What is Holistic Wellness for Pets – and How Can it Help Your Pet?

Penny A. Watkins-Zdrojrewski
© May 2014

I am an animal wellness counselor, one of a growing group who practice holistic wellness.  But what does this mean, and how can it help your pet?

WHAT DOES “HOLISTIC WELLNESS” MEAN?

The word holistic comes from the Greek “holos,” meaning whole or entire.  Holistic practice is also known as integrative practice.  Holistic methods are often called alternative methods.

Simply put, holistic wellness looks at the being as a whole – the sum of its body, mind, emotions, and spirit.  Holistic practitioners believe that each aspect of a being is connected to, and interdependent on, the other.  In order to achieve optimal wellness, each aspect must be addressed as it relates to others and is a part of the whole.

Western, or allopathic, medicine looks at conditions individually and treats the symptoms with procedures or medications that have side effects.  Effective holistic methods look at the whole being, it’s individual symptoms, parts, factors, underlying causes, and environment as they relate to the whole, to create a plan to restore optimal, overall well being.

WHY IS HOLISTIC CARE IMPORTANT AND HOW CAN IT HELP?

Because holistic care looks at the whole animal, everything that is done with your pet is intended to promote their overall, integrated wellbeing, rather than just treating individual symptoms.  Holistic care providers look for root causes of problems and how they may be affecting other parts of your pet and your pet’s overall wellness.  By working to influence root causes, it is often possible to improve wellness in multiple areas.  For example, many behavior problems are caused by underlying physical problems, such as pain.  Managing the pain can lead to positive changes in behavior.  The goal is to help your pet to be the healthiest, most integrated, fully balanced being he or she can be.

Holistic care includes veterinary care, nutrition, the home environment, natural methods and remedies, training, and all other aspects of your pet’s life that may affect their wellness.

WHAT ARE SOME HOLISTIC CARE METHODS AND TECHNIQUES?

Some holistic care practitioners may specialize in only one method or technique, while others will use a combination.  Holistic Veterinary Care should integrate traditional wellness methods with one or more of the methods discussed below.

Entire books have been written on each topic.  This article includes a summary of some of the most popular practices.  In future articles, I will discuss a single practice in greater depth.

Some of the methods used by holistic care practitioners are:

Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy

Nutritional Therapy is the use of properly prepared foods and nutritional supplements in order to maintain or reestablish a state of optimal health, as well as to influence specific health and behavior concerns.

When properly formulated and administered, nutritional therapy is compatible with, and can enhance, traditional medicine and all forms of holistic care.  Side effects include allergic reactions and temporary digestive distress.

Herbal Therapy — Western, Chinese, or both

One of the oldest forms of medicine, herbal therapy is the use of plants or plant extracts for medicinal purposes, especially plants that are not part of the normal diet.  Herbs are used in both Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine and Western practices.  Most herbalists use only Western or Chinese herbs and practices; few use both.

Chinese herbalism is discussed in the section on Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine below.  Western herbalism has traditionally focused on single herbs, although herbal blends are increasingly popular.  Various forms in which herbs may be prepared and used are: infusions (teas), syrups, oils, liquid extracts, distillations (tinctures), pills, capsules, or sprinkled on food.  Plants are not diluted during preparation.

Herbs can be combined with most traditional medicine and holistic therapies.  Some herbs negate some homeopathic preparations.  Overdoses and toxic reactions can occur, so it is best to consult a certified professional before using herbs.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the use of fragrance to influence the health of the mind, body and emotions.  Fragrances are conveyed by essential oils – the part of plant that carries the fragrance, or essence.  Oils may be used singularly or in combination formulas.  They are administered as a spray, by diffusion, or topically.  True aromatherapy uses only therapeutic grade, non-synthetic essential oils.  Fragrances found in candles and other “aromatherapy” products do not produce the benefits of essential oils, and may cause negative side-effects.

Aromatherapy combines well with most forms of holistic care, but may negate some homeopathic preparations.  Side-effects generally include allergic reactions; it is possible to use amounts that may be dangerous.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy is a system of medicine which treats the pet with highly diluted substances.  The aim is to trigger the body’s natural healing system, based on the doctrine of “like cures like,” by which a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease will cure the same symptoms.

The remedies are prepared by repeatedly diluting a chosen substance, usually plant or mineral, in alcohol or distilled water, followed by forceful striking on an elastic body.  Remedies are labeled with a number, followed by the letter X or C; the higher the number, the higher the potency.  Homeopathy also employs the “law of minimum dose” – the lower the dose of medication, the greater its effectiveness.  Various forms in which homeopathic remedies are found are:  liquid; ointments; gels; drops; and creams.

There are two schools of theory, which are at odds with each other.  In classic homeopathy, only a single remedy is used.  In the other school, remedies are combined into various formulations.

Homeopathy may be safely combined with western medicine, flower essences, and body work.  Some aromatherapy and herbal preparations will negate the effects of homeopathic preparations.  There are no side effects and no risk of overdose.

