Alternative medicines for the working animal and alternative medicines for behavioral conditions (Proceedings)


While most of us think of work as a physical enterprise, to work well also requires a functional mind, stabile emotions, and the inner desire or spirit to perform the task at hand.

Alternative medicines for working animals

Mind/body/emotion/spirit connection

While most of us think of work as a physical enterprise, to work well also requires a functional mind, stabile emotions, and the inner desire or spirit to perform the task at hand.

Fortunately, especially when we are dealing with dogs and horses, we have several centuries of developing the traits that make these animals assume their human-helping duties as a normal course of their day-to-day activities. On the other hand, the expectations we may place on our "helpers" often requires them to extend themselves beyond their innate capabilities, whether we are talking about physical, mental, emotional or spiritual capabilities.

Natural medicines may be helpful for helping prevent this over-extension syndrome. And when physical or mental stress causes breakdown, the natural medicines can offer a gentle, effective remedy that is relatively free from adverse side effects.


Alternative medicines that enhance physical health for the active/working animal include: acupuncture; chiropractic; massage; and physical therapy. For the competitive athlete, these may be the difference between the winner's circle and the also ran; they are often used to extend the time that the animal remains competitive; and they are used to assuage pain and help heal injury from overextension. In addition, some of these, acupuncture in particular, have been used to enhance production and reproduction in food and fiber animals.

Chiropractic and acupuncture, either separately or in combination, have become so popular as an effective way to ease pain and to enhance musculo-skeletal functionality, many athletes – human as well as animal – are treated routinely, perhaps once a week or a few days previous to every competition. (Note that some competition events do not allow acupuncture during the competition.)

Other alternative methods to enhance physical capabilities include: homeopathy, herbs, nutritional diets and supplements.

Examples of homeopathic remedies that may enhance physical capabilities, oftentimes by easing painful conditions, include:

  • Aconite: For symptoms with sudden onset. Can be used initially in a barn, herd, or kennel outbreak, to be followed by more specific remedies.

  • Arnica: For injuries – bruising, sprains, sore muscles, eye injuries, over-exertion. Also available in salves and ointments.

  • Byronia: Helpful for arthritis or rheumatism. Symptoms get worse with movement.

  • Conium maculatum: For trembling and weakness, especially of the aged animal and when the symptoms begin in the hind legs.

  • Hypericum: Reduces pain in open lacerated wounds and in injuries to areas that are rich in nerve supply.

  • Ledum: Used for treating puncture wounds.

  • Nux vomica: Primarily used to treat digestive conditions. Is a "clearing", and strong constitutional remedy.

  • Rhus tox: The "rusty gate" remedy – for painful arthritic conditions that "squeak" when the patient first moves, but improve with continued motion.

  • Ruta graveolens: A powerful remedy for sprains and dislocations. Symptoms get worse after rest.

  • Thuja: One of the remedies to use when toxicosis or adverse reactions to drugs or other substances is suspected.

Herbal remedies

  • Aimed specifically toward enhancing physical capabilities include

  • Cayenne, Capsicum spp.: Is a systemic stimulant; may be used with painful arthritis (topically and internally).

  • Echinacea, Echinacea spp.: Balances the immune system, and anti-microbial.

  • Ginger, Zingiber officinale: Stimulates circulation; calms the upset stomach.

  • Gingko, Ginkgo biloba: Used to enhance brain function.

  • Ginseng, Panax ginseng or Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian): Enhances physical performance and diminishes depression. Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen.

  • Hawthorne berries, Crataegus oxycanthoides: Cardiac tonic.

  • Kava kava: Anti-anxiety. Mentally relaxing while not interfering with mental or physical abilities.

Topical herbal remedies for treating wounds

Herbal remedies for topical wounds, used to treat superficial wounds, include:

Calendula, aloe, yarrow, and chamomile.

A poultice of fresh-picked plantain (available in any yard that is herbicide free) is excellent for removing foreign bodies (bee or wasp stingers, splinters, etc.) and for drawing out pus from festering wounds.

