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Holistic Medicine for Your Pets

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Holistic medicine can improve your pet's health without chemicals or invasive processes. After having surgery to correct a herniated disk in his neck, Asko, a 115-pound German shepherd, couldn't walk. So, the dog's veterinarians took an integrative approach -- one that involved giving the canine traditional pain medications along with more holistic approaches, such as antioxidants, heat therapy, and massage. And it worked.

"It was so wonderful to see his owners' reaction when they called to Asko from our office lobby and he started walking to them,'' said Dr. Kim Danoff, one of the vets at the Veterinary Holistic & Rehabilitation Center (VHRC) in Vienna, Va., who treated Asko.

This, Danoff and others agree, is the power of holistic medicine -- a more natural and less invasive approach than conventional therapies to treating and preventing illness. It's becoming a highly sought alternative for a growing number of pets and their owners.

"When I first started my practice [almost 10 years ago], I mostly worked with older animals who were ready to die,'' said Karin Serejski, owner of Holistic Pets in Silver Spring, Md. But more and more owners are seeking alternative therapies for their pets in much earlier or more moderate stages of illness.

From acupuncture to good nutrition

While holistic practices can be varied, they do share a few common denominators: For one, they're decidedly less expensive than more invasive techniques like surgery. For another, they each aim to restore alignment between energy and body systems. Following are some of the most common methods:


Acupuncture is derived from traditional Chinese medicine, and its practitioners insert tiny needles into "meridian'' points on the body that, once stimulated, release endorphins, enkephalins (substances that are  the body's natural pain killers), and other chemicals into the system. In turn, these substances can relieve pain, improve healing, strengthen the immune system, and increase circulation.

"I like acupuncture for pain relief more than anything else, especially for orthopedic issues like hip dysplasia and arthritis,'' said Danoff. "We've also had really good success using it to treat animals with gastrointestinal problems like poor appetite and motility, vomiting, and chronic bowel disease.''


A Japanese healing method, Reiki moves energy from one life force to another by focusing on the seven chakras - or energy centers - close to major nerve branches in the body. When they're closed and out of alignment, it's a sign that the energy in that part of the body is either depleted or unbalanced. To restore it, practitioners place their hands over the spot and visualize the transference of healing energy. This promotes healing and relaxation, strengthens immunity, relieves pain, and prevents disease.

"Reiki is great for hospice animals that just need to relax,'' said Danoff, adding that anything else would be too much because they've usually been through so much already.

Chiropractic care

Chiropractic care seeks to keep the vertebral bones of the spine in alignment and avoid subluxations. When the vertebrae are out of position, abnormal function can result and symptoms develop. (Some animals that have vertebral subluxations sit with their rear legs out to one side, appear uncomfortable or sensitive to touch, or show a change in coordination.) Chiropractic care can also provide alternatives for other conditions commonly treated with medications and surgery, such as arthritis and hip dysplasia.


Massage can be very relaxing for animals that have arthritis in multiple joints or trouble getting around, say experts. It works by improving blood flow and, in the process, reducing pain, improving circulation, decreasing anxiety and stress, and supporting the immune system.


Something more common, but no less powerful, is a nutritional approach to healing. At VHMC, for example, Danoff uses chinese food therapy to help owners best address their pets' nutritional needs. It dictates that all foods have an associated energy of hot, cold, or neutral.

"If I'm treating an animal that's too hot, for example, as evidenced by red skin, panting, and a warm nose, I'll recommend cooler foods like turkey,'' she said, adding that chicken, lamb, and venison are hot foods.

She also uses supplements - like Echinacea for immunity, ginger for stomach problems, and an herb called valerian for stress - to prevent and treat illness.

Flower essences

When introduced into the body, flower essences may have the ability to release past and present fears, traumas, and anxieties. "Everything in nature has a therapeutic value,'' said Serejski, who uses these essences to alleviate depression and memories of abuse. "And so does each plant and flower have medicinal properties that can heal the physical, emotional, and spiritual in the animal.''

No matter what the approach, Serejski and Danoff agree: While holistic techniques can do wonders for animals, they are best paired with conventional therapies for the best results.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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