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The Role of Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine

dreamstime_stpat1These types of therapy should be administered by a qualified veterinarian, or in some instances, under the guidance of a licensed vet familiar with the modality (system). Explanation of the nature of the therapy, and expected outcomes should be understood before treatment begins. Some of these techniques are not supported by scientific studies and are sometimes divergent from American Veterinary School curricula.

Acupuncture and chiropractic modalities are probably the most studied and are quite widely prescribed, though our understanding of how they work is still the subject of active research. Physiotherapy has become much more widely applied in the last few years, and the benefits and underlying mechanisms of action are fairly well understood.

There are many modalities included in the fields of complementary and alternative medicine.

These include:

  • Acupuncture, acutherapy
  • Chiropractic manipulation
  • Homeopathy
  • Nutraceutical therapy, supplements, vitamins, trace minerals
  • Botanical medicine (herbal medicine)
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Flower essence therapy (Bach flower remedies)
  • Aromatherapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Magnetic therapy
  • Applied kinesiology (physiotherapy)
  • Bioenergetic therapy (Reiki, Tellington Touch)

Many of these modalities can be used in combination with conventional western medicine to obtain optimal results. It is important to find a practitioner who is comfortable with, and qualified/knowledgeable if you elect to use alternative therapies.

A holistic practitioner approaches the animal as a whole and evaluates the animal’s entire situation when treating the animal and his disease. This includes diet, environment, exercise, stress, disease symptoms, and other entities. The practitioner may use a combination of the alternative and complementary medicines listed above in addition to conventional western medicine. The goal of holistic practice is to detect and prevent disease, enhance wellness, and not just fight disease.

Let’s take a brief look at some of these alternative and complementary medicines.


Veterinary acupuncture has been used in China for over 3,500 years. It is the stimulation of specific points on the surface of the body (superficial muscles and skin) most commonly by inserting thin, sterilized stainless steel needles. Acupuncture points can be stimulated by heating the point (moxibustion), by electrical stimulation (electroacupuncture), by injecting a solution into the point (aquapuncture), and more recently by low power laser stimulation.

Acupuncture works primarily through the central nervous system and affects other systems of the body including the hormonal, musculoskeletal, and cardiovascular systems. It relieves pain and improves the function of these systems. According to Chinese philosophy, acupuncture balances the Vital Energy of the body (called “Qi”), helping the body to heal itself.

Acupuncture may be used in a wide variety of disorders. These include gastrointestinal disorders, including chronic constipation; respiratory problems, such as feline asthma; allergies; arthritis; musculoskeletal disorders; chronic pain from injuries; skin diseases; and diseases of the nervous system such as traumatic injury to a nerve, certain types of paralysis, and seizures. Dr. Allen Schoen, D.V.M., M.S., a world-renowned veterinary practitioner skilled in veterinary alternative medicine, has used acupuncture with success for treatment of cats with chronic cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) and bladder dysfunction secondary to nerve damage following trauma as well.

Veterinary acupuncture is not a cure-all, but it works well when used either alone or in combination with conventional medicine. Discuss this modality with your primary veterinarian. He or she can refer you to a qualified veterinary acupuncturist. Your veterinary acupuncturist must be a licensed veterinarian and should have completed formal training in veterinary acupuncture.

Chiropractic or Spinal Manipulative Therapy

Veterinary chiropractic, or veterinary spinal manipulation therapy, is the movement of joints to correct alignment and return the body to its normal, healthy state. Exactly how it works is still unclear, but it helps stimulate receptors in the nervous system, changing nerve impulses in the spinal cord, inhibiting pain pathways, and restoring proper function of the nervous system.

A chiropractic adjustment is a short, sudden manipulation, usually done with the practitioner’s hands. The American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) acts as a certifying agent for doctors who have successfully completed extensive chiropractic training. They are Doctors of Chiropractic (DC) or Doctors of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). Before you seek chiropractic therapy for your cat, you should consult with your veterinarian for a complete workup and referral. Most state laws dictate that non-veterinarians must work with oversight by a licensed veterinarian in order to treat your cat. Conventional western medicine is often combined with chiropractic therapy for best results.

