Features May 2005 Issue

What Is Holistic Dog Care?

Holistic healthcare isn’t just improving the diet or using herbs.

by Gregory Tilford

Bart, a two-year-old Husky in Palm Desert, California, licks his paws incessantly and is always itchy. This morning he also vomited. Not in the easy-to-clean patio, but in the middle of the kitchen floor.

“At least it wasn’t on the sofa this time,” mumbles Linda, his guardian, as she rummages beneath the sink for a bottle of household spray cleaner. Finally she finds it – the good stuff – the same brand that her mom used when she was a kid. She cleans up the mess and gives the spot an extra squirt and a light wipe, leaving the spot a little wet to assure an extra measure of disinfectant action.

Holistic Dog-Keeping

One important aspect of holistic dog-keeping is choosing a dog that is naturally suited to your environment. Keeping heavy-coated Northern breeds such as Huskies or Malamutes in a hot and/or humid climate puts the dogs at a health disadvantage.

In the living room Bart is still chewing. Linda looks at his paws and sees that they are raw and scabby between the toes. As she strokes his coat she notices a strange lump on his front leg. It wasn’t there before.

“This isn’t just fleas,” she thinks to herself. “It can’t be! I just had the entire yard sprayed last week. Besides, it has been too darned hot to leave him in the yard much, and he hasn’t had a flea on him since he got his spot-on flea remedy last month.”

Linda figures that it isn’t food allergy, either. She spends a lot of money on his dog food – the best natural recipe kibble she can get at the health food store. Sometimes Bart even eats home-cooked food, and he gets essential fatty acids, digestive enzymes, and a vitamin supplement with each meal. And as if that isn’t enough, Bart also gets twice daily doses of a dandelion/milk thistle herb tincture product that the holistic vet said is supposed to support Bart’s liver and help his body detoxify.

But his problems aren’t improving, and Linda is becoming discouraged. She lights her last cigarette and sits down by Bart’s bed. “Is this whole natural pet care thing just nonsense? Am I getting ripped off?” she wonders.

Incomplete understanding
Bart and Linda’s dilemma is not unique. Several thousand other people will likely become discouraged each year by disappointing results from the natural products they buy and use. Many will abandon their pursuit of animal wellness altogether, returning to old ways of feeding bargain- basement foods and spending huge amounts of money on symptomatic treatment of their dogs’ chronic disease.

Is it because most natural remedies don’t work? Is it because natural-recipe foods are a waste of money?

Certainly not.

Indeed, there are some misleading label claims out there, and there are too many junk products in the natural pet marketplace these days. But unscrupulous manufacturers of these products are not to blame for their failures.

In the case of Linda and many other holistically inclined dog lovers, failures in achieving desirable results do not rest with the foods, supplements, or holistic vet services they use, but with the mindset from which these products are used.

Bart’s problems stem largely from what his caregiver has not considered. The fact is, Bart is well-nourished, and the herbs he gets probably are supporting his liver and helping to move toxins out of his body – but Linda isn’t looking at the bigger picture, and his health may never improve until she does.

Bart’s feet may be covered with sores because he is allergic to the organophos-phate pesticides Linda sprays on the back lawn. Even worse, these organophosphates have been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that has been on the rise in both humans and animals in recent years.

Or it may be the household cleaner she uses, which may harm Bart’s liver as he licks it from his feet every day. It may even lead to cancer.

Then there’s the spot-on flea pesticide she uses on him, a product that most people believe to be totally safe. Indeed, the manufacturer’s own research says the product is toxic only to sucking insects and other invertebrates, and therefore it is safe for dogs. What the manufacturer didn’t tell Linda or her veterinarian is that studies also show that the active ingredient in the product is a potential neurotoxin to mammals – after it is licked from the skin and ingested.

Nor was she told about the studies that suggest that long-term, recurrent use of the pesticide may cause chromosomal deformity (genetic disease) and thyroid disease. The fact is, nobody told Linda that most if not all of the spot-on flea killers haven’t been studied enough to accurately predict what their long-term health effects are. Obviously, the manufacturers who are making millions off of the product aren’t in a big rush to find out and tell people.

Then there is Linda’s smoking habit. Secondhand smoke kills people, and there is no reason to think that it is any less harmful to dogs. In fact, since dogs age at a much more accelerated rate than we do, it is reasonable to think that their bodies may succumb to the effects of secondhand cigarette smoke more quickly than ours.

