When humans look for a general practitioner to take care of our healthcare needs, we have a lot of options. Doctors can specialize in many things, including different medical approaches like “traditional Western” medicine or “alternative” medicine.
The same is true for our furry friends. When selecting a veterinarian for your beloved pet, whether you're dealing with dog cancer or cat cancer, you’ll probably find a wide range of vet types that practice various forms, from conventional medicine to holistic medicine. But one kind of veterinary practice, called integrative veterinary medicine, has gotten more exposure recently and could offer new ways of providing healthcare to our pets.
Understanding conventional vs. holistic medicine
Conventional veterinarians focus primarily on biochemistry, physiology and anatomy to identify and treat pet’s health ailments. Much of conventional medicine is centered around treating the symptoms of illnesses, most often using pharmacological medications or surgery.
One criticism of conventional medicine is that it doesn’t always seek to treat the root cause of pet ailments. Another is that conventional medicine can sometimes over-medicate pets without considering natural alternatives.
Holistic medicine, on the other hand, is a form of alternative medicine that’s all about treating the pet not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Holistic medicine focuses on identifying the root of a health problem and solving it at its source, potentially using alternative and natural treatment methods in the process.
There are a lot of forms of “alternative” medicine, and not all vets will practice each one. Overall, holistic medicine focuses on nurturing health, not just treating conditions or diseases.
Integrative medicine: What is it, exactly?
“Integrative medicine” sounds complicated, but in reality, it’s a relatively easy concept. Put simply, integrative medicine combines conventional medicine with supporting treatments from alternative medicine. In many cases, integrative medicine offers the best of both worlds to help our pets stay happy and healthy.
What integrative medicine does is combine multiple veterinary efforts to provide a comprehensive approach to veterinary care. The practice uses the most effective treatments from a variety of medical practices. For example, if a pet breaks their leg after a dangerous fall, conventional medicine is needed to provide the surgery and medications to help the leg heal. However, alternative treatments like chiropractic or acupuncture may also be suggested to help your pet manage the side effects and healing process more easily.
Alternative treatments are often referred to as “complementary” medicine, or treatments to complement a conventional approach. In some instances, conventional treatments are passed over in favor of trying an alternative approach first to allow noninvasive treatments or treatments with fewer side effects to have a chance to work. These treatment methods are still science- and research-based, but they may not always fall under the umbrella of “conventional.”
Integrative medicine also incorporates healthy lifestyle habits that are designed to improve pet wellness as a whole. These might not be treating a particular symptom, but they may help pave the path for future health and even minimize the risk of health problems later on. Thus, integrative medicine is often more than just medicine.
The result is veterinary care that is much more holistic—that focuses on our pets’ bodies, as well as their minds and spirits. Integrative medicine has the potential to improve our pets’ quality of life and find alternative “cures” or treatments to problems that conventional medicine alone cannot solve.
Integrative medicine is often used on pets suffering from cancer. Because there is no cure for the disease, a combination of methods is generally used to give pets the best possible chance at a high quality of life.
Benefits of integrative veterinary medicine
Taking your pet to a veterinarian who practices integrative medicine may offer many benefits.
- Care beyond medication: Many pet owners are wary of the frequent prescription and administration of conventional medication like antibiotics and vaccinations. While there are plenty of situations in which these conventional treatments are necessary, integrative medicine may offer natural, alternative solutions to your pet’s ailment first to avoid over-medicating.
- More might be done: Pet owners whose furry friends suffer from incurable or chronic health problems, like cancer or chronic pain, may one day be told by conventional veterinarians that there isn’t any more they can do to help the pet. Conventional medicine has its limitations, since many ailments do not have a known cure or proven treatment plan. However, integrative medicine opens the door for the possibility of other forms of treatment that can surprise pet owners with their effectiveness. Using complementary treatments may help improve the quality of life of pets who have already undergone all the existing “proven” forms of treatment.
- A holistic approach: Integrative medicine’s overall goal is to improve pet wellness from the inside out and solve problems at their source. Whether your vet helps your pet achieve total-body, mind and spiritual wellness through conventional or alternative approaches, you can be certain that your pet’s whole self is being taken care of—not just one symptom.
It’s important to note that while integrative medicine can open the door for other potentially effective forms of treatment for our pets, not all alternative treatment methods are safe or effective for all pets. Be sure to carefully research your veterinarian to ensure they are highly trained and experienced, and never engage in a holistic treatment plan on your own without discussing options with your vet, so your pet remains as safe and happy as possible.