For many pet owners, the mention of holistic medicine conjures up images of incense-filled rooms with baskets of herbs and a multitude of candles.  But, increasing numbers of pet owners actually seek out veterinarians who incorporate alternative or complementary therapies in their practice.  Is there science to support their beliefs?

In our westernized society, alternative forms of therapy and medicine are often viewed with suspicion and occasionally, outright disbelief.  Practices like acupuncture, acupressure or even homeopathy have many critics.  Still, when it comes to resolving their pets’ ills, some pet owners are willing to take a chance on a non-traditional treatment.

Holistic medicine is generally defined as medical care of the whole pet, including environment, social and personal factors as opposed to the focus of treating just the disease.  Integrative medicine embraces both conventional Western styles with holistic practices.  Many people refer to non-traditional medicine as alternative or even complementary medicine. 

These non-conventional approaches include therapies as diverse as acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic care, and traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM).  Some veterinarians, like Dr. Aleda Cheng, a TCVM practitioner and certified veterinary acupuncturist, go as far as including “high-tech” procedures such as stem cell therapy and cold laser pain relief under the alternative umbrella.  As Dr. Cheng says, “all of these treatments help the body heal itself”.

For some pet owners and even some veterinarians, thinking about alternative medicine for their pets has come about from personal experiences.  Integrative veterinarian, Dr. Patrick Mahaney says that his own use of complementary remedies helped him incorporate their use in his patients.  Dr. Mahaney describes moxibustion, or moxa acupuncture to help drive heat into the patient.  Using the herb, mugwort, practitioners burn the herb and apply it directly to the patient or with acupuncture needles.  Mahaney says, “My goal is to increase the energy movement, which in turn increases blood flow, oxygen levels and the release of toxins from the body.”

Although practices such as herbal medicine and homeopathy might be recognized by the public, other therapies might sound a little more exotic.  Prolotherapy (injecting solutions into tendons or ligaments to promote new cell growth), kinesiology (muscle therapy) and Tui Na (a Chinese manipulation) are less well known, but are also used by some alternative medicine veterinarians.

For all holistic veterinarians, slow acceptance and the potential for scorn and ridicule have been part of their journey.  Dr. Cheng says a former employer refused to let her practice “hocus-pocus” medicine.  Thankfully, she was able to find another boss, Dr. Brian Voynick, himself a certified veterinary acupuncturist, and build a thriving practice. 

Considerable skepticism still remains for these alternative therapies.  Although the site is geared towards human medicine, has made its mission to disclose health related frauds.  Many of the therapies mentioned above are discussed in detail on this site.  The major opposition centers on a lack of controlled scientific evidence and dubious diagnostic and therapeutic standards.

But, it’s hard to argue with individual success stories.  Dr. Cheng relays how a German Shepherd, decorated for his work on 9/11, suffered from a painful degenerative spinal disease.  The acupuncture treatments she performed allowed this dog to continue his search and rescue career, free from lameness and pain.

The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) is also trying to combat the “lack of evidence” argument.  Through certification processes and collection of case studies, IVAS hopes to bring acupuncture into the mainstream of practice.  For pet owners seeking acupuncture, the IVAS seal is an important credential.

Dr. Voynick cautions that it is important for alternative practitioners to “be a veterinarian first and get a diagnosis”.  He tells story of a limping dog whose owner went to a human chiropractor.  After four chiropractic treatments, the dog was still lame and acupuncture was recommended.  Dr. Voynick saw the dog on referral and found that his left rear leg was painful and swollen.  After taking x-rays, it was determined that the dog had an aggressive bone cancer!  This is not something holistic therapies could have treated.

Pets, like their human caretakers, are individuals and despite lack of scientific evidence, it is possible that some animals may respond to these treatments.  Even though he is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and noted author on alternative therapies, Dr. Doug Knueven reminds owners that “integrative medicine is most beneficial for the pet”.  He also believes many complementary treatments are more mainstream than people realize.  “Glucosamine was once alternative medicine”, he says, “but now is widely accepted.”

When your pet is ill or suffering, make sure you and your veterinarian can reach a diagnosis for your pet before rushing off to try a novel treatment you heard about on the Internet.  If you have a strong belief that a holistic approach would benefit your pet, discuss this option with your veterinarian.  To learn more about other alternative treatments visit the Pet Health Library at  You can also participate in interactive holistic medicine forums at