Pets 101

Alternative Therapies: Different approaches to everyday ailments

By Renee Krejci, Melissa Wiley, and Taylor Ervin

Dog with Massage Stones

Cutting-edge science and ancient medicinal practices alike are gaining ground among guardians who want only the best for ailing pets. Hydrotherapy, acupuncture, and regenerative medicine represent remarkable examples of therapeutic approaches wherein the body essentially serves as its own healing agent when stimulated by outside elements or techniques. Skilled practitioners guide the animal in the water, apply the needles, or extract and reinsert the stem cells, as the case may be. But in all of these alternative therapies, the source of the healing remains reassuringly close to home.


Dog Getting AcupunctureAccording to the ancient Chinese, all living things contain a bio-energy called qi (pronounced chee). For more than 3,000 years, the Chinese have been practicing acupuncture as a way to unblock qi energy to aid in self-healing.

Dr. Barbara Royal, who practices veterinary acupuncture at the Royal Treatment Veterinary Spa in Chicago, says that what the Chinese describe as qi channels at the body’s meridians are also areas where the body concentrates blood vessels. When these acupuncture points are stimulated, the needles change the electrical resistance at the point where they are inserted. “The response can be to decrease pain, increase circulation, decrease inflammation, stimulate or relax nerve and brain function, among other things,” Royal says.

According to Dr. Narda Robinson, who teaches and practices veterinary medical acupuncture at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, acupuncture can provide a meaningful and beneficial impact in ways that drugs and surgery cannot. “Muscle relaxation, improvement of overall health, improved immune function, digestion, and normalized circulation are all things that help the body heal from injury, surgery, or chronic pain,” she says. “There aren’t any medications that can do all that.”

Common conditions that respond well to acupuncture include arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions, digestive conditions, immune system disorders (like allergies and chronic skin conditions), neurological problems, and systemic and urologic diseases, such as chronic kidney disease and liver disease.

If the thought of covering Fluffy with needles makes you cringe, rest assured that the needles are much smaller and thinner than the ones used for injections. As long as the process is carried out by a veterinarian gently and with good technique, the pet should not feel any pain. Royal says that many of her patients relax and even fall asleep during the treatment.

“While I do not hesitate to recommend pharmaceuticals, surgery, and other methods for my patients, I have found that acupuncture is often an effective alternative for many conditions, with fewer side effects,” she adds. “This is particularly true for animals [who] are older, have multiple health problems, and maybe can’t tolerate many medications or surgery.”


Cat in HydrotherapyHydrotherapy boasts a long and prestigious history. Owing to its proven effectiveness in humans, hydrotherapy was practiced on horses as early as the 19th century and then later on dogs used in racing and eventually canine (and sometimes feline) pets. The singular advantage of hydrotherapy is the fact that less gravity is exerted on the body in water, allowing the animal to experience less stress on the joints or areas of pain and to begin rehabilitation post surgery or injury earlier than with other types of therapy.

According to Molly Flaherty, DVM, CVA, CCRP, of Integrative Pet Care in Chicago, “The water provides hydrostatic pressure, reduces inflammation, increases circulation, and stimulates muscles.” Flaherty goes on to say that arthritis is the most common condition for which guardians turn to hydrotherapy for their four-footed companions at her center.

Integrative Pet Care also treats a number of pooches with hip dysplasia and pets recovering from knee surgery “who can’t bear a lot of weight,” says Flaherty, as well as dogs with neurological conditions. “The buoyancy of the water gives them an extra edge,” she enthuses.

Although hydrotherapy can be a critical element in therapy programs for pets suffering from a host of medical conditions, it’s also a great way to trim Toughy’s tummy or just to let him splash around and have some fun under the eye of an animal rehabilitation therapist (ART). Various training programs provide certification for animal rehabilitation, which include training in hydrotherapy. Many rehabilitation centers also provide in-house training through staff veterinarians. Although prices and length of hydrotherapy sessions vary, there is a basic rule of thumb, according to Flaherty, regarding the exercise’s efficiency: “Roughly 15 minutes of swimming equals one hour of a steady jog out on the street.” Coupled with hydrotherapy’s remarkable results and plain splashy fun, the fact that it provides so much bang for the buck makes it a no-brainer for many progressive guardians.

Regenerative Medicine

Regenerative medicine for animals, also known as stem cell therapy, is undoubtedly ahead of the pack when compared to stem cell treatments for humans. For modern-day canines, the cutting-edge treatment is providing relief from age-old ailments, such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, and joint and tendon injuries, with research being done on applications for further conditions.

The importance of stem cells lies in their ability to develop into any type of cell in the body and therein act as potentially universal agents of healing in any given area. The employment of embryonic stem cells for medical purposes remains the subject of heated ethical discussions. Regenerative medicine in pets, however, has been largely exempt from such discussions, as it employs adult stem cells recovered from body fat. Furthermore, because the adult stem cells are autologous, meaning they come from the animal’s own body, no side effects related to rejection of foreign cells arise with this treatment.

