A lot of people come to me because they want their animals treated in a more natural way but what does that actually mean? Does it mean using therapies like homeopathy or herbs or does it mean raw feeding or stopping vaccinations? Some people aren’t very sure but they just want their animals off chemicals. While I totally agree in principle, I also think we have to be careful not to throw out years of medical advances and treatments. If I broke my leg and had to have surgery I would very much like some morphine thank you and if my child had meningitis, I would be first in line for antibiotics. Also, natural doesn’t always means safe, the market for supplements is mostly unregulated and there have been plenty of cases of products sold as natural either being completely ineffective or in some cases actually toxic.
Before you all think what is this holistic vet doing warning against natural products, what herbal tea has she been drinking this morning, let me explain! I think a more useful way to approach health care is to think about a holistic approach.
To reduce it to its simplest level, holistic basically means whole, so holistic health care is looking at the whole animal not just its current symptoms or disease. What does this entail? One definition says;-
‘holistic health care is a system of comprehensive or total patient care that considers the
physical, emotional, social, economic, and spiritual needs of the person and his or her
response to illness…’
Blimey, that sounds a bit complicated and how do I apply it to Derek the Dachshund who’s just walked into my consulting room? Let me give you a couple of examples of how this might work. Firstly, I had a friend who had problems with her knees; her doctor referred her to an orthopaedic specialist who diagnosed early stages of arthritis and put her on non- steroidal anti-inflammatories and suggested she may need a knee replacement when older. Job done. She then started having an irregular heart beat so the doctor referred her to a cardiologist, she was diagnosed with an arrhythmia and given heart tablets – cardiologist’s job done. She then started to feel thirsty and tired, went to the Doctor who did blood tests and discovered she was diabetic. She was referred to the hospital and diabetic clinic and started on insulin – job done. So now she’s taking drugs for her knees, drugs for her heart and insulin; unsurprisingly, she starts to feel quite depressed about the whole thing as she’s only in her 40’s, so she went back to the doctor who put her on antidepressants. She would have continued in this way, if it hadn’t been for a perceptive young Doctor at one of the diabetic clinics who started to join up the dots and said that maybe there was an underlying cause to all these problems. After more tests and it turned out my friend had haemochromatosis, a genetic condition where you have too much iron in your blood which can lead to joint pain, heart problems, tiredness and diabetes. She is now being treated for that which included looking at her diet and lifestyle as well as all the individual symptoms. She is happier – off the antidepressants and painkillers and her diabetes is under better control.
How might this situation be reflected in animals? Well, I used to see plenty of cases every week in general practice. Take for example Arthur the old dog who had a cough, the cough responded well to a short course of steroids, which had to be repeated. He got older, the cough got worse, he was given more steroids and then eventually was put on them all the time. The steroids made him put on weight, so his joints started to degenerate and he was given painkillers to help, then the steroids eventually caused a condition called Cushing’s Disease and he was put on drugs for this. Arthur went from being a perky little terrier to a slow sluggish obese dog and I’m sure if he could talk, he would say that he was depressed. Arthur ended up in a similar position to my friend on several different drugs treating several different symptoms.
This is all very well but holistic health care talks about the mind and the body, how do we know what the spiritual and emotional needs of Derek the Dachsund are? I think we can apply some of the same principles. I bet all of you reading this would say that your pets have a personality, and they have likes and dislikes? I would also guess that you know what makes them happy or sad. So there we have some clues to the mind as well as the body, the other really important factor is that your pet is part of your family and the whole family may be affected by social, economic and emotional factors that may also be needed to be taken into consideration.
This is starting to sound more complicated; Doctors have a hard enough job getting to the bottom of a problem and their patients can talk, it’s twice as difficult for vets, not only do we have to find out about the animal but we also have to find out a little about their relationship with other family members and a bit about the family too, all in a ten-minute consultation! Can you imagine the pressure for vets having to do all this every ten minutes for several hours every day? And going back to Arthur, the reason steroids were used so frequently with him was because his owners couldn’t afford other more expensive treatments or a diagnostic work up. So, finances also play a part in deciding treatment options for animals.
Carrying on with Derek as our example, what factors affect him that we could look at when thinking of a holistic approach?
I think, diet, environment and lifestyle are the big ones, then other interventions in our animals’ lives include parasite control, vaccinations and neutering.
Derek the Dachshund, lives with a nice family in a nice house, so that’s a lot better than some animals for a start. Better than Princess the Persian for example, whose owner thought it was a good idea to feed the local strays as well and ended up with Scarface and Claws living in the house and now Princess lives on top of the wardrobe in her owner’s bedroom terrified to come down and spends most of the time anxiously overgrooming herself, ending up with bald spots so her owner takes her to the vet, and the vet gives her a shot of steroids and she gains weight and …. you’ve guessed the rest!
Derek has a nice family, he gets taken for walks in a nice warm coat (he has several outfits in fact), he sleeps on his owner’s bed and gets fed nice food. Quite a lot of nice food actually. His owner thinks that dry kibble doesn’t look very interesting so she adds some chicken to it and then some sausages and of course Derek must have a treat when he’s a good boy and of course he’s a good boy a lot of the time, so he gets a lot of treats. Then Derek starts to go off his kibble and looks at his owner with his big brown Dachshund eyes and his owner starts cooking especially for him, his favourite is cottage pie, mince and gravy. Derek is happy and his owner is happy but the next time she takes him to the vet, the nasty vet says, Derek has put on 2kg in a year and is too fat! How can Derek be too fat, he doesn’t eat the horrible kibble, he only eats the best home cooked food, what does the silly vet know. I guess the vet knows that in 5 years Derek could be suffering from weight related medical issues like arthritis, heart disease and quite possibly diabetes. Luckily, Derek’s owner is actually mortified that Derek could become ill through her best intentions and is open to a discussion about more healthy food options.
So next week’s instalment in Derek the Dachshund’s journey to health is how to give him a nutritionally balanced, appetising food that he enjoys and that his owner feels good about too.