One of the fundamental components of herbal medicine is in the application of a holistic view and, as an increasing number of pet owners are becoming interested in pursuing a more holistic approach to health, the marketing of pet products is rapidly co-opting the term, misusing it and clouding its meaning. Holistic, as it pertains to health, is an approach that encompasses key foundational aspects (including physical, psychological, and social) as part of the whole dog as an individual, while also appreciating the physiological interconnectedness of the whole body. There is no such thing as a holistic dog food or a holistic flea spray or a holistic treat. There is, however, the consideration of how nutrition, exercise, social activity, and more affect the health of the whole animal.
The physical aspect of health is, of course, the largest. It involves not only proper nutrition and herbs, but lots of exercise. Real exercise, where they can stretch their legs and chase and play out in the fresh air and sunshine (or rain, if it happens to be raining that day… they won’t melt!). We appreciate that dogs will sleep on the couch all day and night, but that’s not what their bodies were designed for, and it contributes to a decline in health. We hear a lot in holistic circles about feeding real foods and reducing the number of vaccines, but another important element in canine health (just as it is in ours) is exercise.
It’s not anthropomorphizing to suggest that the psychological and social components of health are also important. Dogs require positive environments with healthy relationships in order to thrive. Training and playing are great, but the mannerin which those take place does have a profound effect, even if not clearly visible. Do you understand canine body language so that you know the signals that are being given by the dogs at the dog park, and when your dog is stressed? (There’s an app for that! It’s called Sue Sternberg’s Dog Park Assistant.) Force-free, positive training with your dog in a capacity that (s)he enjoys (or is genetically wired for) establishes teamwork and can benefit the mind in many ways. Provide a crate so that your dog has a safe place when feeling stressed. Sit on the floor and pet your dog from head to tail on a regular basis (it also helps you to identify new bumps and lumps, ticks, etc.). We make fun of ourselves for talking to our dogs, but give yourself permission to do that – a lot! It’s a compassionate connection and they benefit by those small interactions. Anxiety disorders may be caused not only by being left alone, but by a lack of positiveengagement. Dogs do have an emotional life and meeting its needs can go a long way toward achieving health of the whole dog.
A holistic approach is one that plans for health, not disease. In our current, conventional model, we feed dry, processed food, administer multiple vaccines annually, and then, when the dog becomes sick or develops chronic illness, we suppress the symptoms with antibiotics and steroids. The big dog food and pharmaceutical companies are making a nice profit, but our dogs are experiencing a higher incidence of cancer and autoimmune diseases, among others.
A holistic approach to health is preventive. Just as in dog training, we want to set the dog up for success rather than wait for a problem to occur and then work to correct it. If we consider the health model that we’re used to in the 21stcentury — where we feed processed food, wait for illness, and then combat it with the suppression of symptoms — it becomes clear that this reactionary approach fails to address the cause of the complaint. Herbs can be used in this manner, but that’s not to say that they should. Using 450mg of a standardized isolated chemical extract to reduce symptoms sounds very much like a conventional approach. Let’s look instead to a holistic view of herbs, for it may inform a holistic view of health.
Each plant contains many (sometimes hundreds of) chemical constituents, some of which may be identified as medicinal in action; but there is an orchestra of chemical activity occurring in the plants, where some depend on others and it’s the complex interplay between these constituents that drives the medicinal actions present in the plant. So, sometimes, when the chemical or compound is isolated, it loses the action for which it was identified. How short-sighted (and arrogant?) of us humans to assume that we know better than Nature. The phytochemistry of plants is complex, and we do not yet fully understand the symbiosis of these chemicals in the plants. By utilizing the whole plant, we are providing the full array of actions as intended.
And so it is with health. Ask a qualified herbalist what herbs would be best used in supporting your dog’s health, and he or she will first ask you a lot of specific questions about your dog. We may identify that a particular issue is occurring in the body, but without considering the interplay of that condition with others – how it’s influenced by other conditions and other organs in the body (and the energetics therein) – we are missing the larger picture. How short-sighted of us humans to expect the more complex underlying issue to be resolved when we are merely suppressing a symptom – a symptom which is providing a clue to the larger issue. It’s not about refusing prescription drugs; it’s about not needing them.
It doesn’t mean foregoing chemicals for the health of your dog while continuing to feed a bag of processed food made by Procter & Gamble. Conversely, it doesn’t mean feeding a diet of fresh, raw foods while continuing to administer multiple combo vaccines, year after year. It doesn’t mean giving an herbal remedy instead of Prozac® to counter anxiety issues without first providing adequate social outlets for exercise and play. (Of course, many canine anxiety issues are far more complex, but the example is merely to help illustrate the point.)
Please note that ‘alternative’ is not the same as holistic. A holistic approach may employ alternative modalities (such as herbalism, acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy), but one does not equal the other, and conventional medicine can be applied in a holistic manner (though it rarely is!). A holistic approach is not necessarily in opposition to conventional therapies; rather, it seeks to achieve balanced health with the approach most appropriate for that dog at that time. Complementary modalities in treatment should do just that – complement other modalities. Conventional medicine that excludes all integrative modalities is no more complete or accurate than a holistic one that excludes conventional tools. Rather, integrated, they weave the appropriate treatment for that dog with that condition at that time. No approach that is exclusive of all others can really be truly complete.
And isn’t that what we’re aiming for?