Modern veterinary medicine has made it possible for dogs and cats to live healthier lives than ever before. Conditions such as diabetes and thyroid disease can now be treated with inexpensive medications. Long-term problems like hip dysplasia are eased with over-the-counter drugs, and most infections can be cured almost instantly with antibiotics.

Veterinary medicine has made it possible for dogs and cats

Conventional drugs, however, aren’t perfect solutions. While they are very effective at targeting specific symptoms, they often cause additional problems at the same time. “Aspirin is great at relieving pain, but it can also lead to gastric ulcers and stomach bleeding,” says Randy Caviness, D.V.M., clinical instructor of small animal acupuncture at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts, and a holistic veterinarian in private practice in Concord.

A bigger problem is that modern drugs often treat symptoms rather than the underlying causes of disease, says Christina Chambreau, D.V.M., a holistic veterinarian in Sparks, Maryland, and education chairperson for the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy. It is like giving an itchy dog a shot instead of getting rid of the fleas, she explains. You can relieve the symptoms temporarily, but sooner or later he is going to be scratching again.

Holistic veterinarians believe there is a better way. Rather than seeking “cures” in the laboratory, they try to help pets heal themselves. They have discovered that natural medicines and techniques like homeopathy and flower essence therapy can strengthen the body so that it is more resistant to disease. At the same time, many of these “new” medicines will stop symptoms just as effectively as drugs—usually without the side effects.

Natural medicines are very safe and easy to use, but they have to be used responsibly, says Michelle Tilghman, D.V.M., a holistic veterinarian in private practice in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Every pet responds differently to various remedies, she explains. In fact, two pets with exactly the same condition will probably need different remedies and doses because of other factors that may be affecting their health. That’s why it is important to talk to your veterinarian before starting a natural treatment program at home.

Even though natural medicines have been around for thousands of years, it is only recently that they have been studied and widely used by veterinarians and pet owners. It is not always easy to find an expert who can help you choose the best natural remedies and provide instructions on using them safely. Ask your veterinarian (or friends who are already using natural remedies) to recommend an expert who is trained in homeopathic, herbal, and nutritional medicine. Or you can write to one of the holistic veterinary associations listed on page 434, which will point you to experts in your area.

Homeopathy: Helping the Body Help Itself

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One of the most exciting natural therapies—and one you can start using right away—is homeopathy. Homeopathic medicine is based on the concept that like cures like. The idea is to give pets minuscule amounts of substances that in larger doses would cause the same symptoms as the disease the pet already has. According to experts, this amplifies the original symptom and “wakes up” the body’s defenses, allowing them to recognize the problem and gear up for the attack.

Homeopathic physicians have spent years identifying substances that cause certain symptoms. They do this by testing, or “proving” the substances in healthy people, who then describe what they are feeling. (Pets aren’t used in provings because they can’t describe their symptoms.) “There are more than 2,000 homeopathic remedies that have been proven,” says Dr. Chambreau, “and they work just as well in pets as in people.”

Gently hold your pet’s mouth closed, and briefly put your thumb over his nostrils to make him swallow. When you read the label on a homeopathic remedy, you will see a designation like “1X.” This means that the remedy is diluted 1:10, or one part of the active ingredient to nine parts liquid (usually distilled water or alcohol). A dose of 3X means that a remedy has been diluted 1:10 three times. In homeopathy, this is a pretty concentrated dose. Many remedies are 1C, meaning they have been diluted 100 times, or 1M, which have been diluted 1,000 times. It is not uncommon in homeopathy for a remedy to be diluted so much that in a drop of medicine there might not be a single molecule of the active ingredient.

The extreme dilution of homeopathic remedies has led mainstream veterinarians to call the entire system into question. How, they ask, can a remedy with no molecules of the original substance possibly be effective? Homeopaths believe that the process of repeatedly diluting and shaking encodes the liquid with a “memory” of the original substance. “The more it is diluted and succussed, the more powerful the remedy becomes,” Dr. Chambreau explains. That means the 3 potencies (10-times dilutions) are weaker than the M potencies (1,000-times dilutions). This runs counter to modern science, which holds that things get weaker as they get more dilute.

Homeopathic remedies made for use at home usually are the lower potency X-strength, while C- and M-strength remedies are typically used by veterinarians, says Teresa Fulp, D.V.M., a holistic veterinarian in private practice in Springfield, Virginia.

Some researchers speculate that the active ingredients in homeopathic remedies are so minute that they are able to slip through the body’s blood-brain barrier, possibly influencing the nervous system in ways that can’t be measured yet. In one study, researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Guadalajara looked at 81 children with diarrhea. They found that children treated with homeopathy got better 20 percent faster than those given an inactive (placebo) drug.

And in one large study, in which scientists in the Netherlands reviewed 107 smaller studies, they found that 75 percent of the research showed homeopathy to be effective. What works for people, veterinarians say, clearly works for pets as well. “We can’t explain exactly how it works, but it is powerful medicine,” says Dr. Chambreau