Flower Essences, such as Bach Flower Remedies

Developed by Dr. Edward Bach in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the premise of Bach Flower Essences is that healing on an emotional level will allow a body and mind to find its own natural state of health.  Remedies work in the same way for pets and humans.  The system is designed to be simple; with a little careful research, anyone can choose and use flower essences for their pets.

Essences are made from flowers or other parts of plants, which are steeped in sunlit water or boiled.  They are then preserved and diluted several times to create “stock” bottles of essence that can be purchased in many health food stores and online.

There are 38 remedies in the original Bach system.  Each is associated with a basic human emotion.  For example, Mimulus is often used for a pet who is anxious or afraid about something specific; taking the remedy helps to overcome fear and face it with courage.  Several other organizations and companies have developed additional flower essences, building on Bach’s original work.

Most remedies come in a liquid form.  They may be used singly or combined to create a mix to match a pet’s current emotional situation.  Rescue Remedy, a popular blend of 5 essences, is available in cream, gel and pill form.

Flower essences have no known side effects, do not interact with other techniques or traditional medication, and cannot create overdoses.

Tellington TTouch Training®

Developed by Linda Tellington-Jones, Tellington TTouch® Training is based on the principals of mind-body communication.  It uses gentle, non-invasive techniques to influence the body and the mind, promoting self-awareness, self-confidence and optimal wellness.

The goal of TTouch is to achieve or reestablish balance – physical, mental, and emotional balance.  Through the combined use of specific, light touches, lifts, and movement exercises, TTouch helps to: release tension and increase body awareness; reduce stress; create a calm, attentive, focused state of consciousness; and influence habitual patterns of tension and posture by giving new information to the nervous system.  This allows the animal to be handled without provoking typical fear responses; to relax and learn to make better choices; and to build confidence.  As a result, physical conditions are generally improved and problem behaviors are often eliminated.

The techniques work in conjunction with veterinary care, traditional training, and all forms of holistic care, and have no known side-effects.

You can read more about TTouch® here.

Massage Therapy

Both a preventative measure and a treatment for problems, massage therapy is the skilled manipulation of muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue.  A passive modality, it focuses on body mechanics to support and resolve issues in the muscular system that may be having a detrimental effect on mobility, mood and quality of life.  It can help with orthopedic issues like Arthritis, Hip Dysplasia and Spondylosis by supporting the muscles that move the bones.

Massage therapy can: increase flexibility, mobility and circulation; encourage deeper breathing and help flood the body with fresh oxygen and nutrients;  stimulate the release of endorphins, which are natural painkilling chemicals; and reduce stress and blood pressure levels in both pet and guardian

Massage therapy can help with behavior issues; by increasing a pet’s comfort in its body, there is often a decrease in unwanted behavior.

Guardians do best to use only gentle massage on their pets, and have a certified professional perform deeper or problem-focused massage, unless given specific techniques by a professional.

Massage therapy can be combined with all other forms of holistic care.  Side-effects, if they occur, are generally some temporary bruising or minor pain.

Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM, or TCM)

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the theory that all organs and systems of the body work together in balance.  Illness, whether physical or emotional, is caused by imbalance. While TCM has been practiced in eastern cultures for more than 2,000 years, it is still considered an alternative practice in the west.

TCM uses a complex system of elements, principles (yin/yang, interior/exterior, cold and hot, deficiency and excessive), and environmental influences to determine what treatments will be most effective.

The main therapeutic methods in TCM are Acupuncture, Acupressure, Herbs, and Diet.  Acupuncture works with meridians that flow through various parts of the body and connect each part.  Thin needles are inserted at these points to affect organs, systems, and energy flow, or qi (pronounced chee.)  Acupressure uses the same meridians and points, with fingertip pressure applied instead of needles.  Chinese herbs are prescribed to strengthen weak or deficient functions and/or to calm down organs and systems that are excessively functioning.  Herbal combinations are tailored to individual needs.  Dietary recommendations are based on the guidelines above, and use foods to support organs and system, and re-establish the balance of the body system as a whole.

Acupuncture, acupressure, and food therapy are compatible with western medicine and all forms of holistic care.  Some herbs may negate homeopathic care.  Treatments and recommendations should be done only by a certified practitioner.

Healing Touch for Animals®

An energy-medicine modality, Healing Touch for Animals (HTA) combines philosophies, techniques, and applications to promote energy balance and healing, while providing physical, emotional, mental and instinctual stability.

It works on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels, and is used to help treat injuries, illnesses, surgeries, wounds, behavioral problems, and stress-related issues.

Influencing well-being through energy and intention, the goal of Healing Touch is to restore harmony and balance in the energy system to help the person to self-heal.

Energy medicine therapies are used to integrate, balance and clear the energy body.  Stabilizing the energy system allows the natural regulation of the immune system, which encourages the healing process and promotes well-being.  Some of the tools and techniques used include touch, energy work, essential oils, and tuning forks

Most components of HTA are compatible with traditional and all holistic practices and have no known side-effects.  Some essential oils will negate homeopathic methods.

Reiki

Originating in Japan, Reiki is a hands-on healing method.  Reiki is usually translated as “universal life energy”.  It is based on the idea that all living beings have life energy flowing through them. When life energy is high, a pet is healthy and balanced, more relaxed and less likely to get sick.  When it is low, he’ll often be more easily affected by stress and less resistant to illness.