So, is Linda wasting time and money on premium food and supplements? Not en-tirely; good nutrition and systemic support are always important. But Bart is not going to enjoy the full results of her efforts until she takes a hard look at the bigger picture. And that bigger picture includes Linda’s lifestyle.

Holism can’t be done halfway
The value of natural diets and supplements cannot be fully realized until the human caregiver is willing to adopt a holistic life-style. Likewise, no course of natural canine therapy can be entirely effective unless all elements of wellness are first considered.

The word “natural” on a product label may lead some people to think that the product must be safer and deeper in its therapeutic or nutritional values, but the truth is that all this word really suggests is the possibility of greater purity and superior quality. Even cream-of-the-crop products that really are made with all-natural ingredients cannot guarantee any greater levels of efficacy over conventional alternatives unless they are used as part of a holistic agenda that factors all elements of physical, emotional, and environmental health into the wellness equation.

My intent is not to question the love, conviction, or intelligence of any of my readers, nor to denigrate anyone like Linda. But I remind you that we are all prone to becoming complacent when it comes to managing the health of our dogs. We are also prone to seeking out and getting what pleases us, even if it isn’t in the best interests of those around us. Like Bart, the non-complaining Husky who has been raised in a small apartment, in the hot, arid climate of Palm Desert, California. What was Linda thinking?

Even though my work and lifestyle immerses me in the world of holistic animal care each and every day, I, too, catch myself reaching for a quick fix at times when I should be looking deeper into my dogs’ health issues. Just last week I caught myself giving Willow, my Shepherd-cross, an herbal breath formula without first checking her teeth and gums. I was busy, and it was two days before I remembered to examine her mouth carefully, to eliminate an oral infection as the cause of her bad breath.

Loving someone is not always easy. And caring for someone holistically is not an easy job – especially when that someone is not human. And although it’s great to include our dogs as members of our families, it is important to remember that they are really not like us at all. Sure, we can give them human names, dress them in silly clothes, give them fancy haircuts, and feed them foods that are packaged to appeal to human sight and smell – but we must always remember that their health is highly dependent on how well we are able to respect and honor the “ways of dogs.” The family dog, after all, is still an animal by nature.

What I am saying may sound simple, but it’s not. To accept and fulfil a dog’s needs, we must put our human tendencies aside long enough to stop catering to our needs for conveniences and consider the effects of our own, human condition.

Diet as an example
Diet presents us with a perfect example of my point.

Dogs need foods that are fit for them, not necessarily for us. It is common practice for pet food manufacturers to draw consumers to their products by the way their products are packaged, how the product looks, smells, and even tastes to humans (believe it or not, some companies even use human taste testers).

But this does not diminish the reality of what dogs need: muscle and organ meats, connective tissues, raw bones, and even an occasional snack of pre-digested vegetable matter (dogs sometimes eat grass and other things twice, to improve digestion). Which brings us to raw food – many people will not feed it to their dogs simply because they (humans) find it too repulsive. The dog may not think it’s repulsive, and he doesn’t care about the shape or color of his kibble, either.

Consider negative influences
Thinking holistically also means going places within the human mind where we really don’t like to go – places where we are forced to consider the consequences of our actions and reassess the impacts of our bad habits. In this uncomfortable place we are forced by our love to consider aspects of our own behavior that may contribute to the misery of our dogs. Loud music, angry arguments, cars with exhaust leaks, loud vehicles, new carpets and linoleum (toxic gassing), fresh paint, wood smoke, fireworks, or even a box of dark chocolates left out on the coffee table may contribute to our dogs’ stress and increase risk of illness.

Then there are issues of unneccessary and/or over-vaccination, prophylactic use of antibiotics, tail docking, and ear cropping – things we would never do to our human children, but often will not think twice about when it comes to our beloved pooches.

Indeed, moving toward adopting a completely holistic lifestyle can be difficult – but it’s what true love and true healing are all about, isn’t it?


Also With This Article
"What You Can Do"
"Tips On Getting Into the Holistic Groove"

-Greg Tilford is a well-known expert in the field of veterinary herbalism. An international lecturer and teacher of veterinarians and pet owners alike, Greg has written four books on herbs, including "All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets" (Bowie Press, 1999), which he coauthored with his wife, Mary.

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