Many of the essential oils have extensive antiseptic and antimicrobial activity, they can enhance the healing process, they relieve pain, and they often have the advantage of creating a calming effect as they work. Examples include the essential oils of lavender, chamomile, oregano, etc.

Herbal remedies for pain and/or anxiety

  • Cayenne, Capsicum spp.: Is a systemic stimulant; may be used with painful arthritis (topically).

  • Chamomile, Anthemus nobile (Garden) or Matricaria chamomilla (German): One of the best relaxing herbs – for anxiety, upset stomach, or used topically (or via aromatherapy) as anti-microbial and for its pain relief and anti-anxiety properties.

  • Licorice root, Glycyrrhiza glabra: An adaptogen. Has glycosides with structures similar to natural steroids in the body. I used licorice root whenever I might have used steroids in my previous veterinary life.

  • Oats, Avena sativa: (Valerian, Valeriana officinalis; cat nip, Nepeta cataria): Calming.

  • Slippery elm bark, Ulmus fulva: For intestinal upset.

  • St. John's wort, Hypericum perforatum: For depression. Also acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial.

  • Willow bark, Salix alba: Natural salicylic acid (aspirin).

Alternative medicine to help with behavioral training

Roughly 10 million dogs and cats are euthanized (killed) in shelters every year, and most of these animals are relinquished because they have behavioral problems that the owners can't (or don't want to) deal with. (Note that these figures do not include those animals euthanized in veterinary clinics nor those animals "lost" and likely turned feral, and we can only speculate how many of these animals are euthanized/lost due to behavioral problems.) Given the extent of this problem, "bad behavior" may well be considered today's most lethal disease of pets in this country.

It is true that most of the behavioral problems are really not with the animals, but rather with pet owners who may not be knowledgeable enough about nor prepared for the realities of owning a pet. And some of the reasons pet owners cite for giving up their pets to shelters may be resolved through educational or other types of programs ... a holistic approach to pet health would thus, of necessity, include some type of positive behavioral training for pets and their people.

What all this suggests is that the practicing veterinarian should become more aware of behavioral problems in animals and perhaps should provide some sort of help – either directly or in the form of referrals to positive-method trainers — for clients who are having problems with their pets.

Normal animal behavior; Not so normal in our human society

Many of the activities that animals engage in are entirely appropriate for their species ... but not so appropriate in our civilized human society. Examples include: barking, digging, chewing, turf marking with feces and urine, and aggressively protecting their own turf. So, while many of these behaviors can be "trained away", owners also need to be aware that these are normal animal activities before they purchase their pets.

In addition, pets may have problems with socialization with some or all of the human family members, for a variety of reasons. As examples, the family pet may fear children, or distrust either females or males, or hate the newest member – child or spouse — of the household. Socialization problems can be compounded when they extend into the neighborhood and its people. And many pets, because they have become a part of the family "pack" become extremely anxious when they are left home alone.

Problems of socialization may also occur with other pets in the family or with animals in the neighborhood, especially when new pets or animals are added to the environment.

Finally, as a pet ages, it often becomes more crotchety, perhaps from increasing arthritic pain, from cognitive dysfunction, or from diminishing eyesight or hearing.

Many of these behavioral problems stem from "normal" animal attitudes or "normal" ways animals deal with their situation or environment. Many behavioral or socialization problems can be "trained away", and many of these training efforts can be helped with some of the alternative remedies. In addition, some of the normal training processes such as housebreaking or comforting an animal during a thunderstorm may be helped via the alternative remedies.

Behavioral training

The older, alpha dominance, method of training has come under more and more criticism – with the feeling that it may work for the short term, but not necessarily for the long term, especially when the "spirit" of the animal is considered, and more especially when the specificity of the trainer involved is considered.

More positive methods of training are now replacing the alpha dominance model.

However, whatever the training method used, training to affect behavioral modification is a necessary component of the whole process. Natural remedies can be used as an adjunct to good and proper training methods.

