Alternative therapies have become increasingly popular in recent years, but their use in veterinary medicine is not without
controversy. As the use of these therapies has become evermore popular in the general population, and because they have proven
to be effective, it has become commonplace to see some of them used in professional practices, both human and veterinary.
Other alternative medicines are being used by many people (for themselves and/or their pets), but some of these have not yet
received broad-based acceptance.
Examples of the more accepted alternative medicines would be acupuncture and chiropractic. An example of an alternative method
that is perhaps less accepted in the veterinary field might be the shamanic approach to soul retrieval. Aromatherapy and Flower
Essences (Bach Flowers) are examples of medicines readily available to the general public and to practitioners alike.
Practitioners who use alternative medicines may combine them with Western medicine techniques, or they may use one or more
of them almost exclusively. Some holistic practitioners use a variety of alternative methods, and they might use them exclusive
to any Western medicine; others stick to one or perhaps two core alternative methods to enhance their Western medicine practice.
Practitioners have thus come to use terms such as complementary medicine or integrative medicine to describe the way alternatives
are used in their particular practice, and in the case of human medicine CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) has
become a popular term.
Comparing and contrasting alternative medicines with Western medicine
While it is impossible to lump all types of alternative medicines into one format, there are some generalities that apply
to most alternative medicines.
•As a rule, alternative medicines are "wholistic", and they are applied to the whole animal: body/mind/emotions/spirit. In
other words, while a disease may manifest itself in one part of the body, an alternative practitioner would be concerned about
how other parts of the whole body were affected by the disease process. And, in addition to attempting to heal the physical
aspects of a disease, alternative medicines try to alleviate problems that may be coming from mental, emotional, or "spirited"
(i.e. the vital principal or animating force within living beings) sources.
•Alternative practitioners are more likely to assess the whole environment of an animal, believing that an animal's physical
and social environment has huge implications on overall health and disease.
•Rather than using Western medicine's paradigm of specifically attacking one "agent" as the only cause of the disease, alternative
medicines tend to act by trying to balance the patients overall bodily protective and healing systems. That is, alternative
medicines try to balance the animal's whole body defense systems, and they tend to rely on the animal's innate ability to
heal itself ... once it has been given the opportunity to do so.
•Alternative medicines often work with the "energetics" of an animal, and their usage is meant to enhance this innate or inner
vital force so that it can provide health and healing. An example of this is acupuncture, where needles are used to move the
animal's "chi" (the body's inner energetic or animation) so that its forces are balanced throughout the body.
•Some of the ways alternative medicines work are difficult, if not impossible, to measure. Chi, for example, can be felt,
and with the proper instrumentation it can be measured, but it is not an easy entity to put a statistical number on. Alternative
medicines, and especially the way they work, may therefore be difficult to quantify using Western medicine's methodologies.
•Many alternative medicines use diagnostic and treatment approaches that are totally foreign to the Western practitioner's
frame of reference. To an acupuncturist, for example, arthritis may be the result of a blockage of chi through the affected
joint, and the treatment will be aimed toward returning a normal flow of chi through that joint (via acupuncture needles and
perhaps nutrition, exercise, massage, and/or herbal medicines).
•Alternative medicine practitioners focus on curing the disease in its entirety, claiming that Western medicine often focuses
on suppressing symptoms instead of dealing with more hidden, underlying disease causes.
•Alternative medicine's way of evaluating the success of treatments may be different from Western medicine's methodology.
For example, an animal may be greatly improved clinically after being treated with one of the alternative medicines, but its
blood chemistry values may remain abnormal.
•Since alternative medicines attempt to work by healing the whole body, unexpected beneficial side effects are often noted.
An example would be the dog being treated with acupuncture and herbs for a liver condition might become much less angry and
difficult to handle.
Side effects from alternative medicines
Anything that has the ability to heal or cure ... also has the ability to cause harm. This holds true for the alternative
medicines, although most practitioners report far fewer adverse side effects than they previously observed when using Western
medicines. It also holds true – in both Western medicine and the alternative medicines — that the better qualified the practitioner,
the better the results will be without untoward adverse side effects.
In addition, there are some alternative therapies, especially some of the herbal remedies – depending on how they are used,
that may interfere with the actions of the Western medicines. In this case it behooves the practitioner to know how and when
these interferences may occur.
Do the alternative medicines work?
Again, we can only generalize here, but here are some observations:
•Alternative medicines can be effective for treating many diseases, but as a rule they do not work as quickly as some of the
Western medicines do. It may take 30 days or more before beneficial results are seen when using herbal medicines, and it typically
takes three or four chiropractic or acupuncture treatments before real results are seen. While some diseases may respond rapidly
to an appropriate alternative medicine, as a general rule, you won't want to call for an herbalist if you've just been hit
by a car.
•Many of the alternative medicines have not been studied with the same statistical scrutiny that Western Medicine uses. In
addition, much of the scientific work done on alternative medicines has occurred in Europe or the East, and it can only be
found in obscure, foreign language journals. Finally, many of the studies done in this country have been done under Western
medicine's paradigms, and alternative medicines oftentimes use very different methods of approach, diagnosis, and assessment.
On the other hand, many of the alternative medicines have been used for thousands of years or more by millions of people around
the world. Whether we choose to admit it or not, the anecdote continues to be an important engine of novel ideas in medicine.
There is a long history of anecdotal and case history evidence revolutionizing medical treatment.
As but only one example, it was the anecdotal observation of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis that led to the discovery that washing hands
reduced post-partum mortality, decades before germs were even "discovered." Today's observant doctors recognize that their
own experiences, and the experiences of their patients are just as essential to good diagnosis, treatment and patient care
as are double-blind, peer-reviewed study results. No matter how wide the perceived rift between the science of doctoring and
the art of doctoring, and no matter what the new technologies may deliver unto us in terms of more precise tests and life-prolonging
therapies, the work of caring veterinarians will always necessarily take place at the intersection of science and the language
and the stories that our clients (and their animals) bring to us.