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Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine Right for Your Dog?
Is complementary and alternative medicine right for your dog?
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Powell, my aging Dalmatian, had severe back and hip problems. Negotiating even shallow stairs sorely challenged him, and a light bump could cause him to collapse in a heap. Heart heavy, I’d watch him try to stay upright on the same trails he had trotted happily upon in the not-so-distant past. Supplements and meds from the vet had little effect—I had to find an alternative treatment plan or make some hard decisions. Thus began my exploration of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) options for dogs.

In 2004, 62.1 percent of people surveyed by the National Institutes of Health claimed to have tried some form of CAM within the previous year. A 1998 Harvard University study estimated that Americans made over five million visits to acupuncture practitioners alone, and it’s likely that current numbers would be at least as high. Considering these trends, it’s not surprising that dog lovers would also seek more treatment options for their pets.

But if you’ve never used CAM yourself—or even if you have—how do you know what’s right for your dog? Here’s a place to start.

What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?
CAM is an umbrella term covering a wide variety of approaches to restoring or maintaining health. Modalities (methods of treatment) include Traditional Chinese Medicine, chiropractic, bodywork and massage, energetic medicine such as homeopathy and Bach flower essences, botanical medicine/herbs, as well as miscellaneous therapies.

“Complementary” refers to therapies used in addition to conventional/Western medical approaches. “Alternative” refers to those used instead of conventional treatment. Though often considered “nontraditional,” many CAM remedies are actually centuries old. Acupuncture, for example, has been used on animals for thousands of years. In the long run, these treatments tend to be as effective and less invasive as many of the conventional medical approaches.

A fundamental difference between CAM and Western medicine is that CAM treatments work from the inside out. Using a holistic model, CAM considers the entire patient: lifestyle, diet, attitudes, emotions (AKA “body/mind/spirit”). CAM practitioners see their role as correcting imbalances in the system to stimulate the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

Conversely, Western medicine works from the outside in and is rooted in the idea that healing occurs through the use of external interventions, such as pharmaceuticals or surgery. It’s based on an allopathic model, one that concentrates on curing individual symptoms with remedies whose effects counter those of the disorder; this certainly has its place, especially in acute care and emergency medical situations.

Time is also an issue. Since CAM modalities work to balance the entire system, they may require more time to work than those used in Western medicine. While some CAM treatments do show immediate results, others, especially those combined with lifestyle changes, strengthen the system over time. Westerners, accustomed to having symptoms disappear—or at least moderate significantly—soon after taking a pill, may grow impatient while the body heals itself. But, as CAM practitioners caution, treating individual symptoms doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. It may, in fact, mask an underlying condition.

Why Consider Canine CAM?
If your dog is plagued by ailments and you’ve tried everything your traditional vet has to offer, CAM offers some promising options. And since the treatments are less invasive, there tend to be fewer side effects. But instead of waiting to try CAM last, there’s also merit to using CAM at the time of an injury, something I wish I had thought to do with my own dog.

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