For more information on positive training methods see: Association of Pet Dog Trainers:


A holistic approach to behavioral training will recognize the importance of this three-way connection, with perhaps more emphasis on the mind and spirit aspects. Remember, though, that bodily factors may also contribute to a lack of ability to comply with some of the aspects of training.

Following are some natural methods that may be helpful for enhancing behavioral training

Herbs to consider for enhancing behavior modification training

  • Nervine tonics: Herbs that strengthen and feed the nervous system, helping it achieve a state of balance: Oats, skullcap, and vervain.

  • Nervine relaxants: Herbs that may help the dog undergoing stress and/or tension: black cohosh, chamomile, hops, lavender, motherwort, St. John's wort, skullcap, valerian.

  • For emotional conditions, consider flower essences (Bach Flowers®).

  • To enhance brain/cognitive function: Herbs that may help the dog to better use his brain's capacity: gingko, kava kava.

  • To calm a nervous stomach: slippery elm bark, chamomile, peppermint.

  • Also consider flower essences for emotional conditions that lead to a "nervous stomach".

Homeopathic remedies to consider for enhancing behavior modification training

Some animals respond to homeopathic remedies by "normalizing" aberrant behavior when they are given their constitutional remedy. This constitutional remedy conforms to the personality type of the animal. Some examples of homeopathic "personality types" include:

  • Lachesis: Patient is aggressive and "talkative". Symptoms/lesions tend to be on the left side; the patient has a voracious appetite for food and sex, and dislikes bright lights.

  • Lycopodium: Typical patient has symptoms that tend to move from one part of the body to another. The patient dislikes being alone and appears apprehensive; is alternatively aggressive and submissive.

  • Nux vomica: The Nux personality is voracious in everything, especially eating habits. May be surly and aggressive.

  • Pulsatilla: Used especially for female conditions of all sorts.

  • Silicea: For the shy, chilly, thin, and unsure patient.

  • Sulphur/Sulfur: Typical patient is dry, dirty-coated, smelly, overweight, and stubborn. Usually easy-going but may react violently if cornered. Prefers cold. Sulfur is powerful constitutional remedy, often used to clear the system before other remedies are used.

  • Thuja: One of the remedies to use when toxicosis or adverse reactions (including mental or emotional reactions) to drugs or other substances is suspected, and especially when these reactions may be thought to be interfering with normal behavior.

Flower essence (bach flower) remedies

Flower essences work by helping modulate emotional conditions, and they may be used to help an animal return to a more normal (and socially acceptable) behavior pattern.

For the abused and/or neglected animal, for example, a combination of Aspen, Star of Bethlehem and Larch may be indicated. Aspen and Larch are indicated for the animal that shows his fear with downcast eyes, and Star of Bethlehem for grief and trauma. For the animal that seems to lack confidence a combination of Cerato, Aspen, Elm, Larch, and Mimulus might be helpful. Chestnut bud and Walnut have been used successfully, along with gentle but firm training, to work with animals that bite or nip.

There are many other flower essences from a number of companies that are geared to alleviate emotional problems. Check your health food store for Bach Flowers and their handy pocket guide to give you some basic info on which remedies to use for which condition.

Aromatherapy remedies

Aromatherapy scents work by triggering parts of the brain to enhance or dampen emotional responses. While specific aromas have varying effects in different animals, some are fairly typical in the responses they elicit. Included among these are

  • English Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia or L. vera, L. officinale: Lavender affects the emotions by balancing them, relaxing or stimulating where necessary. In one experiment it was found that kenneled dogs bark less often when lavender aroma is present in the air.

  • German Chamomile, Matricaria recutita or M. chamomilla: Chamomile aroma has potent anti-anxiety and anti-depressant activity.

  • Cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum: The smell of cinnamon relieves tension, steadies the nerves, and invigorates the senses.

  • Clary Sage, Salvia sclarea: Its scent produces relaxation and acts to alleviate mental fatigue and stress-related conditions.

  • Juniper, Juniperus communis: The scent is good for those with anxiety and for those who are emotionally drained.

