Integrative medicine offers a harmonious combination of conventional and alternative therapies. It can be especially helpful when dealing with these five common health conditions in dogs and cats.

If your dog or cat is diagnosed with allergies, diabetes, or cancer, you may think you only have two choices – to either get conventional treatment or go an entirely holistic route. The thing is, you want to treat the problem naturally and gently, but at the same time, you also want to relieve his most acute symptoms as quickly as possible.

An integrative approach allows veterinarians to use natural therapies along with conventional treatments. In some cases, natural therapies allow us to minimize or even totally eliminate conventional medicines. That can mean reduced medical expenses for you as well as decreased risk of side effects from drugs. This article will look at integrative approaches to five of the most common health conditions diagnosed in dogs and cats.

1. Allergies

Allergies are commonly diagnosed in dogs and occasionally in cats. Conventional medications are commonly prescribed for itchy animals. These usually include corticosteroids like prednisone and various antihistamines such as Benadryl. Since secondary infections often occur in allergic animals, additional medications such as antibiotics or anti-fungal drugs are often prescribed. While these medications can be helpful, corticosteroids and antihistamines may be necessary for the life of the animal in order to decrease itching — and the longer corticosteroids (and antibiotics and anti-fungal medications) are used, the greater the risk of side effects, including decreased lifespan.

In my practice, I have found that natural therapies allow my clients to dramatically reduce the medication needed to treat their allergic animals. In most cases, secondary skin infections can be treated by frequently bathing the animal with organic shampoo and using herbs and homeopathics including Echinacea, astragalus, and olive leaf extract.

Itching can be controlled with antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, frequent bathing, and herbs and homeopathics such as sulfur. When absolutely necessary to keep the animal “comfortably itchy”, very low doses of prednisone (about one-quarter of the conventionally prescribed dose) are given on a very limited basis. This integrative approach works very well to help heal my allergic patients and get them through their fall and spring outbreaks.

2. Arthritis

Arthritis is typically diagnosed in older dogs and cats and is probably the most common cause of pain in these animals. Conventional therapies rely on potent corticosteroids like prednisone, or nonsteroidal drugs (NSAIDs) such as Rimadyl, Metacam, Previcox, and Deramaxx. Corticosteroids can damage joint cartilage when used in chronic cases and should rarely if ever be used in animals with arthritis due to their side effects. NSAIDs can also have a number of side effects including gastrointestinal ulceration, bleeding, kidney disease, and liver disease. These drugs are best used at a very intermittent low dose basis on days when the animal is particularly painful.

Natural therapies for arthritis are very helpful and, wherever possible, should be used in all animals in place of conventional therapies. If the animal is overweight, a sensible weight loss program should be implemented; this is the most important part of any treatment for the arthritic animal.

The most commonly used natural therapies include acupuncture, herbs, homeopathic, and nutritional supplements. Dogs and cats with arthritis usually remain pain-free and have increased mobility when treated with joint supplements that include glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, DMG, and hyaluronic acid.

3. Cancer

Conventional therapies for cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. Some combination of these therapies is usually used to quickly remove as much cancer as possible, and in some cases, they actually cure the animal. As an integrative doctor, I routinely recommend that my clients utilize these therapies to rapidly kill as much cancer as possible. Natural therapies work better to support the animal’s immunity when there is less cancer remaining for the immune system to kill.

Numerous natural therapies can help the dog or cat with cancer. (For a detailed discussion of these therapies, see my book The Natural Vet’s Guide for Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs.) In general, some combination of a natural diet, nutritional supplements such as fish oil and antioxidants, herbs, and homeopathics are used to detoxify the animal, support organs of elimination such as the liver and kidneys, and kill and prevent the spread of cancer.

The longest periods of remission are typically seen when natural therapies are combined with conventional therapies. In cancers where no conventional therapies can help (such as advanced liver cancer), natural therapies must be used to offer the animal some chance to live comfortably and pain-free for as long as possible. Holistic doctors have seen numerous cases of dogs and cats with cancer live happy and comfortable lives for extended periods following treatment with natural therapies, even after they’d been considered hopeless or incurable by conventional doctors.

4. Diabetes

Diabetes occurs in two forms. Type 1 usually results in permanent and irreversible damage to the pancreatic cells that make insulin. Dogs and cats with Type 1 diabetes will usually require insulin for life. Type 2 diabetes occurs in animals with reduced sensitivity to insulin. These animals usually do not require insulin therapy and can be treated with a combination of diet, exercise, and nutritional supplements (mainly herbs and homeopathics) to regulate their blood sugar levels.

The typical conventional medication used to treat Type 1 diabetes is of course insulin, given by injection one to two times per day, usually for the life of the dog or cat. Oral hypoglycemic agents can also be used if for some reason you do not wish to administer insulin injections. Side effects are rare. The main one is a dangerous lowering of blood glucose levels, in which case the animal may develop insulin shock, a life-threatening emergency.

As mentioned, herbs and homeopathics can be very helpful for animals with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. They typically work better as the main therapy for dogs and cats with Type 2 diabetes. Herbs such as Gymnema, when combined with proper diet and regular exercise, can maintain blood glucose levels in a safe range.

5. Urinary Tract Disorders

The main urinary tract disorders seen in dogs and cats include bladder infection (common in dogs, very rare in cats), bladder stones, bladder cancer (common in dogs, especially Scottish Terriers, but rare in cats), and FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disorder, a very common urinary problem of unknown cause).
Conventional treatment varies with the condition.

  • For bladder infections (diagnosed by urine culture), antibiotics usually cure the problem.
  • Bladder stones can be removed surgically, by hydro propulsion if the stones are tiny, or by dissolution with a prescription-type diet.
  • Bladder cancer may be removed surgically or treated with several chemotherapy drugs.
  • There is no proven conventional therapy for FLUTD, although most cats are incorrectly treated with antibiotics. Occasionally, anti-anxiety drugs such as amitriptyline may be prescribed. Male cats with chronic obstructive FLUTD can benefit from surgery. However, it does not prevent recurrence but only decreases the chance of further urinary tract obstruction.

Natural therapies are very helpful for animals with bladder disorders and can also be effective if used by themselves, without conventional medication.

  • Antibacterial herbs (Oregon grape, astragalus, Echinacea) and homeopathics can help with bladder infections.
  • Similar herbs and homeopathics may dissolve bladder stones or can be used along with surgery to help the animal heal following stone removal.
  • Integrating natural treatments with chemotherapy can improve the quality of life and may extend remission time for animals with bladder cancer.
  • There are no proven treatments for cats with FLUTD, so natural therapies especially helpful. Homeopathics such as cantharis and herbs such as uva ursi and marshmallow can have curative effects in cats with FLUTD.

By integrating conventional and natural therapies, most dogs and cats can achieve many years of health. They can also live longer than those treated solely with conventional medications.