Herb Therapy Guidelines
General considerations: The age, weight, condition, and type of disease present will affect the dosage of herbal medication prescribed.
Administration: Typically administered to dogs twice a day mixed in with food or in a special treat.
Duration: In some cases, for an extended period, such as months or years.
Response time: Usually a positive response can be seen within three to 14 days providing the correct Chinese medicine diagnosis has been made and the appropriate herbal formula selected.
Therapeutic monitoring: Blood tests and traditional exam findings along with Chinese veterinary medical examination (tongue and pulse diagnosis) recommended from once every seven to 14 days up to every four to eight weeks.
Side effects: Occasional GI upset, vomiting, diarrhea.
Uses: For a multitude of problems, including allergies, arthritis, anxiety, immune system support, cancer, and others.
Final thought: Because Chinese herbs include thousands of different plants that usually work best in combinations, ally yourself with a veterinarian well versed in TCVM. Ultimately, Chinese herbs can be profoundly healing.
Jenny Taylor, D.V.M., founded Creature Comfort Holistic Veterinary Center in 2001 in Oakland. Creature Comfort offers traditional Western medicine and surgery integrated with holistic therapies. Visit CreatureComfort.com for more information.
Main article photo by: Freer Law/iStock