Selecting a Holistic Veterinarian

Training and experience varies here more than with other specialties.


In every issue, Whole Dog Journal encourages its readers to “consult a holistic veterinarian.” But how do concerned dog owners find a holistic practitioner, and how do they assess that candidate’s qualifications? The answer to the first question is easy: You find a holistic veterinarian by contacting the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. The answer to the next question is difficult; my complete answer could fill an entire issue! But with just a few pages to speak my piece, I’ll give you my pared-down opinion on how to evaluate a practitioner’s ability to practice quality holistic medicine.

I think there are several parameters that make up a good holistic practitioner, with the emphasis on holistic because I think holistic medical practice is entirely different from a typical western medicine approach. Following is a list of the qualities that I think are important when it comes to evaluating the quality of any holistic practitioner, veterinary or otherwise. Education Most important is the quality and quantity of a practitioner’s education – that is, actual hours spent in the classroom or in dedicated, directed study. For most methods, educators would consider a study program that offers from 10 to 50 classroom hours as mere exposure to the method. Practitioners who think they can gain competency by taking a weekend course and/or by spending a weekend reading a book are deluding themselves and their clients. In my opinion, entry-level competency in some methods can be achieved only with a minimum of 100-200 contact hours, as long as the classroom time includes several dozen hours of instructor-supervised, hands-on professional activities performed in an actual practice environment. To reach an in-depth understanding of the basics of most of the alternative medicine methods requires a two- to three-year full-time study program. In most states, this two- to three-year study program is the depth of study that a licensed acupuncturist (L. Ac.) must obtain to receive a license to practice; it is also the amount of time required for most master’s degree, graduate-level programs. We grant the doctor’s degree – Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), Medical Doctor (MD), Oriental Medical Doctor (OMD), Doctor of Osteopathy (DO), Doctor of Chiropractic (DC), Naturopathic Physician (ND), etc. – only after the candidate has completed three to four years of undergraduate study and satisfied the requirements of an intensive full-time study program (usually four to six years) directed toward one particular healing method. Remember that these are doctorates in the medicine they represent; they do not necessarily cover anything other than their own specialty. Experience In theory, the more time a practitioner spends actually practicing his craft, the more proficient he will become. However, this assumes that a practitioner will continue to learn and grow and experience new methods and ways of doing things each and every year that she practices. Personally, I had to work with hundreds of animals using homeopathic remedies, acupuncture treatments, and herbal prescriptions before I had a good feel for how my patients should respond to those treatments. In the meantime, though, I think I helped a lot of animals get better – even if I didn’t feel very competent. Interplay between education and experience I can offer my own experience as a testament to the importance of both “hours of education” and “years of experience.” Years ago, I enrolled in one of the courses that train animal practitioners in chiropractic techniques. As a matter of fact, the course I took is the most extensive of all the courses of its type, 150-200 hours long, and is offered by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. I may never develop the palpation and adjusting skills of a good chiropractor (who will complete 1,000 to 2,000-plus hours of hands-on, clinical-practice training), but I began to feel reasonably comfortable with the sense that my fingers were palpating the animal’s true problem only after I’d been working with animals for about two years – that is, after I’d spent about 1,000 hours doing hands-on chiropractic adjustments on hundreds of animals. And it took at least that long before I felt I was able to do the adjustments in the way they were taught. So, in my opinion, as a matter of consumer awareness, you should check to see if your practitioner has received a minimum number of in-depth study hours of the method(s) he uses, and an adequate amount of time spent using the methods in his practice – on animals. Results Much more important than either education or time in the practice are the actual results a practitioner generates with her methods. In ancient tribal systems, the “pay” for the medicine wo/man depended on the results he or she produced. But in a tiny tribal society, everyone in the tribe could see those results firsthand! Today, we have no way to evaluate and record a practitioner’s results, good or bad.

