Is Holistic Vet Care REALLY better than Traditional Vet Care?

Preventing disease is the cornerstone of any healthcare system regardless of whether you are a human, dog or cat! So what then is the difference between holistic vet care vs traditional vet care?  There seems to be a distinction made by “alternative” veterinary practitioners that they provide holistic vet care and “conventional” or "traditional" veterinarians simply treat the disease symptoms.

Is the story in fact a little more complicated than that?


Welcome to the second video in my evidence matters series.  Where I discuss how to know what to believe and why things might not be as they first seem.

Lets start with the term but for clarity I would classify myself as a conventional veterinarian and I'll discuss what I believe this means later in the article.

What is holistic vet care?

So what does holistic mean when it comes to vet care?  Well, holistic veterinary medicine is characterized by the treatment of the whole individual, including their environment, diet and lifestyle, rather than just considering the symptoms of the disease.

holistic veterinary medicine is characterized by the treatment of the whole individual rather than just considering the symptoms of the disease

Unfortunately the term holistic has been hijacked and the meaning has shifted for many people.  The result being that holistic vet care is commonly believed to be something that is only practiced by alternative or complimentary practitioners.  In other words the use of therapies such as homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropracty and the recomendation of raw feeding has become synonymous with holistic care.

As a result, those who recommend these alternative approaches in many (but not all) cases claim that veterinarians who do not subscribe to their beliefs are simply treating the symptoms of a disease and are not practicing a holistic approach.  The underlying sentiment then often becomes that traditional or conventional veterinarians are either naive at best, or at worst are just trying to make as much money as possible from their patients without actually caring about their overall health and well-being.

Clearly this isn't going to be a thought held and expressed by every alternative practitioner and their followers, but it is one that gets thrown around a lot online.

holistic vs conventional vet care

Is conventional vet care actually holistic?

As for the claim that conventional veterinarians don't practice holistic care?  I would assert that this is absolute rubbish.

All veterinarians advocate that their overweight patients should loose weight rather than keep quiet and simply prescribe insulin if they become diabetic.  Everyone would discuss reducing stress and increasing water consumption in a cat that had a history of cystitis or bladder obstruction.  Any vet treating a patient with arthritis would advise weight loss, supplementation, exercise and environmental management as appropriate rather than simply hand over a pot of pain killers.

To do otherwise would be to do a disservice to our patients.

to practice anything other than holistic vet care would be to do our patients a disservice

It would be far more lucrative to do away with vaccination and instead treat the parvovirus pandemic that would inevitably occur.  No, instead vaccines are recommended to prevent deadly diseases developing.  This is something I discuss further in an article on vaccination and titer testing.

All of these steps are aimed at addressing the underlying causes of a patients problem, taking in a patients environment, diet and lifestyle.  Isn't this what the definition of holistic entails?

Trusting personal experience and beliefs over evidence

Let me suggest an alternative view of Holistic Vet Care vs Traditional Vet Care.

The difference between self appointed “holistic” and conventional practitioners is often the fact that the former puts greater weight on their individual experience and beliefs than the weight of scientific evidence. Even if their conclusions are in direct opposition to the bulk of the evidence currently available to us. In other words ,they endorse alternative medical interventions that time and again have failed to demonstrate a reliable, repeatable, significant positive patient result.  In fact these interventions are embraced as addressing the perceived root cause of whatever health problem is felt to be present.

With some alternative practiced the jury is still out, in that there is little evidence to support or refute the claims made.  In other cases though the evidence is overwhelming, just take a look at this article discussing if homeopathy works in pets (let alone people).

Can "holistic" vets teach us anything?

Of course we don’t know everything.  To claim conventional vet care has all the answers certainly would be foolish and naive.  In many cases there are some big gaps or gray areas in our knowledge of certain conditions.  Unfortunately though, many of these gaps and gray areas are instead painted as clear, simple, irrefutable black and white facts in many of the online alternative sites and forums out there.

to claim conventional vet care has all the answers would be foolish and naive

Certainly in some cases, time may prove various alternative practitioner beliefs to be right.  Certain neutricuticals, or dietary supplements may collect enough evidence to show that they do provide a significant overall benefit.  Certain feeding practices may be shown to be the right option for certain individuals (or even species as a whole).

As a vet though, I strongly believe my clients deserve to know when my management or treatment preference is based on opinion rather then evidence.  Wouldn't you want to know the same?  Wouldn't you also want to know when the weight of evidence actually suggests that a specific treatment or intervention has been studied extensively and failed to reliably show it does an individual any good?

If we all ignored scientific evidence we would still be using leaches and bleeding to treat all kinds of ailments.  After all, many practitioners of that time strongly believed in these treatments and many would have had stories of their patients improving after such interventions!

is personal experience and opinion better than evidence based vet care based on scientific evidence?

That’s not to say that conventional veterinarians have nothing to learn from alternative practitioners.  Their consultation approach generally takes more time to go into the details of a patients history that are very difficult to obtain in a 10–15 minute consultation slot.  In most cases 15 minutes is sufficiant to gather all of the initial information needed to start investigating or treating a problem.  Clearly though, some cases would benefit from a longer initial evaluation.

More time would also allows a more thorough discussion and explanation to be given. Again in short consultations this can be very challenging to deliver successfully.  This is something I discussed in more detail in a guest post I published about the importance of communication.

Evidences based information is vital

Preventing disease through increasing awareness and putting various strategies in place is my number one aim. It is because of this, some of the first content I produced on included series on preventing obesity and successful dieting for your cat or dog, along with the recognition and successful treatment of arthritis.  There have been many more articles focusing entirely on prevention since.

I am a conventional, or traditional, vet.  I am not unique in my belief that prevention is better than cure and that the underlying cause of a problem should be addressed wherever possible.  In fact I am distinctly average in this view.  I do though demand that, wherever possible, vet care should be based on the evidence available wherever possible, and not personal belief or conjecture.  Quite simple, evidence matters!

One demonstration of why evidence is so important is discussed in detail in my article about the placebo effect in pets.

Join me next time where I continue my evidence matters series and discuss something known as the dunning-kruger effect.  This is something everyone who frequents pet forums must be aware of!

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