Traditional vs. Alternative Veterinary Care

So what exactly is the difference between traditional veterinary care and alternative veterinary care?  There are many different ways that we, as veterinarians, can treat our patients and the real difference between traditional and alternative care is simply the approach used to treat a specific illness or ailment. I want to give you a brief overview of some of the treatment options that are available.

Firstly, there is the traditional veterinary practice which includes the majority of veterinarians in the Kansas City area.  In these practices, thorough our physical exams, bloodwork, x-rays and other diagnostics we try to find out what is causing the problem.  We then use things like surgery, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and other medications to address the problems.  This is what most people think of when they think of taking their animal to the vet.

So you’re asking what exactly are the other options and alternative treatments?  There are four main areas that I would like to address in this article.  These are herbal medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic, and nutritional therapy.  These treatment options have the most credibility and are more widely accepted in the veterinary community as valid treatment methods than other alternative treatment options such as color, sound, light therapy, reiki, qi gong, reflexology, therapeutic magnets, and homeopathy.

Herbal medicine includes the use of both western herbs and Chinese herbs.  Herbs can be used for any condition that could be treated by conventional western pharmaceuticals. In my experience however, there are some diseases/ailments that respond better to pharmaceuticals and some that respond better to herbs. 

Herbal medicine, in general, takes a bit longer to start working but can address the underlying cause of the issue instead of masking the symptoms. When the root cause of the problem is treated the secondary symptoms will resolve accordingly.  Herbal therapy is usually continued for weeks to months by adding powders or tablets to the dog/cat food and is changed according to the needs of the animal.

Acupuncture is the insertion of needles into specific points of the body to elicit physical or chemical changes.  Some of the changes include change in pain sensation, decreased inflammation, decreased blood pressure, muscle relaxation and the release of hormones.  It can be used for a wide variety of issues such as pain and arthritis to such things as urinary incontinence, allergies, chronic GI problems, immune system disorders and intervertebral disk disease (IVDD).  There is a recent veterinary article in JAVMA citing dogs treated for back problems (IVDD) that shows better results with acupuncture than with surgery.1.

Acupuncture can be used as the sole means of treatment or in conjunction with other types of therapy.  It is variable from patient to patient and dependant on their response to the needles.  Treatments are initially performed anywhere from once daily to once weekly and then tapered off as their response changes. Acute sprains or strains will often resolve in a few days to weeks and chronic conditions such as arthritis or allergies will often require maintenance treatments that vary from once a month to every six months.

Chiropractic therapy is also used in veterinary medicine with more frequency than in the past. It is mainly used for musculoskeletal pain in veterinary medicine and follows a schedule similar to that of acupuncture with more frequent visits at first and tapering off as indicated by the patient.

Nutrition is the last “alternative” treatment modality to be covered in this article. There has been a lot of advancements and research in the U.S. in the last 20-30 years regarding nutritional requirements for animals. This has lead to the prevention of a number of nutritional diseases such as heart disease in cats caused by taurine deficiency and the formulation of therapeutic diets that will help with dissolution of crystals or stones in the bladder. These kinds of diets have helped countless numbers of animals.  There are also many animals that are getting too many carbohydrates and fats along with a lack of exercise which leads to an increasing number of obese pets and weight related health problems such as arthritis and diabetes.  By providing high quality nutrition including food, vitamins, minerals, and supplements many diseases can be successfully controlled or even reversed.

So the question is when to use traditional medicine and when to use alternative medicine.

For acute conditions or very severe medical conditions such as infections with high fevers, congestive heart failure, or seizures I tend to reach for western pharmaceuticals because they are very powerful and will have an immediate impact on the patient’s condition by relieving pain and suffering and possibly saving their life. 

 For more chronic conditions such as recurrent skin and ear infections, allergies, or things like hip dysplasia and arthritis, I prefer to use herbal medicine or a combination of both traditional and alternative medicine. These are the types of conditions that have not developed overnight and are not going to be resolved overnight by giving a pill either. 

Arthritis or hip dysplasia is a great example of where traditional and alternative/complimentary medicines can join together to benefit our patients.  We can use anti-inflammatory drugs such as Rimadyl or Deramaxx to decrease pain and inflammation, nutrition for weight loss, supplements such as glucosamine/chondroiton to protect cartilage in the joints and acupuncture to decrease pain and inflammation and to relax the surrounding muscles.

Many people in the United States are not aware that there are alternative options for treating their pets.  As both human healthcare and veterinary care evolve, many of the “alternative” treatments will become more mainstream and gain acceptance in the United States.  Please remember one of my favorite quotes when thinking about treatment options for your pet’s health. 

"It does not matter whether medicine be old or new, so long as it brings about a cure.
It matters not whether theories be eastern or western, so long as they prove to be true."
--Jen Hsou Lin, DVM, PhD—

1.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
June 1, 2010, Vol. 236, No. 11, Pages 1225-1229
doi: 10.2460/javma.236.11.1225

Comparison of decompressive surgery, electroacupuncture, and decompressive surgery followed by electroacupuncture for the treatment of dogs with intervertebral disk disease with long-standing severe neurologic deficits

Dr. Michael Tarrant practices an integrative approach to veterinary medicine for dogs, cats, small animals and exotic species. For more information call Arbor Creek Animal Hospital at 913-764-9000 or visit the website at:

This article was written for the July 2010 issue of Metro Pet Magazine