Why Are Holistic Veterinarians so Scarce?

Veterinary Visit

Story at-a-glance -

  • One of the reasons holistic veterinarians are difficult to find in many communities is because holistic medicine isn’t taught in veterinary schools
  • The reason veterinary acupuncture treatments are becoming more common is due to a wealth of research on the topic – research that is sorely lacking for other types of alternative therapies for animals
  • Holistic veterinary medicine needs research funding so that ultimately, more veterinarians will have access to information and training in complimentary and alternative therapies

By Nancy Scanlan, DVM, Executive Director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation

How hard is it to find a veterinarian in your area that uses holistic methods? Unless you live near a city with a large population, it’s not that easy, right?

That’s because holistic medicine isn’t taught in veterinary schools. Interested veterinarians must spend additional time and money to get training to practice the most complex types of holistic medicine – the types of therapies you are most likely to need for your pet.

US Veterinary Schools Don’t Require Training in Holistic Medicine

There are 29 veterinary schools in the US. Veterinary students enter those schools with a few years of college already, and often a degree. Once in veterinary school they spend four years learning the basic science of medicine and the most up-to-date medical techniques, in a schedule that crams in more hours in a student’s life than other college disciplines do.

Getting a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree requires four years of hard work. Enjoyable, yes, to students with a true passion for helping animals … but still lots of work. Veterinary school is also quite expensive, so for most students there isn’t a lot of incentive to take extra instruction if it isn’t a required part of the curriculum.

Of the 29 US veterinary schools, some offer elective courses in integrative veterinary medicine, also known as Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine (CAVM), but none of them require it. Very few have other holistic instruction. Many have no integrative courses at all. For example, only 14 percent of veterinary schools teach or use acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain.

Here’s Why Acupuncture Is the Only Holistic Treatment in Wide Use

The most popular type of CAVM training for veterinarians is acupuncture. Over 4,000 veterinarians have become certified in the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS), Chi Institute, or the Colorado Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians course.

Louisiana State University, the University of Florida, the University of California at Davis, and Colorado State University all have faculty who use acupuncture as part of their treatment of veterinary patients, but only a small fraction of animals are referred to them for acupuncture. And even though acupuncture can be helpful in a wide variety of conditions in addition to pain, most veterinarians are unaware of that fact.

Why is acupuncture the only holistic method that is regularly used at veterinary schools? One word: research. There are more research articles on acupuncture than any other single alternative treatment. And while there are also many articles on herbal medicine in general, not much research exists on individual herbs.

The Real Reason Holistic Veterinary Medicine Research Doesn’t Get Funded

Veterinary schools base their teaching and practices on research findings. Faculty members are judged by the quality of research they produce. Students are taught to look up the research associated with the courses they take. If there is disagreement (such as whether a new surgical technique is better than an older one), we all wait for the research that proves one technique is more beneficial than another.

And yet, it is difficult to find funding anywhere for this type of research. This is in spite of the fact that there are almost 24,000 research articles published on acupuncture.

Most research is funded in the hopes that the outcome will lead to money, somehow – a newly patented drug, a new technique that can be patented, or a breakthrough finding that will lead to more funding as well as fame and fortune. That pretty well leaves CAVM research out in the cold. It is difficult to patent an herb that has been in use for hundreds or thousands of years.

It is even worse when veterinarians are doing the research. Since only 371 of those 24,000 acupuncture articles are about veterinary acupuncture, we are told that since humans respond differently than animals, until there is enough research published for animals, acupuncture will not be taught in veterinary schools.

It works the same way for herbs: over 27,000 research articles have been published on herbal medicine, but only 417 are about veterinary herbal medicine.

Why Research on Holistic and Integrative Medicine Is Important

There is another very good reason for research: the safety of your pet and efficacy of the treatment. If you start comparing recommendations about herb doses you will see that they vary, and some vary a lot. Herb doses are often based on doses used for humans, and there is not always a direct connection.

Cat livers process herbs differently than dog or human livers. Many veterinarians rely on experienced veterinarians for this information, but diseases vary in different parts of the country so even the experts may not be aware of the best use of herbs for a problem specific to your area.

Until someone starts testing specific doses and timing of specific herbs for specific conditions, we do not really know for sure the best way to use those herbs. We also can’t say for sure how much to use, or how long to use it.

Veterinarians are accustomed to having research available that provides all those answers. How much medication to give, how often, and how the drug works, side effects – all the information found on medication package inserts or pharmacist’s literature.

Research proves to others what we’ve already proved to ourselves with anecdotal evidence, and it also tells us the best way to practice holistic medicine.

And on the subject of research, the AHVM Foundation has done some of its own. We surveyed all the people who donated to the foundation to see what is most important to pet owners. The results of the survey show that some of the alternative therapies pet guardians need and want most for their animal companions aren’t being offered at this time.

I’m hopeful I’ve inspired you to help us get information on alternative therapies to more veterinarians in more communities across the US, and to train veterinarians in the use of holistic veterinary medicine.

How You Can Help

To donate, go to the AHVMF website, click on Ways to Give on the top menu, and there you’ll find a number of different ways to make a donation. If you’re not comfortable donating online, scroll down to the bottom of the Ways to Give page, and you’ll see a Ways to Donate Online and Offline link.

At AHVMF.org, you can also read amazing stories of animals who have been healed with holistic medicine, as well as stories of animal teachers. There’s also a blog that reports on some of the projects the foundation is working on. If you have any questions while visiting the site, you can send the foundation an email at [email protected].


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