The choice of Conventional vs Complementary...is it cut & dried?
All veterinary practitioners (conventional or not) would agree that the most successful way to combat a health disorder is to understand what the cause is, and how it manages to overcome or bypass the animal’s natural defences
Holistic health care is more about helping the animal to heal itself, by making available the best environment to enable this to happen.
Conventional veterinary medicine uses scientific principles and techniques to diagnose and treat illness. However, complimentary, alternative or integrative veterinary medicine covers a wide variety of systems of diagnosis and treatments, and are often ‘holistic’ recognising the interplay of mind, body and spirit – something which is not easily measured.
In veterinary practice, most conventional vets treat all medical problems in the same ‘Fire Brigade’ way – if there is a fire burning, douse it as quick as you can, and my personal experience seems to bear this out, in so much as my pet dog has now seen the vet on four occasions – for cystitis, an eye infection, a ripped ear and a split paw. Each visit we were prescribed the same range of anti-biotics or non-steroidal anti-inflammatorys, and in most cases were given both!
In some cases, such as managing physical injury and trauma, or acute bacterial and fungal infections, this is by far the best treatment. However, for more chronic (long term) conditions such as allergic disorders or chronic paid and degenerative disease, it is much better to try and tackle the root of the problem, which oftentimes cannot be done by prescribing traditional medicines which merely act to suppress the disease symptoms.
As a result many pet owners are now turning more to complementary therapies to avoid keeping their pet ‘drugged up’ without fully knowing or understanding the side effects, and to avoid the sometimes astronomical vet’s bills
Towards the end of Louis Pasteur’s life he confessed that germs may not be the cause of disease at all, but may simply be another symptom of disease. He had come to realise that germs seem to lead to illness primarily when the person’s immune system was not strong enough to combat them implying that there is a whole dimension underlying pathology, that conventional medicine has not even looked at yet.
So how does an animal’s natural defence system work?
White blood cells are the ‘attack soldiers’ of the immune system. An efficient immune system recognises and destroys internal danger such as cancer cells, and external pathogens such as viruses. Some immune system cells produce antibodies to neutralise harmful microbes. Bone marrow, thymus glands, lymph nodes and the spleen are all internal elements of the immune system, but the skin and gut lining are by far the largest components. There is a natural balance at work here, any change to this balance can cause serious illness - such as the introduction of drugs which suppress the natural role of the immune system weakening it and leaving your pet open to other illness, or the use of medicines which cause the immune system to overreact leading to auto-immune disease where the immune system starts to attack its own body tissues (typically seen with vaccine reactions and over use of antibiotics).
A conventional veterinarian looks for clinical signs and symptoms - a raised temperature, unusual heart and lung sounds, resentment when its backs or joints are manipulated. Animals cannot tell us their symptoms, so the vet has to rely completely on what he sees, and is looking for information that fits recognised patterns which allow them to name your pet’s problem.
Treating the clinical signs of disease is then simple. If the dog has a cough, give him an anti-tussive; if the cat is vomiting give an anti-emetic; if a patient has an allergic reaction prescribe an anti-histamine.
However, this is actually suppressing the animals natural defences, and forgetting that animal’s immune systems have evolved over thousands of years to provide a first line of defence in injury and illness. When an animal has diarrhoea, or is vomiting or urinating frequently it is the animal’s natural way of clearing toxins from its body. When an animals natural defences are suppressed like this so is its immune system – as far as your pet is concerned it does not have to do the job itself so the immune system effectively ‘takes a rest’, leaving it weak and the pet open to further infection. In addition by simply suppressing the symptoms you may not have actually cured the disease!
An incorrect diagnosis based only on clinical signs can easily lead to incorrect medication prescription, and often on a trial and error basis. How often have we all been to the Vets and been told
“We will start them on this, as a process of elimination..”
For holistic vets, the presence of recognisable clinical signs is important but the absence of an accurate diagnosis is less of an obstacle to treatment, as complementary vets have both general and specific therapies to hand. In addition to clinical signs, the patient’s personality, its medical history, environment and diet are also a vital part of diagnosis. Quite often, an animals clinical signs are not seen as the problem but are seen as only a reflection of the problem rather than the problem itself.
In both situations errors in diagnosis can occur, leading to iatrogenic illness or injury. However with a wider range of diagnostic ‘tools’, a view of a wider picture, and a less invasive method of healing, as stated earlier it is less likely to occur within the field of complementary medicine. It is widely accepted that the more natural a therapy, in so far as its general purpose is to aid the body to heal itself rather than using interventionist means to simply remove sickness symptoms, the less likely the incidence or opportunity for iatrogenic distress.
However, it must be emphasised that this does not make one form of medicine safer than the other.
All risks must be assessed and the situation fully evaluated before deciding what is best for your pet. Many complementary therapies in themselves are however only available to pets once their vet has referred them. And I strongly support working with your local veterinarian with any supporting therapies to ensure that there is a comprehensive approach taken. In this way we can continue to encourage people to integrate the positive values of both forms of treatment.
So the conclusion should always be there is no Conventional vs Complementary - you must do the best you can for your dog, and never discount either option... and that is why they are called complementary therapies!!
Our next set of blogs will give you an overview of the main complementary therapies that are available and effective for use with your pets.