Holistic or Alternative Veterinary Medicine - By Richard J. Holliday, DVM

Published in "Building a Holistic Foundation for Animal Health," By R.J. Holliday, DVM
It is a difficult task to briefly describe “holistic” or “alternative” veterinary medicine.  The dictionary defines “holistic” as being concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with parts or divisions, while “alternative” describes something existing or functioning outside the established cultural, social, or economic system.  Both definitions are correct but do not adequately address the wide variations within the realm of holistic veterinary medicine as practiced today.
The range of alternative therapies  is immense ... acupuncture, herbs, homeopathy, refined colostrum products, microbial products (lactobacillus and yeasts), mega-vitamins, radionics, and many other natural products and procedures. The list goes on and on, and I apologize if I’ve left out someone’s favorite therapy. Most are useful and generally effective alternatives to the drugs, hormones and antibiotics commonly used  in veterinary medicine today.
I believe that the distinguishing characteristic of  holistic  practitioners is the way they approach problems ... in short, the way they think.  A true holistic practitioner not only looks at the patient as an integrated unit but also views it in the context of the whole ecosystem in which it lives.  In this regard, a sick animal is not only a patient to be treated but is also a symptom of  a sick farm. Both patients need help.  Any remedial action must include what is necessary for the immediate relief of the patient as well as a critical assessment of the long-term effects of the chosen therapy on the patient and the environment. Part of the treatment must also be the removal or reduction of predisposing factors. 
A holistic practitioner should also be well versed in several treatment modalities and be able to pick the most appropriate ones needed in any situation. In some situations this might even include the judicious use of antibiotics, if really indicated and if it has a reasonably good chance of success. 
Finally, a true holistic practitioner should emphasize holistic animal health management (proactive) rather than any kind of treatment (reactive), whether it be holistic or conventional. 
It should be noted that the terms holistic and alternative are not interchangeable.  For example:  an acupuncturist may be practicing alternative medicine, but if he only treats symptoms and does not search for the cause or other useful therapies ... then he is probably not a holistic practitioner. A fine distinction perhaps, but a significant one.
To me, the greatest advantage to the holistic approach is that it works!  In the hands of an experienced practitioner most holistic/alternative treatments have as good or a better success rate than conventional therapy. I think this is true because holistic practitioners attempt to find and treat the cause not just the symptoms.  
There are many other advantages to holistic medicine ... less pollution, fewer side effects, and especially the fact that holistic medicine follows the old medical axiom, “at least do no harm.” This advice seems to have been lost or overlooked in the U.S. as evidenced by the recent report that pharmaceutical drugs are now either the 4th or 6th leading cause of death.
Unfortunately, several factors have slowed public acceptance.  The sale and use of natural products do not generate the huge profits necessary to buy researchers. lobbyists and politicians as does the sale of  antibiotics,  pharmaceuticals, herbicides and insecticides. Thus we have little credibility in some circles because we do hot have research to back up our empirical observations. 
Because so few schools teach these advanced concepts, there are not enough qualified practitioners, although the number is growing,   Those that do engage in holistic practice are often subjected to harassment by government agencies.
The biggest disadvantage is that most people tend to use it for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time!  They will turn to alternative treatments only as a last resort when everything conventional medicine has to offer has failed. Usually by this time the patient is in advanced stages of the disease and also suffering from the side effect of all the prescribed drugs they have used. When the alternative approach also fails, and it usually does in this situation, the patient gives up on the entire concept and never realizes that the alternative treatment might have worked had they used the right product or technique at the right time.  Unfortunately, this apparent “failure” provides more evidence for the pharmaceutical /medical complex  to ridicule and condemn  the entire concept of holistic medicine.
The success of the holistic approach requires a change in perspective and the development of a holistic outlook towards livestock management and disease control. It is not as simple as merely substituting a “natural” alternate therapy for a “toxic” drug. The principles behind the success of holistic therapy go much deeper than the characteristics or source of the  medication. 
Conventional Veterinary Medicine is primarily concerned with the treatment of sick animals. Even if successful, the loss of life and production added to the cost of treatment makes this approach by far the most expensive.
Veterinarians also emphasize disease prevention.  Herd health checks and vaccination programs fall into this category. As essential as these procedures are, the outlook is still towards preventing disease. Vaccinations may increase resistance against a specific organism but does little to elevate the animal’s vitality to the health enhancement level. Typical of this category are herds or flocks where the animals are not really sick or showing symptoms but are not really well and productive either.