  • Peppermint, Mentha piperita: Peppermint's scent acts as a mental stimulant.

  • Ylang-Ylang, Cananga odorata: Ylang-ylang is a strong sedative and antispasmodic. The fragrance makes the senses more acute and tempers depression and anger.

Alternative medicines for elder animals

In this session, as in the previous one (Alternative Medicines for the Working Animal and for Behavioral Problems) we will be bringing together the concepts and methodologies of the various alternative medicines discussed in other sessions: acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, homeopathy, nutrition/supplementation.

This will be a discussion session, using a two pronged focus: 1) approaching aging remedies as they apply to specific organs at risk from aging; and 2) overlapping this approach with examples of alternative medicine methods that may be used to treat a variety of concerns of the aging animal.

Some of us, for what should be obvious reasons, have a great interest in the aging process and how we can best help maintain a good quality of life. Until recently, gerontology, the study of aging, and geriatric care have not been among the main areas of interest for most practitioners – perhaps because the topic isn't very sexy (although some of us old guys are still sexy), or perhaps because when we deal with geriatric patients we are reminded of our own mortality.

On the other hand, there is currently a healthy movement underway in the veterinary community for providing hospice care for elder pets (see below).

Elder animals

Dogs and cats live approximately 10-15 years, but since there is tremendous variability between individuals and some noted differences among breeds of dogs (larger dogs tend to live shorter lives), it is almost impossible to say when any one pet has reached his elder years.

Some gerontologists differentiate between senior (old) and geriatric (really old), but for most practitioners, the seven year-old dog (again, depending somewhat on its size) is considered old and is a definite candidate for elder care. Considering that 40% of dogs seen by veterinarians are age 6 or older, this amounts to a considerable portion of a practice's volume. (See the chart developed by Dr. Fred L. Metzger for Pfizer Animal Health.)

Theories of aging

(adapted from Dr. Mark Stibich at

There are several theories of aging with the following perhaps the most interesting:

  • Programmed theories claim that the body is designed to age and there is a certain biological timeline for this process. Within this theory are the following possibilities:

o Genes – aging is caused by certain genes switching on and off over time

o Endocrines and hormones control aging

o Immune system declines over time, leaving the animal more susceptible to disease

  • Error theories

o Wear and tear – cells and tissues simply wear out

o Fast living – the faster an organism uses oxygen, the shorter it lives

o Cross-linked proteins accumulate and slow down body processes

o Free radicals cause damage to cells, ultimately impairing function

o Somatic DNA damage, via gene mutations, causes cells to malfunction

  • Genetics and Aging

o Longevity genes help an animal live longer

o Cell senescence = the process by which cells deteriorate over time may be genetically linked

o Telomeres – structures at the end of DNA – are eventually depleted, resulting in cells that can no longer replicate. The control of telomere depletion may be under genetic control.

o Stem cells may be able to repair damage caused by aging

  • Biochemistry

o Free radicals increase with the aging process and cause damage to cells

o Protein cross-linking – excess sugars in the blood can cause protein molecules to literally stick together

o DNA repair, for unknown reasons, becomes less effective in older individuals

o Heat shock proteins help cells survive stress and are present in fewer numbers in older individuals.

o Hormones change with age, causing many shifts in organ systems resulting in many functional changes

Body systems

Aging has an effect on all body systems and on the body in general, but the following list seems to cover the most common effects of aging in pets:

  • Cancer

  • Cardiovascular conditions

  • Arthritis and other joint problems

  • Skin conditions (aging creates thickening and dryness of skin along with loss of elasticity and loss or whitening of hair)

  • Loss of hearing

  • Loss of vision (cataracts)

  • Weight gain (calorie needs can be 30-40% lower in older dogs)

o Weight loss is also a prominent problem of older animals

  • Diabetes – often as a result of obesity

  • Immune system dysfunction leading to more infections

  • Loss of teeth and other dental problems

  • GI upset – diminished functional capacity of digestive system, including the liver, pancreas, etc.

