This approach to pet healthcare uses integrative medicine to get to the root cause of disease while focusing on the optimal functioning of the body and its organs.

Functional medicine is a new term used to describe a unique approach to holistic healthcare for dogs (and other animals). It promotes wellness by getting to the root of health problems and helping the pet’s body and organs function properly. This article will explain functional medicine, and then feature cases of how this approach helped three dogs.

What Exactly is Functional Medicine?

Functional medicine is personalized medicine that deals with both preventing disease and correcting underlying causes for serious chronic disease (instead of just treating symptoms, which doesn’t address underlying causes). It is a science-based healthcare field based on the following principles, according to veterinarian Dr. John Smith:

  • Biochemical individuality — describes the importance of individual variations in metabolic function that derive from genetic and environmental differences among individual animals.
  • Patient-centered medicine — emphasizes “patient care” rather than “disease care”, understanding that it is “more important to know what patient has the disease than to know what disease the patient has”.
  • Balance of internal and external factors.
  • Interconnections of physiological factors — an abundance of research now supports the view that the human body functions as an orchestrated network of interconnected systems, rather than individual systems functioning autonomously and without effect on each other. We use these same principles to help our pets.
  • Looking at health as not merely the absence of disease.
  • Promoting organ reserve as the means to enhance the pet’s health.

This functional medicine approach, using a whole health (holistic) perspective, integrates the best of conventional medicine with the best of natural medicine, which then allows us to minimize disease and help sick pets recover quickly.

Case #1— Jojo: Preventing Problems Before They Manifest

Jojo is a seven-year-old standard poodle who came in for her biannual checkup. Her blood testing showed thyroid hormone in the low normal range, elevated ALP (adrenal dysfunction), decreased vitamin D3, and increased CRP (an inflammatory protein commonly elevated in pets and people). While these lab results are quite common in our “normal” patients, the results themselves are definitely not normal. From a functional medicine approach, they need attention to prevent further deterioration of the dog into a state of functional illness.

Additional testing for Jojo failed to show clinical hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease. I explained to her owner that finding abnormal results in a normal-looking pet is our goal – it means we can begin treatment (detoxification, restoring hormone levels, supporting proper function of the various organs and immune system) before the dog actually becomes clinically ill.

We prescribed thyroid and adrenal glandulars, Omega-3 fatty acids, enzymes and probiotics, high dose vitamin D3 (to be administered with food since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin), and a special herbal blend (Healthy Qi) plus antioxidants to correct Jojo’s elevated CRP level.

A recheck in one month showed normalization of all previously abnormal results. (Had Jojo’s re-testing failed to show normal lab values, further testing would have been done to identify the source of her abnormalities to allow for further proper treatment.)

Case #2— Ralphie: Getting to the Root of Itchy Skin

Ralphie is a nine-year-old cocker spaniel who had already been to “many vets” for his itchy skin when he came to see me. His owner stated that the vets had prescribed numerous drugs (antibiotics, antifungals, and steroids) with varying degrees of anti-itching action. A referral to a dermatologist for allergy testing and three years’ worth of “allergy shots”, Apoquel and Atopica were ineffective. Not wanting to give up, and not wanting to continue medications, Ralphie’s owner sought my help.

Blood testing confirmed my suspicions of elevated ALP (adrenal dysfunction) and hypothyroidism; both were treated with glandular therapy and selected herbs which restored normal function (based on blood testing and clinical improvement). Antioxidants, fish oil, and an herbal remedy called CA Support were prescribed based on elevated CRP and CRA levels (which returned to normal one month following diagnosis).

To restore a healthy GI immune system and reverse what I suspected was subclinical leaky gut syndrome due to all of Ralphie’s prior medications, I prescribed an enzyme and probiotic powder and an herbal remedy called Advance GI Support.

Skin culture and cytology showed Malassezia yeast and non-MRSA staph; these were treated naturally with olive leaf, Herbal AM (an herbal antimicrobial), and daily bathing for two weeks using a benzoyl peroxide shampoo that was replaced with an organic itch-relief shampoo at his two-week follow-up visit. Xiao herbal drops were prescribed in place of steroids to control itching. Ralphie had returned to normal function by his two-month follow-up visit and continues to do well.

Case #3 – Willow: Treating a Dog with Cancer

Willow is a five-year-old golden retriever with lymphoma. Her primary doctor and oncologist recommended chemotherapy with an expected prognosis of eight to 12 months.

I explained to her owner that functional medicine seeks to reduce the insult to the cells that allowed cancer to develop, to detoxify her body, improve response and minimize side effects when chemotherapy is given, support her liver during detoxification, support the GI system to prevent leaky gut and heal the GALT (gut-associated lymphoid tissue, the largest arm of the immune system), improve apoptosis (cancer cell death), reduce metastasis (cancer spread), and improve quality of life.

These goals are achieved by careful supplementation with herbs, homeopathics, homotoxicologics, acupuncture, nutrition, and diet, correcting imbalances (such as increased TK/CRP/CRA and decreased vitamin D3 levels), and providing proven supplements that can help fight cancer. As a rule, our average patients tend to live six to 12 months longer than originally expected if the owner carefully follows our functional approach to cancer (treating the pet and not just the disease).

Willow’s owner was quite excited to hear that her dog could live up to two years or longer with this approach. Willow did in fact live a little over two years with a combination of chemotherapy and natural medicine, before passing from an unrelated issue.

While these three cases involve dogs, we see similar results in our feline and exotic patients. Functional medicine is applicable to all people and animals and simply involves formulating a different perspective on disease prevention and treatment. While conventional medicine is helpful for acute diseases and flare-ups of chronic problems, the functional medicine approach (which seeks to reduce over-medication of the patient) is ideally suited to keep pets healthy, reduce toxicity, and improve and extend lifespans. The cases presented above are typical of the cases and responses we see on a daily basis and continue to convince me that we can all heal if this innate ability is promptly recognized and supported.

Functional Medicine and Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis (“allergies”) is a common disorder that I previously thought incurable. While most of my patients will be well controlled rather than cured with a functional medicine approach, I have noticed that some are cured, based on no further need for medication (the term “cure” might be misleading as most of these “cured” cases still require supplementation, rather than drugs, and close monitoring to prevent relapses).

However, I believe a cure is possible for most pets, and drug-free control likely, despite atopy being a heritable predisposition to an overreaction of specific antibodies (and also T cells) to specific allergens. Nutrigenomics (the study of how diet and environment control gene expression) is revealing that while we’re stuck with our genes, they can be modified through the environment (especially diet, toxin reduction, and properly chosen proven supplements).

A Unique Approach to Cancer

Functional medicine really shines when it comes to helping pets with chronic diseases such as cancer. To illustrate this, let me give you three quotes from one of my books (The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer).

  • “Don’t forget there’s a pet attached to the tumor” (Kevin Hahn, DVM). We can’t ignore the pet’s needs and totally focus on the disease; we don’t want to cure cancer but still have the pet die!
  • “No matter how much surgery you use to cut out cancer, or how much radiation you use to burn cancer, or how much chemotherapy you use to poison cancer if you fail to support the patient’s immune system he will die” (Russell Blaylock, MD). Again we focus on supporting the animal through treatment since ultimately, immune surveillance determines the outcome.
  • Finally, a quote from yours truly: “When I’m asked by a client if I can treat her pet’s cancer, I always respond ‘No.’ The befuddled client then asks me to explain my answer, to which I respond ‘I don’t treat cancer. I treat PETS with cancer.’” Focusing on the patient rather than the disease is the backbone of functional medicine and explains why immune support, GI support, liver support, and detoxification are essential to give us the best results possible.