A third concept, usually neglected by conventional veterinary practitioners, is that of  health enhancement through holistic management. Everything possible is done to raise health and vitality to the highest level possible. All management practices are evaluated on the basis of their effects on the vitality of each animal in the herd. Strict attention is given to providing superlative nutrition.  In so far as possible, all environmental stress factors are eliminated. Water is checked for nitrates or other toxins. Housing and ventilation are maintained at optimum levels.  Any equipment with which the animals come in contact is properly maintained and adjusted.  There are literally hundreds of other environmental factors that impact animal health and they all must be considered.  When animals are maintained at a high level of vitality their resistance is much higher.  Health enhancement is much more profitable than either treatment or prevention.
Stress is known to lower immune function and may be the primary factor that sets the stage for animal disease.  
There are three categories of stress.    
 1.  Environmental or physical stress, such as faulty nutrition, bad water, lack of sanitation, poorly designed and maintained equipment, unsuitable habitat, etc..   Good management has some influence on most of these but can not control all of them. For example, weather cannot be controlled but the effects can be mitigated with proper housing.
 2.  Physiological stress, usually associated with reproduction and lactation. We can  minimize some of the effects of this type, but we can not totally eliminate it.
 3.  Psychological stress may occurs when weaning, changing groups. establishing a new “pecking order”, etc. This type can be held to an acceptable level with good management.  
All animals vary in their ability to accommodate stress.  Some differences are due to inheritance ... species, breed and sex. Others are associated with the individual’s life history of health and disease. Older animals do not accommodate stress as well as younger ones do.  A young animal that suffers an episode of severe scours/pneumonia may survive, grow and appear thrifty even though some irreversible damage to heart, lungs and intestinal lining may forever impair it’s ability to pump blood and absorb oxygen and nutrients. Under stress this animal will probably show earlier and more severe symptoms than others in the same group that did not go through the sickness.  
Stresses are cumulative. A small stress has a greater effect in an animal already carrying a big stress load, than it has  in another relatively stress free animal.
Over many years, I have developed a graph or map that allows me focus my thinking and helps me keep the various aspects of health and disease in their proper perspective. Any animal’s relative health status can be plotted on this graph.  Since this Vitality Chart also seems useful to illustrate certain principles of holistic thought, I would like to share it with you and will use it as the basis for this article and for almost all future discussions of health and disease.
On the chart, note that the “vitality” line on the left side (looks like a thermometer) runs from PERFECT HEALTH to DEAD.  I purposefully do not assign any numbers because the positions are variable and I’d rather think in terms of relationships and not absolutes. I doubt we ever attain perfect health but “DEAD” is common.
The “profitability line” indicates a relative loss of production, profitability or performance.  The “clinical line” by definition separates healthy animals from sick animals,  based solely on the presence or absence of symptoms.  These lines are actually wide, gray areas and their position arbitrary and quite variable.  It depends a great deal on how well the herdsman relates to and observes his animals.  
Physiological and psychological stresses are represented on the chart as a wavy gray line. These stresses usually  occur at predetermined times, such as  parturition, weaning, and other routine changes or events.
If an animal progressively declines from good health to sickness or even death (going straight down the left side of the chart), it will first cross  the ‘profitability line” as it becomes less productive and then the “clinical line” when it begins to show symptoms of disease.  These symptoms may be mild at first ... “a little off,”  ... gradually increasing in severity until  “DEAD”.   (See Vitality Chart)  We know and accept that there are differing levels of illness but our management decisions frequently seem to be based on the premise that animal “B” is just as healthy as animal “A”.
We all know that different levels of health do exist but in practice we tend to overlook this because “A” and “B” both look equally healthy even though there is great difference in their respective vitality.  Production records and breeding records are a great aid to identify those animals that have lost productivity but are not yet showing symptoms. 
Let’s compare the reactions of “Spot” and “Star,” both living a relatively stress free life and having a high level of vitality. (position 1 on the chart)  If something happens to their ration and they are subjected to nutritional stress, they will probably both decline in vitality to position 2.  Notice that Spot was affected more severely, possibly because she suffered a grave illness when young (as discussed earlier).  Both still appear to be healthy and productive but some of their “reserve” is used up. 
