Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine Right for Your Dog?

Is complementary and alternative medicine right for your dog?
By Lisa M. Gillespie, April 2009

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.


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“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.

As a puppy, Powell fell onto his back from a six-foot-high concrete abutment. Since there were no broken bones, bleeding or detectable internal injuries, our conventional vet declared him “fine” after a brief exam. But as years passed, Powell developed unsteady hindquarters and an exaggerated curve at the injury site, and a touch on his back near the affected area would elicit a low growl of pain. Would a CAM treatment plan have spared our dog discomfort and decreased mobility in his later years? At this point, of course, it’s hard to know. But as a general rule, rather than waiting to start treatment after an injury or illness, periodically consulting a CAM practitioner for the equivalent of “well puppy” check-ups can also be beneficial.

What Are the Options?
Canine CAM options are as varied as those available to their human counterparts. Reiki, massage, herbs, acupuncture, chiropractic, nutrition—you name it, there’s probably a practitioner willing to offer it for your dog (see the sidebar for sources of more detailed information on a range of approaches). What follows is an overview of three of the more popular modalities: veterinary acupuncture, homeopathy and chiropractic care.

Acupuncture is actually one facet of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a 3,000-year-old healing system. Though acupuncture is the most familiar to Westerners, TCM also utilizes acupressure, herbal medicines and food therapy to achieve balance in people. With certain modifications, these same treatments have been effectively used with dogs.

Dr. David Gilchrist, B.V.Sc. (Hons) Dip AC, has both taught and used acupuncture in his Australian veterinary practice since the late 1970s. He explains that the Chinese believe that when an animal or person is healthy, there is an efficient circulation of “chi” (energy/life force) along well-defined channels (meridians) on the skin. These meridians overlay important vascular structures and are connected to internal organs, muscular and joint structures, and the nervous system. An imbalance or interference with this flow can result in heath problems. By stimulating certain points along the meridians, usually with thin needles or a special laser, the practitioner manipulates the chi, activating physiological processes that help the body restore its own health.

Dr. Gilchrist says that acupuncture is especially effective with “all sports medicine complaints, including muscle tears, bruising, joint damage, aches and pains.” This applies to racing animals in particular, but also to any performance animal.

“Common conditions such as hip dysplasia, cruciate rupture, attitude/anxiety/biting, epilepsy, kidney dysfunction also respond well,” he continues. “Failing eyesight can be improved, dry-eye eliminated, the cardiovascular system improved, chronic infections nonresponsive to antibiotics (such as chronic cystitis) can be resolved…” Says Dr. Gilchrist, “The list is really endless.”

Homeopathy is a subtle and complex, modality that treats the patient at the energetic level. Homeopathic remedies are ultra-diluted preparations of common, sometimes even toxic, substances. Though diluted to the point that little to none of the original material remains, they retain the imprint or “frequency” of the original substance in an energetic form. The remedy works on a deep level, stimulating the body to initiate its own healing process

Homeopathy can be a decidedly puzzling approach. Whereas it’s fairly easy to make the connection between symptom and treatment with other CAM practices—your dog falls, you take him to a chiropractor, or your dog has a digestive problem and you consider acupuncture (though technically, either of these conditions could be treated with a variety of CAM options)—homeopathy seems almost counterintuitive, working on subtler, more systemic levels and following a different healing model than that to which most people are accustomed.

Case in point: A key principle of homeopathy is “vital force,” which is believed to be responsible for maintaining the body’s state of balanced health. To a homeopath, all symptoms a patient exhibits are a reflection of an imbalance in this vital force. As the vital force strengthens, the symptoms disappear. Understanding the role of the vital force is essential to understanding homeopathy. Additionally, since homeopathy heals from the inside out, a homeopathic vet may give your dog a remedy for an internal organ problem and, as the organ imbalance clears up, a skin condition develops. The homeopath considers this a good sign; the imbalance is working its way to the surface and eventually out of the system—the vital force is strengthening.