The practitioner channels healing energy through her hands to the animal through a light touch, either directly on the body or from a distance.  Reiki is recommended for treating pain, anxiety and behavioral problems; can be calming; and can help ease the transition for a peaceful death.

Reiki is compatible with all forms of western medicine and holistic practices and has no known side-effects.

Emotional Freeing Technique (EFT)

EFT is an energy method that combines acupressure tapping with focused thought.  It borrows from the Chinese meridian system to determine tapping points.  The points and focused thought aim directly at emotional issues, in turn, often providing benefits for performance and physical issues.

EFT is compatible with all forms of western medicine and holistic practices and has no known side-effects.

Behavior Evaluation and Modification

Behavior Modification is the systematic approach to changing behavior, especially the way a pet reacts to a particular situation (or stimulus).  The goal of behavior modification is to decrease or eliminate problem behavior and/or to replace undesirable behavior with desirable behaviors or habits.

Evaluations are generally performed by a certified animal behaviorist or certified veterinary behaviorist.  Some holistic practitioners have extensive training in but are not specifically certified as behaviorists.  Because health and behavior are linked to each other, addressing one can help with the other.  In some cases, it is necessary to consult a veterinary behaviorist for accurate evaluation and diagnosis.

The behaviorist will ask questions as well as carefully observe the pet.  They will evaluate what the pet does and when, as well as consider the internal, physical and biochemical processes that are occur prior to or in conjunction with the behavior.

Based on the pet’s history and their own observation, they will design an intervention plan to address problems.

Techniques generally use one, or a combination of: operant conditioning; classic conditioning; and counter-conditioning.  Some forms of conditioning help to provide the animal with an alternate, appropriate behavior, such as chasing a toy instead of their human’s feet.  Counter conditioning is often used for behaviors associated with phobias, such as fear of thunderstorms.  Techniques help to reduce anxiety and stress and their associated organic and chemical reactions in the body.  Prescription medications or natural remedies may be recommended to support physical processes and enhance the modification techniques

Behavior Modification itself is compatible with all forms of western medicine and holistic practices and has no known side-effects.  When used, most prescription medications will have side effects.

Species-Appropriate Training

Training is an important part of holistic wellness because it decreases stress, reduces confusion, improves communication, and enhances the relationship between pet and guardian.  Training needs vary for different species.  A rabbit may need little more than housetraining.  Cats and dogs need some understanding of the house rules, and both can benefit from knowing some basic directions such as “wait, off, and come.”  Some basic training can make grooming and veterinary visits easier and less stressful.

Training enhances all forms of traditional and holistic care and has no side-effects.

Cleaning, Household Cleansers, and Disinfectants

Cleaning and sanitizing pet bowls and pet bedding regularly helps prevent allergies and various diseases.  The products that are used on these items, as well as elsewhere in the home, can have a very strong effect on pet health and behavior.  Therefore natural products are preferred.

Most holistic techniques work well together, but some do not.  Because a trained professional should know which methods work together, and which may work best for your pet, it is wise to consult a professional before making any changes to your pet’s care.  Traditional veterinary care is important to overall wellness, and your veterinarian should be notified of any changes you make.

HOW CAN YOU START YOUR PET ON A PATH OF HOLISTIC WELLNESS?

When it comes to your pet’s wellness, you are in charge.  Ultimately, you decide which practitioners you want on your team and what food, activities and treatments your pet receives.

  • Ask the basic questions: What does my pet need? How can I give them what they need?
  • Read a few articles or one or more books to become familiar with basic concepts.
  • Attend a class on holistic care.  For my next Holistic Wellness class, see the schedule here.
  • Contact a holistic veterinarian.  If there is not one in your area, find one farther away and ask if they are able to consult long-distance.
  • Contact a holistic wellness counselor.  Ask questions.  Call.  Email.  Make an appointment, stating in advance that you are seeking information.  Most pet professionals are invested in the well-being of animals and in your success.  They want to help and will be willing to get you started on the path that is right for you and your pet.  Contact me for help.
  • Ask professionals to consult with each other.  A good professional care provider will want to know what others are doing, how it may be helping, and how it may affect or change what they are doing.
  • Add one method at a time.  Choose what you think may be best for your pet, taking into account how much time and energy you will have to spend to implement it.  Give that method a little time to work before deciding whether to stay with it, or before adding another method.  Changing too many things at once can be confusing for you and can confuse your pet’s body and mind.  If you add several things at once, it will be difficult to determine what is working and what is not.

HOW DO YOU FIND A HOLISTIC CARE PROVIDER, and WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU DON’T HAVE ONE AVAILABLE IN YOUR AREA?

  • Ask trusted friends for recommendations.  Ask what type of care their pet received and how it helped.
  • Contact me for services that I offer and for referrals those that I cannot.
  • Contact other pet professionals and ask for recommendations.
  • Look in health food stores for flyers, business cards, and holistic resource guides.
  • Check the American Holistic Veterinarian Medicine Association registry for a holistic vet in your area.

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