An Integrative Approach: 4 Alternative Therapies That Benefit Dogs

Jane Costa, DVM
Published on September 16, 2020

Western veterinary practices have made great advancements in recent years for dogs. From new surgical approaches to disease-fighting medications to state-of-the-art diagnostics: The developments have proven their worth. Yet while few will argue the benefits of conventional veterinary medicine, many are just now recognizing the appeal of so-called alternative therapies or integrative medicine. This trend in human medicine is clearly mirrored in the veterinary world, where more and more pet owners are seeking ways to address their pet’s health with a more natural, less-invasive approach.

Rather than choosing one style of medicine over another, however, many veterinarians are recommending complementary therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage in addition to conventional care to treat their four-legged patients. Alternative remedies offer a unique treatment style that, when combined with traditional Western methods, can provide a holistic, multi-modal approach to overall pet wellness. So, how might alternative therapies benefit your dog? Depending on your pet’s needs, one therapy may be more suitable than another, but most options can benefit pups in a myriad of different ways. Here are a few examples:

Massage therapy may help prevent injuries.

Anyone who’s had a therapeutic massage knows the benefit of a healing touch. But, by using specific hand movements, massage therapy can actually improve muscle functioning by relieving tension and increasing joint range of motion. This is especially important for active dogs that participate in racing, agility, or other high-energy sports, when quick movements and heavy impact may put them at risk for sports-related injuries. A pre-workout massage can help prep and warm the muscles prior to use, encouraging blood flow and reducing the possibility of injury during exercise. Massage is also an excellent post-training therapy that encourages relaxation and soothes sore muscles. Veterinarians are trained to provide simple instructions on range of motion exercises for pets, but look for a Nationally Board Certified Practitioner of Animal Acupressure or Massage for the benefit of a highly-trained therapist. Depending on your dog’s needs, your family veterinarian may refer you to a certified canine rehabilitation therapist (CCRT) or a board-certified veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation practitioner for more specialized care.

Laser therapy may speed recovery times.

Veterinary practitioners worldwide are recognizing the healing power of laser, which stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Therapeutic lasers emit single wavelengths from the red or infrared spectra that, when directed at the body, may increase vasodilation, energy, and antioxidant production in tissues. This acts as a little power boost, sending the body into active repair mode to heal damaged tissues, decrease inflammation, and even relieve pain. While there is still controversy regarding the efficacy of laser therapy, it continues to be a popular choice for pets recovering from surgeries, wounds, and even chronic musculoskeletal conditions like osteoarthritis. If your family veterinarian doesn’t offer laser therapy at their facility, they may refer your pet to a veterinary physical rehabilitation center for treatment.

Boston Terrier getting a massageChiropractic can do wonders for pain control.

Also known as Veterinary Spinal Manipulation Therapy (VMST), chiropractic care focuses on adjusting subluxations in the spine that contribute to pain, decreased range of motion, and nerve dysfunction. With the spine being the literal backbone, it’s alignment is essential for optimal canine health, from nose to tail. A qualified practitioner can restore normal joint movement with a painless, relaxing procedure that involves gentle, high-velocity thrusts at specific angles. Chiropractic is a wonderful complementary therapy to any pain management regimen, but it can also address a multitude of other health concerns such as incontinence, injuries, and even seizure disorders. Since our dogs cannot verbally communicate when and where they feel discomfort, pain can be difficult to quantify in companion animals. Therefore, pets of all ages, breeds, and health conditions may benefit from regular chiropractic care. Speak with your family veterinarian about referral to an American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) certified doctor for your dog’s treatment.

Acupuncture can help calm anxiety.

Acupuncture involves “the insertion of needles into specific points on the body to produce a healing response,” according to the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. These specific points, known as meridians, indicate where certain blood vessels and nerves converge. When stimulated with a fine, sterile needle, these acupressure points cause a boost in blood circulation, encouraging the release of a whole host of healing, calming, and anti-inflammatory elements. The end result is often a relaxed and pain-free pet. While some owners fret at the thought of their dog receiving a series of needle insertions, acupuncture is actually widely tolerated by furry friends. In fact, many pets welcome the treatments once they experience the flood of endorphins and feel-good response that comes with regular sessions. The potential sedative effects of acupuncture make it a great adjunct treatment for canine anxieties, fears, and phobias. Keep in mind that, like many therapies, acupuncture often requires consecutive treatments for optimal results. It also works best when combined with other treatment modalities, depending on your dog’s specific needs. Work with your veterinarian to find a reputable, certified veterinary acupuncturist near you.

While it may be tempting to pursue alternative therapies for your dog on your own, most providers will require a referral from your veterinarian—and for good reason. Many alternative procedures are largely safe for pets, but there can be risks. For instance, improper therapeutic laser usage could cause ocular damage—in the patient, the practitioner, or anyone else in the treatment room. Chiropractic adjustments may cause minor—and usually temporary—side effects like soreness or lethargy, but profound damage could occur if the practitioner is too forceful or otherwise untrained. Acupuncture is considered very safe, but a successful treatment could mask your pet’s pain, potentially hiding an undiagnosed condition. Additionally, since many states have differing laws and regulations regarding who is allowed to perform certain therapies on pets, a quality recommendation from your veterinarian is essential. Express your interest in alternative therapies and work with your family veterinarian to create a tailored, integrative, and holistic approach so your pet can achieve optimal health through a variety of therapies.








Jane Costa, DVM

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