  • Urinary conditions (incontinence and prostatitis)

  • Senility and other cognitive dysfunctions (e.g. crotchety old guys)

  • Heart conditions

  • Liver dysfunction, resulting in detoxification and digestive problems

  • Change in feet and nails — thicker and more brittle nails makes trimming harder – (Long toenails in senior humans is a clue for the loss of ability to care for oneself)

General recommendations

  • Dietary factors to help with aging

o Importance of antioxidants

o Limiting nutrient intake at an early age

  • Exercise

  • Supplements to enhance nutrients

  • Immune system support

  • GI health

o As a part of the immune system

  • Spaying/neutering = mixed results

  • Mental fitness

o Positive mental attitude

o Give them a job

  • The importance of the human animal bond!!!

Specific recommendations

Some of these will be discussed, drawing from the alternative medicines of:

  • Acupuncture and chiropractic

  • Massage

  • Herbs

  • Nutrition

  • Supplements

  • Bach flowers

  • Aromatherapy

  • Etc.

Anti-aging silver bullets

  • Are there any?

  • Some purported anti-agers, including:

o Resveritrol

o Carnosine

o Etc.


According to the Dartmouth Atlas study on death (a human study): "The quality of medical intervention is often more a matter of the quality of caring than the quality of curing, and never more so than when life nears its end. Yet medicine's focus is disproportionately on curing, or at least on the ability to keep patients alive with life-support systems and other medical interventions. This ability to intervene at the end of life has raised a host of medical and ethical issues for patients, physicians, and policy makers."

Data from the human field indicates that about 25-30% of Medicare expenditures are spent on last year of a person's life, and for some individuals the last year of life consumes more than 70-90% of the medical expenses incurred over their entire lifetime. Caretakers and family members, when asked, often decide to forego heroic measures, citing the concern that the procedures may not actually enhance the quality of the patient's life ... as well as being concerned about the expense involved.

While exact comparisons can't be made between human end-of-life care and that for pets, there are many similarities that should, at the least, cause us to pause and think about the following:

  • Will what I am proposing to do to prolong the patient's life actually enhance its quality of life?

  • Have I considered the impact my recommended treatment regime will have on the entire family – pets and their people?

  • Are there alternative therapies I can consider that are: less expensive, less invasive, less time consuming (for rehab of the patient and the human involvement that will be required, for example)?

  • Have we adequately discussed palliative care rather than heroic measures?

  • What are the true goals of the people who are soliciting my advice?

In my holistic practice I was a bit amazed to discover — when I specifically asked (and then wrote down) what the client's objectives were for the treatments they were asking me to perform – how rarely (almost never) their true objectives involved a complete cure. Most often, especially for the elder animals or for the chronically afflicted, they simply wanted their pet to feel better. They wanted to feel they had done what they could to enhance his quality of life, not his lifespan.

Too often I think we as practitioners feel we know what is best for the animal, we are convinced we know what the clients' expectations/goals are. All I'm saying is that, especially at the end of life of an animal, it may be appropriate to bring in the clients and their feelings, wishes, and concerns.

Hospice care

While many veterinarians are still stuck in the dictatorial paradigm of doing things their way and only their way, other, more holistic veterinarians have adopted a more progressive approach (especially for elder pets) that is more owner friendly and perhaps uses a more conservative approach to medical interventions. In addition there are many veterinarians who are involved in hospice care for pets, helping both owners (owners who are often seniors themselves) and their pets to a healthy transition at the end of their lives – relying more on quality of life than simply life extension.

For more info on animal hospice and palliative care check out the International Assn. for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care:

For more info on medical ethics, check out:

Dr. Alice Villalobos has done considerable work in these areas. Check out her Quality of Life Scale:

Case examples

Some of the following case examples of old pets will be discussed (time permitting), as per the holistic approach that participants might think to use.

  • Arthritis

  • Urinary incontinence

  • Crotchety old guys

  • Heart lung conditions

  • Cancer
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