Like hydrotherapy, regenerative medicine first made headway into the animal kingdom via horses. Vet-Stem spearheaded regenerative medicine in horses in 2004 and more recently made the treatment commercially available for dogs, with a view to doing so for cats in the near future. Through Vet-Stem.com, licensed veterinarians can take a three-hour course that provides them with an understanding of the therapy, while Vet-Stem assumes the task of extracting the stem cells in a lab.

According to Ben Ealing, DVM, of the Broad Ripple Animal Clinic in Indianapolis, “Vet-Stem is the only treatment that uses the patients’ own healing capabilities to treat arthritis. One injection has the potential to give the pet pain relief for over a year.” Ealing cautions, however, that not all dogs are candidates for the treatment, such as those with cancer or bacterial infections. “The ideal candidate is an otherwise healthy patient suffering from arthritis who is not responding to traditional therapies,” says Ealing, who also notes that success rates among his patients range from 75 to 80 percent. Definitions of success naturally vary from animal to animal. As a pain-management therapy, regenerative medicine doesn’t bill itself as a cure. But when Fluffy is freely chasing her own tail again without pain, she’ll hardly stop to notice.


If left alone for long enough, Fido would probably learn how to survive pretty well on his own, and he may even be able to cure his own illnesses.

In the wild, many animals seek out certain plants and minerals that help them maintain their health. Aromatherapy borrows from this idea and brings it to your domesticated pet.

Sherri Cappabianca, owner of Rocky’s Retreat canine wellness center, uses aromatherapy to treat everything from behavioral problems to chronic arthritis. She applies essential oils to an animal’s skin or allows the animal to sniff the oils, releasing energy blockages that cause illness.

“Getting to the root of the problem and allowing the body to try to balance itself is the best way to restore health,” says Cappabianca.

Although oils sometimes have an amazing ability to treat a wide variety of illnesses, side effects can occur when used improperly. If the dosage is too high or applied without the animal’s clear consent, the animal may experience rashes, hives, and shortness of breath. Misuse of oils can be exceptionally dangerous and sometimes fatal in cats because a cat’s liver has trouble metabolizing the oils.

Aromatherapy cannot treat every illness, and if you don’t know what’s wrong with your pet it’s best to see a conventional veterinarian first. But according to Cappabianca, conventional medicine often ignores the crux of the problem.

“Unfortunately, conventional medicine tends to prescribe a drug, which either masks or takes care of the symptoms without regard to the rest of the body,” says Cappabianca. “Complementary therapies such as aromatherapy work to get to the root of the problem and then let the body heal naturally.”

Herbal Therapy, Supplements, and Antioxidants

Humans have used herbal therapy, one of the world’s oldest forms of medicine, for thousands of years to cure illness. The same practices that ancient civilizations used to heal themselves have been modernized and can be used on your pet too.

Herbs as well as antioxidants and other supplements are all used to treat a wide spectrum of physical and mental health problems, including cardiac disease, kidney disease, skin issues, and behavioral problems. Each form of treatment (herbs, antioxidants, and supplements) works a bit differently.

As cells use oxygen, they naturally produce free radicals that can cause damage in the body. Antioxidants prevent and repair damage by acting as “free radical scavengers,” according to HolisticPetInfo.com veterinarian Dr. Colleen Smith.

Herbs and supplements act very specifically and are tailored to a certain condition. Specific herbs and supplements are chosen to treat each animal. Two pets with identical diagnoses could receive very different supplements based on the animal’s condition and age and the extent of disease.

Herbs, supplements, and antioxidants, like any medication, may have some side effects and can be dangerous when used with other conventional medication. Some herbs used to treat cardiac disease actually increase the effects of conventional cardiac drugs, making dosages difficult to determine. Likewise, antioxidants can’t be used in accordance with chemotherapy because they counteract chemotherapy’s cytotoxic effects on cancer.

Herbs and supplements do not always butt heads with conventional medicine, though.

“Commonly conventional and alternative therapies are used together because they have a synergistic affect,” says Smith. “Supplements or herbs often are used to treat the whole body rather than a single disease state, where conventional medicines are used.”


Reiki, roughly translated from Japanese to mean “universal life energy,” is a form of medicine wherein practitioners claim to move healing energy through their palms.

Mikao Usui, a shamanistic Japanese figure, created Reiki more than 80 years ago, and the practice has been gaining popularity ever since. According to masters of the practice, Reiki works well with all forms of injuries and illnesses, but patients with stress-related or emotional problems often respond especially well.

Reiki master Betty Solbjor admits that Reiki cannot always cure every illness but that it also can’t hurt. “One advantage of Reiki is that it can never cause harm,” says Solbjor. “In the case of serious illness, Reiki is best used in addition to conventional medicine and should not replace it.”

Masters perform Reiki by placing their hands lightly over affected areas of the patient’s body. They then claim to transfer healing energy through their hands onto the patient.

“Pets are very sensitive to touch and seem to really enjoy the gentle, comforting, healing energy of Reiki,” says Solbjor.

Reiki is also very versatile and can work in accordance with any other conventional or alternative medication. According to Solbjor, it is an ideal form of complementary medicine because it has no negative side effects and will not interfere with any other forms of treatment.

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