Maggie was in trouble. A urinary-tract infection had taken a sudden and devastating turn, and her kidneys edged toward total shutdown. An intensive course of antibiotic treatment failed to make a difference, and as the strong medication wreaked havoc on her stomach lining, Maggie quit eating altogether. Her vet offered little hope for recovery. Then the owner of the 11-year-old golden retriever tried a staple of holistic veterinary medicine: homeopathy.
Never mind that there's a lack of research showing that homeopathy works in humans, let alone animals. Many of a new breed—holistic vets—swear by it. Within a week of starting some homeopathics, plus a special diet and a concoction of herbs, goldenrod, nettles, dandelion, and protein, Maggie started to improve, owner Tracy Rose says. One year after Rose reached out in desperation to Wendy Volhard, a dog trainer and the senior author of the Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog, Maggie is thriving.
"My vet was shocked," says Rose, of Culpeper, Va. Like a growing number of pet owners around the country, Rose is now a convert to holistic veterinary medicine, which advocates a natural diet, fewer vaccines and mainstream medicines, and such alternative therapies as homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and Reiki healing. "I use homeopathy for myself," says Rose. "Why not my dog?"
The hitch is that most alternative treatments have not been scientifically validated; indeed, many that have been tested in humans have proved to be ineffective or to have a placebo effect. More rigorous research is needed, says veterinarian Craig Smith, the complementary-care expert for the American Veterinary Medical Association, a group that represents more than 78,000 vets. "The AVMA recognizes the interest in and use of these treatments and is open to their consideration," Smith says. But the group "doesn't accept acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, or homeopathy as verified methods."
Even so, holistic vet practices have been gaining traction. Membership in the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association in Bel Air, Md., has more than doubled in the past decade, to around 2,000, and hundreds of other vets have been certified in these therapies. Meanwhile, top veterinary schools such as Tufts University and Colorado State University have been developing programs in alternative medicine. "I believe in a team approach across the disciplines," says Regina Schwabe, who integrates 30-plus years of clinical veterinary experience with advanced training in acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy at Pamplin Animal Wellness Services in Pamplin, Va. "There are many cases where you need a trauma center. You need surgery. You need antibiotics to knock out the infection. These new treatments are another tool in the veterinary toolbox."
Here are three alternative veterinary medicine approaches you're likely to encounter:
1. Acupuncture. This practice, which stimulates specific body points aligned with the central nervous system and related to various internal organs with fine needles, is increasingly popular at vet clinics across the country. It's used to treat a range of conditions from joint disease to kidney failure to allergies and more. "For paralyzed animals and those suffering from arthritis, it can make a big difference in returning to mobility," Schwabe asserts. "Even in conventional practices, it's often used in tandem with analgesics and prescription drugs to help speed healing and relieve pain during and after a surgery."
Not surprisingly, it's hard to verify with the patient that acupuncture works. "It's all subjective," says the AVMA's Smith. "While many people treating pets with acupuncture report success, there isn't any data that proves it works." The 20-minute treatments can run from $40 to $85 a pop, and multiple sessions are needed to start—typically six over a period of as many weeks. After that, appointments can be sporadic tuneups.
2. Fewer vaccines. For many years, a set of annual vaccinations has been considered necessary for dogs and cats. The holistic approach typically advocates a lighter schedule, which is a bone of contention between conventional and holistic vets. But many experts see a link between overvaccination and chronic problems such as autoimmune disease, leukemia-lymphomas, arthritis, thyroid disease, and persistent skin problems.
Studies by vets such as Ronald Schultz, professor and chair of pathobiological sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and W. Jean Dodds, the president of animal blood bank Hemopet/Pet Life-Line in Garden Grove, Calif., and an authority on blood and immune disorders, thyroid disease, and nutrition, have repeatedly demonstrated the long-lasting effect of many of the core vaccinations. Schultz, who has been conducting controlled studies since the 1970s, has found that the vaccines that protect against life-threatening diseases are essential for all dogs, but not on a yearly basis. His studies demonstrate that with the exception of the rabies vaccine, others (for canine distemper, canine parvovirus type 2, and canine adenovirus type 2) trigger an immunology memory of at least seven years. Rabies shots last three years, which is the interval now required by law in most states.
Proceed with caution, though. "The benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh any risks," says Elizabeth Curry-Galvin, AVMA director, scientific activities. Her recommendation: Talk to your vet to devise a customized vaccination plan.
3. High-quality diet. Most vets agree that proper exercise and high-quality nutrition are the secret to an able-bodied pet. Pets seem to recover from illnesses faster and stay healthier on balanced diets made from the best ingredients.
Since the 2007 pet-food recalls heightened consumers' concerned about pet-food safety, demand has soared for special natural and raw diets such as the B.A.R.F. diet and natural/organic brands, including Breeder's Choice, Castor & Pollux, Evanger's, Natural Balance, Newman's Own Organics, and Old Mother Hubbard. The special Natural Diet Foundation dog food Maggie switched to, developed 30 years ago by Volhard, consists of dehydrated oats, wheat bran, chicken liver, carrots, molasses, and cod liver oil mixed with water, and topped off with a protein such as raw ground beef or salmon. Top marketers Nestlé Purina, Mars, and Procter & Gamble (Iams) have begun offering natural pet foods, too. According to Packaged Facts, a consumer market research firm, sales of natural pet food in the United States reached $1 billion in 2007, up from $558 million in 2003. By 2012, the market is expected to top $2 billion.
These higher-priced formulas are usually made from certified organic grains and vegetables; and chicken, beef, or lamb that has no added hormones and is antibiotic free. Even celebrity cook Rachael Ray launched a superpremium brand of dog food in July. Rachael Ray Nutrish's main selling point is that the No. 1 ingredient is real chicken or beef and that there are no fillers or artificial flavors. Added to her dish: omega fatty acids, a blend of fiber, antioxidants like vitamin E, and a dash of "evoo" (extra-virgin olive oil).
The problem is that there's "lots of opinion but no scientific evidence of a benefit for pets to any of these all-natural diets," says Lisa Freeman, a researcher at Tufts University. "There are no legal definitions for holistic, human grade, organic, or premium," she argues. "These are primarily marketing terms," Freeman says, "and owners should be skeptical."