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Many people balk at the idea of “alternative medicine” for their pets, but what does alternative really mean? We are quick to choose foods or products that claim to be all-natural, so why do we only look to drugs as a solution to our pet’s problems? While medication can be a very useful tool for veterinarians, alternative therapies can be a wonderful addition.

The main alternative therapies of use to veterinarians are acupuncture, therapeutic laser, supplements, and herbal medications. Each of these has an important place in veterinary medicine, and can help decrease the amount of other “traditional” medications needed.

Acupuncture is a practice that stems from ancient Chinese medicine. To practice acupuncture on pets you must be a licensed veterinarian and have taken an additional intensive certification course in acupuncture. Dogs have over 300 different acupuncture points throughout their bodies. Each point has a specific location and name. The theory of acupuncture is that different nerves and lymphatic points are concentrated at each point and stimulated with the needles.

The reason that acupuncture helps reduce pain and inflammation is that the points help induce the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins. Many of these are the same as those that are changed by medications, though sometimes at a lower level. It also improves blood flow in key areas. Acupuncture has a great effect on osteoarthritis and other painful joint conditions, but is also used for dermatitis, respiratory problems, seizures, laryngeal paralysis, and many other things.

Therapeutic laser is another nonmedicinal way to treat pain and inflammation. Therapeutic laser works by using a concentrated beam of laser photons. Laser photons are used on areas of the body that are inflamed, have pain or infection. The photons are absorbed into the cells and increase their cellular metabolism. This helps increase the rate of turnover and accelerates healing. Acupuncture points can also be stimulated with a laser to gain benefits of both treatments.

Therapeutic lasers can be used by anyone who is trained, which makes it more accessible. After a veterinarian assesses the areas to laser, technicians are able to perform the treatments. Treatments last about 15-20 minutes.

To many people’s surprise, animals tend to remain very calm and still for both laser and acupuncture treatments. In fact, most animals will actually become much calmer during their treatment.

Herbal medications and nutraceuticals (like glucosamine supplements) are extensive. I’ll discuss these further at another time, but your veterinarian can direct you if you are interested in these products.

The benefits of alternative medicine can be substantial. While in general it does not eliminate the need to ever medicate, it can decrease the amount of medication needed. Reducing medications that need to be processed through organs will help prolong the life and health of the animal. It is also a great alternative for pets that have compromised organ function or do not tolerate certain medications well. Since steroids and anti-inflammatory pain medications can never be used together, adding alternative therapies can be very important in many older pets. The more tools we have to use, the better medicine we can practice, and alternative therapies add several tools to veterinary medicine.

Pets do not understand the placebo effect, so they will let you know if something is working for them, even if it involves being stuck with lots of tiny needles. Next time you feel you are at a medical impasse, remember to ask about alternative therapies.

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