Now, absolutely no one (contrary to what you’ll hear from some practitioners) and absolutely no single form of therapy will be able to cure all the diseases presented to them. Whenever I hear some braggart claim a 100 percent cure rate for anything, I know that he is “burying,” literally or figuratively, all of his failures. I suppose it’s just human nature: when we do have a failure, we tend to do our best to forget it, that is, “bury” it in our own minds. Oftentimes a practitioner will remember a failed case as an instance where the client did not comply with all the instructions demanded. Or the practitioner will complain that this case was “let go” too long before it was brought in for treatment. No practitioner, alternative, western, or otherwise, keeps an unbiased database of ALL the patients he/she has treated, along with an honest appraisal of the results. Consequently, clients have to rely on the practitioners’ accuracy and honesty when they assess their own results. (I’ve found that many practitioners, when asked what their cure rate is for a particular type of disease, will answer, “Oh, I cure about 70 percent of those.” This 70 percent figure has become so prevalent in our medical mythology, whenever I hear it, I know it’s bogus!) Interestingly, some practitioners seem to have a knack for treating one particular form of disease while they have problems with other diseases. For example, most of my colleagues claim great successes when treating various forms of epilepsy; I really struggle to have any luck treating any form of this disease, no matter what method I try. On the other hand, for whatever reason, I’ve had several successes when treating thyroid problems, whereas many of my holistic colleagues struggle with thyroid imbalances and often end up using western medicine’s drugs. Keep in mind that some holistic practitioners are willing to take on much more challenging cases than are others. The more challenging the case, of course, the lower the success rate. Now, onto the stuff that’s even more difficult to quantify! Environment of the practice Every practice has its own internal environment, its feel as you walk in the door. In a western medicine practice, we generally look for efficiency and sterility: white-wall cleanliness, quick answers, and one-step cures. In many ways a holistic practice will be almost the opposite of this, although I’d still expect the place to be clean and as odor-free as an animal environment can be. A holistic practice should have the feel that you and your critter’s comfort are an important part of the healing process. There should be a feel of unrushed competency, and you should be able to sense a calming and healing chi as you enter. Practitioner’s ability to educate True holistic healing comes when you take charge of your own health, the health of your family and extended family, and the health of your family of animals. Certainly you may need to rely on the advice and treatments of a qualified holistic practitioner, but ultimately you will be responsible for your own health and the health of those closest to you. With this in mind, the best holistic practitioner will be an educator; doctor comes from the Latin, docere: “to teach.” Educator-practitioners will help you learn the right ways to enhance health, and they will apply best-learning methods so that it is easy for you to learn. Realize that no matter the health problem you are addressing in a holistic manner, in order to truly cure it, you will need to change something – perhaps your family’s diet, your exercise regime, the amount of stress in the household, and/or something else. Whatever the change required, it will be helpful if your holistic practitioner can facilitate that change – act as a coach, if you will. A good holistic practitioner should offer “continuing education” for all his clients. Continuing education should be in the form of basic written materials, a bibliography of important study materials, feedback on treatments and results, and hands-on, experientially-oriented training sessions. In contrast, if, when you ask a question, your practitioner grunts and goes on about his treatment business, fire the schmuck and find someone who is willing to be a true doctor/teacher. Ability to refer In a holistic practice it is imperative that the practitioner have access to several methods of treatment. I am not saying that every practitioner must use all the various alternative medicines. A quick look at the hours required to become proficient in any one method tells us that a practitioner probably has only the time to learn one or two methods really well. But holistic practitioners should have a basic understanding for how a variety of methodologies work. AND, they should know other practitioners they can (and do) refer to whenever one particular method might have an advantage over another. I see far too many alternative practitioners who are firmly convinced that their method (whatever the method happens to be – acupuncture, for example, or homeopathy or chiropractic) is the ONLY way to approach a problem. I think these one-way practitioners tend to get bogged down with the necessity of proving that their method works, and their patients ultimately suffer from this lack of a broad-based perspective on healing methods. Furthermore (as I said in “Building a Foundation of Health,” March 2001), I firmly believe that the most commonly used alternative medicines (acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, and herbs) are merely “nudgers and tweakers” when it comes to long-term, in-depth healing. All healing methods require a base of supportive care that includes attention given to lifestyle, relationship, and nutrition. A true holistic practitioner will have at least a basic knowledge of how these can interact with