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Holistic Medicine and Pharmacy: Do the Two Go Together?

There’s a part of all of us that yearns for Nature. It’s the part that makes us yearn for a wood fire on a cold night, and the part that giggles in glee when we toilet behind a bush whilst out on a walk. It’s the part that rejoices when we eat a healthy breakfast with nuts and fruit, or gets us bringing flowers inside. And it’s the part that makes marketing companies race to put ‘100% natural’ or ‘organic’ on their products. Holistic medicine sells.

But nature can be brutal, too. Foxes that catch and maim rabbits, seemingly for fun. Nasty diseases that race through a population, killing hundreds. A silly accident that, without modern medicine, would result in a slow and painful death.

Can the two be combined? Is it possible to believe in the power of nature and also the wonder of modern medicine? Can herbal medicine be combined with little plastic packets of pills sitting neatly in rows?

What is Holistic Medicine?

“Holistic” refers to the ‘whole’. It’s originally taken from the idea that, when treating a person, you need to look at the whole person- their mental state, spiritual state, emotions and social situation, as well as the symptoms of their disease. Nowadays, modern doctors (and vets!) are all holistic by this definition- we treat mental health as part of the whole spectrum of disease, and we wouldn’t dream of fixing a medical problem without checking on ‘mind, body and spirit’.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

However, the phrase ‘holistic medicine’ is often misused to represent other medicine types, such as acupuncture, herbalism, aromatherapy, crystal therapy, reiki, pranic healing and homeopathy. These are what we call ‘alternative’ medicines. Many of them can be used alongside pharmacy, so they may also be termed ‘complementary’ medicine. At best they form the very basis of medicine (after all, many of our medicines started as herbal extracts at one time or another) and at worst they can be outright dangerous- particularly if proven medicines are thrown aside in favour of an alternative.

Understanding the Evidence (or Lack of It)

Non Holistic Medecine - Parmaceutical pills
Pharmaceutical medicine
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

The majority of vets feel it is important, wherever possible, to only treat animals using evidence-based techniques. But evidence can be hard to understand- there are lots of different types of evidence, and some are better than others. In order to differentiate between methods and medicines that work and don’t work, clinical trials need to be done. To make the results generalisable to the general population, these need to have many, many dogs enrolled. And in order that these trials are not affected by the placebo effect, they should be ‘placebo controlled’- which means that half the group gets the medicine or intervention, and the other half gets a fake ‘placebo’, then the two groups are compared. Bias also needs to be removed by ensuring the owner and even the vet don’t know which group their pet is in (called ‘double blinding’), so that they don’t ‘see’ improvements that aren’t there.

The problem with a lot of alternative therapies is that they haven’t had this level of intense scientific scrutiny. The improvements claimed as evidence for these therapies is almost exclusively anecdotal or based on small studies that were not double-blinded or controlled. But there are lots of areas of veterinary medicine that don’t have good evidence behind them. Your vet probably makes treatment choices on a daily basis without good, solid evidence either way- because evidence in pets is, always, sadly lacking.

Common Examples of Complementary Veterinary Medicine


Western Veterinary Acupuncture is a growing movement in the UK with some good evidence behind it- in fact, it’s so widely accepted that many insurance companies will now pay for treatment. Under UK law, acupuncture in animals can only be undertaken by a fully qualified and registered vet. Acupuncture is particularly good in cases of chronic pain, such as arthritis or nerve damage, but may also be used for other diseases such as chronic respiratory diseases, digestive disturbances and incontinence.

Holistic medicine - herbal preparations
herbal medicines
Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

Joint, brain, and skin supplements are often recommended for the management of common conditions, particularly those of old age. Many of these supplements contain and are derived from herbal remedies- turmeric, salmon oil and green-lipped mussel extract are all common ingredients. The evidence for these supplements varies hugely, but some have good evidence of a clinical improvement.

Calming supplements

Skullcap and valerian are two widely recognised calming herbs often used in supplements designed to help with generalised anxiety and noise phobias. Many vets use these on a regular basis, especially in firework season, to help their patients.


Calming diffusers are often used in cases of firework fear to varying effect. Many vets will also use these diffusers in the surgery, and even spray them on themselves to help animals feel more comfortable. Valerian and sweet basil are common ingredients in these aromatherapy products for animals.

How to Find a Holistic Vet

Whilst few vets advertise themselves as holistic, it’s important to remember that many vets are open minded about complementary therapies, especially if there’s no evidence either way. If complementary medicine is important to you, talk honestly and openly with your vet. As we’ve already seen, many complementary therapies are regularly used in veterinary medicine- we’re already more holistic than you might think!

If your usual vet isn’t happy with discussing alternative and complementary therapies, consider whether it’s important enough to you that you need to find a new vet. Holistic vets practicing a whole range of different therapies are searchable online. Remember, though, to make sure that anything you do is with the supervision of a vet- many of the alternative therapies are not protected and can be practised by anybody. Even certificates and diplomas are not expensive to undertake online, and as a result your practitioner may know very little about animals or the diseases they’re trying to treat. In order to protect yourself and your dog from scams, ensure that you thoroughly research your practitioner and their qualifications, and try to find somebody with a veterinary degree- this at least means that they’re regulated and accountable. And remember that whilst most complementary therapies are benign, they can be dangerous if they’re used alongside some medicines; so if you’re giving your dog anything at home, make sure you tell your vet.