Homeopaths don’t treat symptoms, per se. Indeed, they believe that treating an individual symptom may drive the problem further into the system, suppressing it. Dr. Larry Bernstein, VMD, PC Hom, who has been using CAM in his Florida-based veterinary practice since 1991, specializes in homeopathic treatments. Using the example of a dog with inflammatory bowel disease, he explains how suppression works. In his experience, the conventional treatment for IBD—three to 12 months of cortisone, sulfa drugs and specialized diets—weakens the vital force. While the symptoms may lessen or disappear, often the dog will develop liver problems later. From the homeopath’s perspective, the conventional treatment of a relatively superficial problem has resulted in a more serious condition.

What conditions are ideal candidates for treatment with veterinary homeopathy? All are, according to Dr. Bernstein. Really? “Well, homeopathy won’t set a broken leg, but it will help it heal more rapidly,” he good-naturedly amends. “It’s not so much the particular condition, but how badly you’ve already beaten up the vital force,” he explains. “We end up being the ‘court of last resort’ for so many cases ... if we were the ‘court of first resort,’ while symptoms were still minor or before invasive treatments, a dog’s vital force wouldn’t be so terribly weakened.”

Chiropractic treatment involves applying force to the joints to restore motion and reduce pain and muscle spasms. Dr. Kevin Haussler, DVM, DC, uses chiropractic alone or with other treatments at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where he is an assistant professor. He recommends chiropractic for animals who are generally healthy but have musculoskeletal weaknesses, arthritic conditions and back pain.

Assuming that the dog is stabilized, “most acute injuries (falling down stairs, being hit by a car) with subsequent neck stiffness and back problems tend to resolve very fast with chiropractic,” says Dr. Haussler. “Maybe only two to three treatments, and the dog will be fine.

“But most of the cases that I see are chronic arthritis problems, dogs that have spondylitis or arthritis in their back or other areas, and those conditions took eight to 10 years to develop. Obviously, [they] are not going to go away overnight. From a chiropractic perspective, it’s more of a maintenance thing.” Dr. Haussler recommends two to three treatments initially, a week or two apart, to help the animal feel better. Treatments then taper off to monthly or every other month, depending on the dog’s response.

Dr. Haussler finds chiropractic care more effective than the conventional veterinary tactic of prescribing anti-inflammatories. While anti-inflammatories lessen pain and reduce swelling, they won’t resolve stiffness or musculoskeletal imbalances. The long-term effects of not correcting the structural problem can result in less range of motion, difficulty moving, a wide variety of compensatory injuries and general discomfort for the dog. I certainly found this to be the case with Powell.

Risks and Considerations
Most veterinarians interviewed felt that there were few contraindications for CAM care. They did point out, however, that it is important to determine what’s appropriate for your dog’s specific condition.

“Immediate, life-threatening emergencies such as snake bite, road trauma, acute infections, eclampsia and the like require ... regular veterinary interventions,” says Dr. Gilchrist. “Having said that, there are specific acupuncture interventions that are often life-saving while waiting for veterinary treatment to commence.”

Dr. Narda Robinson, DVM, DO, Dipl. ABMA, FAAMA, founder and director of continuing education programs in complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM) at Colorado State University, is concerned about the trend of non-vets treating dogs. “There’s no profession, other than veterinarians, that has adequate knowledge of animal health and disease,” she says. “So often we’re seeing non-veterinarians making recommendations on diet, giving supplements that are really inappropriate for animals or doing procedures that can result in injuries. Veterinarians have the understanding of when an animal is in pain [and] what to do if something goes wrong.”

Dr. Haussler takes a more moderate view on the subject of selecting a CAM practitioner. “Ask about their training. Make sure that if the person working with your dog is not a veterinarian, he [or she] is at least a licensed professional, whether a [human] licensed massage therapist, [human] physical therapist… As long as they’re working together with a veterinarian, I think that’s great.”
I did end up getting acupuncture for Powell, which improved his stability during the last months of his life. But what if years before, I had known about the myriad complementary and alternative choices available? Would chiropractic adjustments, a homeopathic remedy or acupuncture at the time of his injury made his later years more comfortable? It’s too late to know in Powell’s case, but the time may be right for your dog. If nothing else, CAM’s varied, gentle and less invasive treatment protocols offer options, and if you’re facing hard choices about your dog’s health, isn’t that good to know?


Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 33: Winter 2005