Some feline conditions that may be helped by chiropractic therapy include arthritis, painful joints, neck pain, muscle spasms, and pain from injuries or trauma. Some metabolic dysfunctions may also be helped by chiropractic therapy.


Homeopathy is a complex mode of therapy. It was founded over 200 years ago (in about the year 1800) and means “treat with a similar disease.” Its central principle is “like cures like.” A homeopath’s (practitioner of homeopathy) main focus is on the animal’s attempts to respond and heal his own body. The homeopath uses specially prepared extremely diluted doses of substances (called “remedies”) that are capable of producing similar symptoms in healthy animals.

The symptoms of the sick animals are matched to the remedy or remedies. When given to the sick animal, they are purported to stimulate the body’s natural defenses so the body works harder to heal itself and get well. The homeopath carefully monitors the patient’s progress. The remedies are made from plants, minerals, and animal substances. The most effective remedy is one whose proven effects are most like your sick cat’s symptoms.

Homeopathy may be used to treat acute and chronic diseases in cats such as allergies, skin conditions including feline psychogenic alopecia (baldness), gastrointestinal problems, cancer, and respiratory system problems such as feline asthma, among others. Much more research is needed in cats. Only licensed veterinarians can practice homeopathy. Consult with your veterinarian in order to obtain additional information about a homeopathy referral.

Nutritional Therapy, Nutritional Supplements, and Vitamins

Many medical problems can be helped with proper nutrition, nutritional supplements, and vitamins. Some holistic practitioners recommend a natural, balanced, homemade diet. Proper diet and natural supplements can support the immune system and help treat your cat’s food allergies, chronic renal disease, arthritis, chronic skin disease, chronic infections, heart disease, and more. Good nutrition and natural supplements can help support your cat while he’s undergoing treatment for cancer. The vitamins and supplements are numerous, but include vitamins A, E, and C; glucosamine; chondroitin; bioflavonoid antioxidants, and Coenzyme Q10, just to name a few. Certain minerals are also very helpful. Consult with your veterinarian or a holistic veterinarian to learn more about using these therapies properly.

Botanical Medicine (Herbal Medicine)

There are several concerns expressed about this modality including variability in herb quality and source, varying percentage of active ingredients, pesticide contamination, and drug interactions. Definitive dosages are not known for cats. Also, cats often have serious reactions to medications that other species routinely tolerate, and some herbs may be toxic in cats.

Herbsmay be helpful in the treatment of heart and circulatory problems, muscle, bone and joint conditions, behavior problems, digestive conditions, skin diseases, and immune system problems. Before using any herbal product on your cat, make sure to consult with a qualified holistic veterinarian, or a conventional veterinarian educated in botanical medicine.

Bach Flower Remedies

In the early 1900’s, Dr. Edward Bach, an English physician, identified 38 English flower essences. He believe the essence (“vital force”), or energy, of different flowers would help balance the vital force of his patients and aid in the healing process by improving their emotional state and immune system.

Currently, no adequate research studies have been completed to document the mechanism of action, effects, or success rate of these essences. Only anecdotal reports of possible successes are published. These are not homeopathic, herbal, or aromatic in preparation. However, Dr. Allen Schoen has seen success in his practice with the use of Rescue Remedy or Trauma Remedy. He reports that animals are calm and less afraid when the product is used in stressful situations. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian prior to using flower essence therapy on your cat.

Many other modalities of alternative and complementary medicines are becoming popular. Research needs to continue so more therapies can be recommended, and used safely. Combining the best of alternative and complementary medicine with conventional medicine may be an excellent option for your cat’s health care. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian for a referral to a practitioner trained in alternative and complementary medicine.

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