healing, as well as having the skills to use one or more of the alternative medicines. Continuing education There is absolutely no way a practitioner can keep up with the constant changes that occur in medicine, especially the alternative medicines, without a consistent program of quality continuing education. In addition, all practitioners need a periodic assessment of their knowledge and skills to assure these haven’t deteriorated. Practitioners who engage in an annual course of rigorous continuing education are demonstrating their passion, their positive lifestyle, and their ability to charge enough to sustain a level of competency as a practitioner. Your holistic practitioner should be proud to tell you of his/her continuing education program, and as a consumer, you have every right to know if your practitioner is staying current. Practitioner passion To my way of thinking, passion is born from an inner germination of the seeds of love, intention, satisfaction, and creative force. The entry-level guiding light for all practitioners who work on animals is their passionate love for the animals, their intention to make them well and keep them healthy. People who are led by their passions have an energetic glow – an inner light, often expressed as an expanded and healthy outer aura. While none of these outer and inner signs of passion can be measured by scientific means, they can be easily felt and sensed by anyone open to them. Use your sense of awareness (best accessed with an open heart) to feel how much energy your alternative practitioner has. And remember you are evaluating inner energetics – not personal charisma, bedside manner, nor the practitioner’s apparent love for your dog. Practitioner compassion To me, compassion is such an obvious quality of any person who works with animals, it is hardly worth mentioning. Animals are compassion personified, and animals have an innate ability to bring out our own “Inner Compassionate.” But don’t confuse compassion with bedside manner. Professional compassion is the ability to sympathize with the animal’s condition, the inclination to give aid or support. It has to do with honoring the animal, and treating him and his condition with respect. Practitioner health This is simple: Find a practitioner who maintains her own health – if for no other reason, so she’ll still be around to help you a few years from now! Practicing holistic medicine can be extremely demanding and stressful, and for a practitioner to maintain sustainability she/he will need to recharge on a continuing basis. Rechargers for the professional include: continuing education, alternative medicine meetings, learning new methods and techniques, personal chi exercises (tai chi, chi gong, yoga, aikido, and other martial arts), and living a healthy, holistic lifestyle. A question you should ask of all your holistic practitioners is: “Doc, what are you doing for yourself?” In addition to a periodic recharge, all holistic practitioners need to walk their talk, so to speak. Your practitioner should be involved in healthy relationships, must not smoke or have other detrimental lifestyle habits, should be in relatively good physical condition, and should practice what she preaches regarding good nutrition and supplements. In addition, the person who works on your animals should know (and use) several alternative medicine practitioners who work on humans. Finally, a practitioner who expects to stay around for more than a few years will have developed a fee structure that allows her to live a healthy lifestyle. Again, I could write reams about the importance of charging fees that are adequate to sustain the practitioner, but let this suffice: Professionals charge fees for services rendered and goods delivered. Since holistic veterinarians actually frown on vaccines, steroids, and antibiotics, they typically generate very little (if any) income from these sources. And, although there are exceptions to this rule, most holistic practitioners don’t have much of an inventory to sell – their true inventory is their cache of information they have stored in their heads, and their overhead lies in the cost of their specialized schooling. Holistic medicine will almost certainly appear at first glance to be more expensive than the typical visit to a western medicine practitioner. However, I like to think (although I’m not absolutely certain) that the overall fees will be less, over the lifetime of the animal. This, I am sure of: Pets that are living a holistic lifestyle will be healthier over their lifetime. Eye of the beholder Having said all this, let me add that a practitioner’s quality is really in the eye of the beholder. One client may want only a compassionate holistic practitioner who seems to love her dog as much as she does; another may be primarily concerned that the evils of western medicine not be practiced on his dog; a third may be interested in results only, no matter what kind of medicine that requires; and another patient’s wishes may be for a truly holistic approach that supports inner and natural healing of the entire family’s body/mind/heart/spirit/soul. In other words, your expectations and goals are really the first criterion you use to evaluate a holistic practitioner. The ultimate question, then, is: “Did you get what you wanted from your practitioner?” -By Randy Kidd Author Randy Kidd has a DVM degree from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in Pathology/Clinical Pathology from Kansas State University. He is a past president of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, and author of Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Dog Care and Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Cat Care, published by Storey Books (800-441-5700 or Dr. Kidd and his wife live on a farm in Kansas.