Adding another stress causes both to slip down to position 3.  Star is still doing well but now Spot has dropped under the profitability line.  She shows no clinical symptoms but performance or production testing may indicate problems.  In a dairy animal this could be evidenced by lowered production, a change in SCC or an impairment of breeding efficiency.
Add one more stress and Spot and Star fall to position 4, both below the profitability line.  Spot is dangerously close to the clinical line but still shows no obvious symptoms although a really close observer might see mild symptoms developing.  
As one last insult, let’s expose both of them to a pathogenic bacteria capable of causing disease. Both suffer the same loss of vitality from this exposure (striped line).   Star dips in vitality but does not go “clinical.”  She is able to overcome the infection because she had some resistance left.   Spot drops over the line and begins to show symptoms.  Conventional medicine would diagnose the bacteria as the “cause” of her disease. 
This example is obviously oversimplified to illustrate a principle, but does beg the question:  “In this example, did the germs cause the disease? ......   Or would it be more accurate to ask:  “Did the bacteria trigger a disease in an animal that was already suffering from stress-induced, low vitality?”  I go with the trigger theory.  The deciding factor was not the presence or absence of a disease organism, but the presence of absence of a strong immune system.  Obviously, microorganisms do vary in their ability to cause disease and a highly pathogenic organism may be able to cause disease in relatively stress free animals.  These epidemics however are probably not as costly in the long run as the day to day losses incurred by common infections.
I think we give germs way too much weight as the cause of problems.  My guess is that a germ can’t tell if an animal is dead or alive ...  but if an animal is so “stressed out” that it “tastes” dead to the bacteria, they immediately begin the recycling process.  In a dead animal we call it decomposition ... in a live animal we call it disease.   In the grand scheme of things, the “bugs “are probably only doing the job assigned to them.
 • Let’s go back to poor old Spot’s predicament.  We could give her some antibiotics and hopefully kill enough germs to get her back up over the clinical line.  Or, we could treat her with herbs, or homeopathy or whatever and probably help her enough to shut off the symptoms.  BUT, unless we eliminate the stresses that put her at the susceptible level in the first place, we have really only installed a big Band-Aid!
 • Timing is critically important.  If you start treatment early, a mild treatment has a greater chance of getting results.  If this is not successful, you still have time to escalate to a more heroic treatment.  Some conventional dairymen overlook the importance of timing when their hope for a spontaneous recovery leads them to withhold treatment of sick animals until the last possible moment in order to minimize the economic loss of discarded milk or meat.  A holistic treatment does not have this disadvantage and can be used anytime.
 • Generally speaking, the closer to the top of the chart we recognize a problem and begin to correct it, the lower the cost.   
 • If healing and/or health occurs at all, it is a function of the natural inclination of the animal to be healthy.  Drugs, from whatever source derived, only aid this natural process.
 • Just because an animal shows no symptoms does not mean it’s healthy.    
The final stress that triggers symptoms is usually not the primary cause of the illness.   For example, bacteria may “trigger” mastitis but the real “cause” may be nutritional deficiencies or other stresses.
If you are already following holistic principles or aspire to do so, you should be able to answer these questions.  If you can’t answer them, you have some homework to do.
1.  Is the ration adequate with no excesses, deficiencies or toxins? Were the feeds grown on fertile soil with little or no chemical contamination? Are the feed ingredients appropriate to the species, type and age of the animals? 
2.  Is the water pure?  Has it been checked for nitrates and other harmful chemicals?  What is the actual nitrate level in the water?  Do you drink from the same water supply as the animals?  Does the water taste good to you?
3.  Are there any harmful electrical or electromagnetic influences on the premise?  Do you ever receive mild electrical shocks when working in the area where the animals are kept?
4.  If used, is milking equipment properly maintained and adjusted?  
5.  Are all procedures involving the animals such as milking, vaccinating, and routine surgery carried out in a timely and sanitary manner? 
6.  Do your animals have a clean, dry, well-ventilated environment when confined?   Can you kneel down in the pens without getting wet knees?  Is breathing uncomfortable or unpleasant to you when breathing at the same distance above the ground as the animal breathes in air?  
7.  Is there any evidence of mold, mycotoxins or aflatoxins in the feed?   Some are not apparent until symptoms occur ... have you checked?