What Is Integrative Medicine?

When it comes to treating what ails your dog or cat, there are many different means to the same end. In addition to traditional Western medicine, there are many other practices and schools of thought, including Eastern or Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), holistic medicine, and integrative medicine.

Western, Eastern, and Holistic Veterinary Medicine: What’s the Difference?

Western medicine is the most popular type of medical treatment in North America and Western Europe. This practice is often scientifically based and uses diet, medication, and surgery to treat illness.

Eastern veterinary medicine, also known as TCVM, aims to achieve balance (Yin-Yang) using acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage, and food therapy. In Chinese medicine, a diagnosis is made through recognition of “patterns” or areas of imbalance within the body. The goal of therapy is to restore the underlying balance.

Holistic medicine is a system of care that considers the animal as a whole being and encompasses a wide variety of alternative and complementary therapies designed to promote healing and overall wellness. Holistic veterinarians look at the pet’s overall physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing before recommending treatment.

Unfortunately, each of these practices tends to focus on its own therapies at the expense of the others, rather than in addition to them. That’s where integrative medicine comes in.

What Is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine embraces the incorporation of alternative therapies into mainstream Western medical practice. This type of medicine combines many Chinese and holistic therapies—such as acupuncture and food therapy—with Western medical techniques, like emergency medicine and critical care, advanced dental and surgical methods, and highly sophisticated diagnostic tools.

Though each therapy is different, Western, Eastern and holistic medicine are not mutually exclusive. Drawing from several veterinary disciplines, integrative medicine combines conventional treatments with additional therapies that have a proven scientific basis and evidence of effectiveness.

Integrative Treatments for Pets

Veterinary integrative treatments include acupuncture, laser therapy, herbal medicine, and food therapy.

Integrative treatments for pets include acupuncture, laser therapy, herbal medicine, and food therapy.


Acupuncture is the art and science of placing thin, metallic needles in specific areas to encourage the body’s own healing and function. This practice is one of the key components of TCVM.

In TCVM, all structures and functions within the body are described as having Yin or Yang characteristics. This balance between the Yin and Yang functions maintains balance within the body. It is believed that health is achieved by maintaining the body in a balanced state; therefore, disease occurs due to an imbalance of Yin and Yang.

Acupuncture is indicated for pain and inflammation, but can be very beneficial for any musculoskeletal or neurologic condition, as well as metabolic diseases. Common diseases treated with acupuncture include arthritis, back pain, tendon or ligament injuries, lick granulomas, feline asthma, diarrhea, and kidney disease.

Acupuncture may also be beneficial in the treatment of cancer patients or in addition to conventional cancer therapies, such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. It can be helpful in reducing pain from cancer, alleviating side effects from conventional therapies, including nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, and enhancing immune system function.

Modern research has documented that acupuncture points occur in areas of the body where there is a high density of free nerve endings, mast cells, small arterioles, and lymphatic vessels. From a Western perspective, stimulation of these points can have several physiologic effects on the body, including the local release of histamine to allow for increased blood flow. The needles can also stimulate nerve function, relieve muscle spasms, and cause the release of hormones, such as endorphins (one of the body’s pain control chemicals) and cortisol (a natural steroid) to reduce inflammation.

Acupuncture is one of the safest forms of medical treatment for animals when it is administered by a properly-trained veterinarian.

The length and frequency of treatment depends on the pet and the condition being treated; however, we often start with one or two treatments per week for three to four weeks. A positive response is usually seen after the first to third treatments. Once a maximum response is achieved, the treatments are tapered until the greatest amount of symptom-free time elapses between them.

Laser Therapy

Laser therapy uses deep-penetrating light to relieve pain through the release of endorphins and stimulates injured cells to heal at a faster rate without the use of pharmaceuticals or surgery.

Photobiostimulation, a chain of chemical reactions triggered by exposure to light, helps to decrease inflammation, reduce the pain of arthritis and stimulate cell growth and tissue healing in wounds.

Laser therapy is often recommended for arthritic pets and used postoperatively to control pain and promote healing. Laser therapy can also be used to treat hotspots, burns, and incision sites, as well as everyday disorders like lick granulomas and chronic ear infections.

Food Therapy

In Western medicine, food is assessed according to the amount of nutrients it contains, based on laboratory analysis before it enters the body.

In Eastern medicine, food is described as possessing certain qualities, such as whether it is warming (a Yang characteristic) or cooling (a Yin characteristic). The nutritional value of the food is described as the energetic properties the food exerts on the body according to its temperatures and flavors. Some foods even have a specific therapeutic effect and are said to enter certain meridian pathways to exert that effect on particular organs.

Food may increase the energy of a bodily function or help to reduce the influence of a particular pathologic condition. For instance, sweet potato, from a Western perspective, gives pets rich antioxidants and fiber that acts as a probiotic. From a TCVM perspective, sweet potato is a neutral food that drains dampness from the body. This knowledge can help us choose a diet tailored to an individual pet’s energetic needs.

Food therapy may also be used as a part of a multimodal TCVM approach for the treatment of some diseases, like cancer. This means a tailored diet is used in conjunction with acupuncture.

Interested in learning more about how an integrative approach to wellness can benefit your pet? Contact us or schedule an appointment today!


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