How Holistic Therapies Can Help Senior Dogs

Jane Costa, DVM
September 25 2020

As our dogs get older, it is not uncommon for age-related conditions to pop up. From osteoarthritis to cognitive impairment to kidney disease, our senior companions can develop a wide variety of health problems—just like people. Yet, while aging is inevitable, it doesn’t have to sentence your pet to a life of pain and discomfort. Western or allopathic practices that focus on treating disease with medications and surgery provide irreplaceable benefits for many veterinary conditions, but an increasing number of practitioners are recognizing the advantages of alternative therapies, too. When combined, these different treatment methods can provide pets with a unique integrative approach to health and wellness.

Before learning why you may want to consider looking into an alternative therapy for your senior pup, here are a few definitions of terms you’ll encounter:

Conventional veterinary medicine: Methods for treating disorders taught in Western veterinary schools. Treatment typically focuses on using medications and surgery to alleviate symptoms and disease.

Alternative therapies: Systems that involve healing or the treatment of diseases through chiropractic, acupuncture, massage and other modalities. The term “alternative” is often interchangeable with “complementary” in reference to medicine.

Integrative veterinary medicine: The practice of combining conventional and alternative therapies for a multi-modal approach to health and wellness. The term “integrative” may be interchanged with “holistic.”

Ultimately, an integrative or holistic approach offers pets a well-rounded and versatile wellness experience with many benefits. Here are four reasons you might want to consider alternative therapies for your dog:

  1. Adverse effects are rare.

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As our dogs age, medications often become mainstays in their daily routine. From steroids to blood pressure modifiers, there is no question that, in some cases, medications provide irreplaceable advantages to pets. Yet while alternative therapies aren’t meant to substitute certain life-saving antidotes, they may potentially reduce the number of medications your dog might need.

Unlike traditional pharmaceuticals, most complementary treatments have very few—if any—side effects, making them safe and gentle options for fragile pets. Many common medications can lead to unpleasant symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy and, under certain circumstances, this cannot be avoided. When medication is necessary, complementary therapies like acupuncture and chiropractic may actually help alleviate some of these disagreeable side effects. However, if a complementary therapy is pursued, ensure that you ask your veterinarian for a referral to a reputable provider. While most alternative modalities are generally safe, seeking a trained, skilled practitioner heavily affects the safety of the treatment. Talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a licensed or certified provider to ensure your pet receives excellent, reliable care.

  1. Pain management requires multiple modalities.

There is no question that dogs are more susceptible to chronic and painful conditions as they age. Whether your senior pup is dealing with arthritis, cancer, or diabetes, chances are he may experience discomfort at some point. Fortunately, progress in veterinary pain management has made great strides in keeping our companions comfortable. This is in part due to the use of alternative therapies like veterinary spinal manipulation (chiropractic treatment), acupuncture, and even stem cell therapy. While pain medications remain a pillar in pet comfort, improving blood flow and endorphin release through acupuncture or adjusting spinal subluxations through chiropractic care can often help address certain functional issues your dog may be experiencing, thereby relieving pain.

Laser therapy, which is chiefly used to promote speedy healing from surgery or injury, may also address other chronic musculoskeletal conditions by supporting muscle regeneration and joint healing.

Even stem cell therapy can be used to suppress painful inflammation and encourage new, healthy tissue to grow. In general, a multi-modal approach to pain management offers pets an excellent standard of care and can help dogs keep moving well and feeling great.

  1. Cognitively impaired pets may find relief.

Canine cognitive dysfunction or, dog dementia is a neurobehavioral disorder similar to Alzheimer’s disease that leads to signs such as memory loss, changes in the sleep-wake cycle, newfound house-soiling, and other bizarre behaviors. Affected dogs may be disoriented, show changes in their social relationships, or become disinterested in activities they once found enjoyable.  While more definitive research is needed to support the role of alternative therapies in improving canine cognitive function, some practitioners find certain treatments helpful in alleviating secondary conditions. For instance, a certified veterinary acupuncturist may be able to help relieve stress or unpleasant sleep changes that come with cognitive impairment by stimulating particular acupressure points associated with anxiety and circadian rhythm. Anecdotal evidence suggests that acupuncture may also be successful at addressing energy imbalances that contribute to these bothersome emotions.

Other changes, like incontinence, may also benefit from the nerve stimulation that acupuncture or spinal manipulation provides. It is important to note that many cognitive and behavioral changes that are often attributed to aging may actually be explained by an underlying medical condition. For this reason, consult with your family veterinarian if your senior pup develops any strange behaviors to rule out a primary disorder.

  1. Your pet’s quality of life is worth it.

Feeling good starts with taking care of our bodies, and while people can take the steps they need to improve their health independently, our dogs rely 100% on us—especially senior pups. Exercise and nutrition are excellent starting points toward a healthy lifestyle, but our aging companions often need a little extra help. Depending on your pet’s condition, alternative therapies like physical rehabilitation could help your pet get the physical activity she needs to keep her joints, mind, and body in tip-top shape. Hydrotherapy—exercise performed in water—takes advantage of buoyancy and resistance to give senior pets a low-impact way to improve muscle tone and joint mobility while shedding any excess calories in a safe, controlled environment. And don’t forget about the healing potential of a gentle, relaxing massage—especially on an older physique.

Think an alternative therapy is right for your senior pup? Consult with your family veterinarian to discuss your dog’s individual needs, including which therapies would offer the most benefit. Because these modalities are typically very gentle, contraindications are rare, making complementary therapies an excellent choice for the majority of our senior pet population.







Jane Costa, DVM

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