Collaborative Integrative Care

When speaking of "holistic" or "integrative," people often imagine particular methods – perhaps acupuncture or herbs. But being holistic means an openness to all possible ways, embracing the whole range of possibilities, no matter where they arise, without focusing on any specific treatment. This all-encompassing view of holistic care works best for our pets.
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Web in January 2008

Everyone has a responsibility in bringing this vision to life. Veterinarians must welcome both alternative and traditional treatments. But you, the pet owner, also have responsibilities. When you work with your veterinarian, become a fully informed, collaborative partner.

Beyond your veterinarian's office, you have a role to play in the entire holistic philosophy. As the name implies, it comprises the "whole." What every one of us does and says integrates into a larger system of belief and action.

How can we make sure our veterinarians are truly holistic, and how can we work collaboratively with them? How can each of us contribute to advancing an impressive set of holistic ideals?

Becoming Holistic Naturally

Dr. Mark Newkirk, VMD, has been a veterinarian in Egg Harbor Township, NJ, since 1981. For 16 years, his practice was entirely "traditional." But like many veterinarians, he became frustrated whenever he ran out of treatment options. "I found myself telling people to just watch problems or keep trying different steroids. I hated saying, 'I can't help your pet anymore.'"

In 1997, Dr. Newkirk attended a conference on holistic care. He was skeptical. "I went in resisting it, saying, 'No way I'm doing any of this.' On the other hand, I was unhappy with available offerings for my clients."

Dr. Newkirk tried holistic nutrition, suggesting a range of alternative diets to his clients based on their pets' needs. To his pleasant surprise, client after client improved. That got him thinking. "You know, I go to a chiropractor, and he keeps me walking. Maybe this would work for animals."

He did a few referrals to chiropractors, and was thrilled to see positive results.

As each new idea worked, he added it as a regular part of his practice. Dr. Newkirk became convinced of a world of new possibilities.

Today, Dr. Newkirk continues to use traditional treatments about 70% of the time, but he is a strong believer in holistic methods. His practice is a perfect illustration of the holistic philosophy: smooth integration of "alternative" and "traditional" thinking.

Holistic Just Makes Sense

Dr. Paul McCutcheon, DVM, established the East York Animal Clinic in Toronto in 1962. He began adding holistic elements 18 years later. "There's no 'holistic way' of doings things," he explains. "There's a 'holistic philosophy' behind what you do. That's a very important distinction."

It is not the particular methods – surgery, homeopathy, radiology, acupuncture, chemotherapy, or herbs – it is how smoothly veterinarians weave any of these into situations.

How do we know when a veterinarian works in a holistic manner? As Dr. McCutcheon explains, "It's all about looking for underlying reasons for problems. If a dog has cancer, don't just kill the cancer cells. Let's see if we can also get at why cancer cells are forming."

Holistic practitioners look at as many factors as possible to get a full picture of the environment in which a disease or problem arises. "If a cat has a skin problem," Dr. McCutcheon says, "we don't want to just soothe the irritation. We figure out the patterns so we can change the terrain that creates the irritation. If you think that way, you'll change things, which means you're doing a proper holistic job."

Dr. Narda Robinson, DVM, director of the Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine and Natural Healing at Colorado State University, teaches holistic principles to veterinary students. She applies rigorous standards to the holistic label. "You must have an open mind, but you must also keep your critical thinking," she explains. "We should ask, 'who is this dog?' Look at the dog's father and mother, then the dog's whole social, physical, mental, and emotional context."

To see all these factors, veterinarians and owners need to think beyond one dimension. As Dr. Robinson explains, "Often, people have narrow approaches: surgeons think surgically, and radiologists think of their methods. But it can be the same with holistic practitioners. Just using a particular holistic tool does not give you access to all corners of an animal's life."

By communicating a logical, scientific approach to her veterinary students, Dr. Robinson is helping holistic ideas earn greater respect.

"You may be wasting precious time if your veterinarian only wants to treat cancer with herbs, or treats it as an allergy to wheat," Dr. Robinson says. "First, seek traditional therapies like chemotherapy or radiation to halt the disease. At the same time, your doctor should integrate antioxidant support."

Veterinarians who use surgery to treat problems, but refuse to accept acupuncture as a way to help relieve pain, may not be practicing holistically. But an acupuncturist who is against surgical intervention is also not truly holistic, even though acupuncture is viewed as a holistic method.

As Dr. McCutcheon explains, "Someone can end up using holistic tools in non-holistic ways."

Empower Yourself: Testing Your Veterinarian

A crucial part of the holistic approach demands that you, the client, are empowered to be a full partner in treatment plans. Holistic veterinarians have a responsibility to welcome you into the methods and logic behind any decisions affecting your pet. And you have a responsibility to be collaborative. Ask questions. Test your veterinarian to determine if he or she works in an integrative fashion.

The same standards apply whether the proposed treatment involves traditional or holistic methods, or a combination of both. "Your vet should be able to lay out the treatment plan," Dr. Newkirk says. "What are the expected outcomes? Exactly what do they plan to do, in what order? They should give you materials to read so you can learn more and know what to ask."

As a client, seeking the best care for your pet means asking your veterinarian to bring the power of all available methods into play. As Dr. Newkirk says, your veterinarian should give the impression that, "It's not all one way or the other. If a dog has a liver infection, your veterinarian should offer antibiotics, and also say, 'here's some milk thistle.' They should complement each other to offer the best of all worlds."

Usually, when consider testing a veterinarian's open-mindedness, we are thinking of traditional practitioners. As Dr. McCutcheon explains, "Ask your veterinarian if they are willing to accept non-conventional approaches to situations. Someone may not want to do acupuncture or herbal care, but they should be able to refer you to someone who does."

The test should also be applied the other way. "If you see a holistic vet, ask if they are willing to give traditional treatments, or put you in touch with traditional services if they don't do it themselves," Dr. McCutcheon emphasizes. "I don't do dental surgery, but I refer patients to traditional surgeons. If I see a dog with a skin irritation, I investigate what's going on in the body to cause that reaction. But I'll prescribe Prednizone to treat immediate discomfort."

Test how your veterinarian speaks about care. He or she should not discredit any type of method. "It's not about 'leaving your Western mind at the door,'" Dr. Robinson cautions, citing a phrase she often hears at holistic conferences.

"I still vaccinate and use antibiotics when there's a need," Dr. Newkirk explains. "Traditional methods like ultrasound and steroids help with acute problems; holistic methods help when there's a chronic condition and vitamins or amino acids are healthier long-term than steroids."

You Play an Important Part

Taking charge creates a collaborative relationship with your veterinarian, where you are fully informed about care decisions for your pet. Even more, taking the idea of "holistic" to its natural conclusion, taking charge also means you assume a powerful role in advancing the very idea of a holistic worldview.

When speaking with friends or skeptics, strive to communicate balance. "If you believe in the holistic way, you should not be too dogmatic about it," Dr. McCutcheon suggests. "It's not helpful to announce, 'never use antibiotics!' Antibiotics can be very useful."

Dr. Newkirk adds, "People sometimes say, 'no vaccinations,' or 'raw food is best.' But this may not be the case all the time. That's not a true holistic approach."

Do not just test your veterinarian. Test yourself. This extends beyond the walls of a veterinary clinic. "The holistic philosophy is about life, all our lives, not just about our pet's health," Dr. McCutcheon says. "It's a universal approach to care and thinking."