Holistic? Hmmmmm …

When Sander lived for seven years with a malignant oral tumor that the vets thought would kill him in less than seven months, and when his care and health support during those seven years consisted entirely of alternative, non-traditional methods and relied heavily on nutrition and nutritional supplements, it seemed that I had become ‘holistic’ in my orientation and practices for my dogs. I stopped giving annual (or any) vaccinations, I went to a mostly raw diet, and for the many years that I did not use chemical heartworm preventive, but relied on an herbal protocol, I gave a cursory nod to the possibility of a positive heartworm diagnosis with the mention of ‘holistic’ treatments for heartworm. I wouldn’t have to subject my dog(s) to those awful Immiticide shots, I thought; I could use the ‘slow-kill’ or herbal treatments if it were ever necessary.

Then it became necessary, and I looked closely at those protocols, and I rejected them as ineffective, and I realized that I’m about as holistic as a bag of Jay’s potato chips. Wait, how’d that happen?

Western medicine, as we know, is terrifically good at dealing with acute illness and injury, and terrifically bad at dealing with chronic illness. In fact, Western medicine often causes chronic illness in its over-enthusiastic approach to preventing acute illnesses. This is true for dogs as well as for humans. When I was researching Sander’s cancer treatment, twenty years ago, there was a growing awareness of this fact in the online communities of dog owners that I visited. People were declaring that annual vaccinations were not only unnecessary but actually harmful; that dog food was not the greasy stuff found in bags put out by Colgate-Palmolive and Proctor & Gamble; that spaying/neutering a dog at six months of age often had some pretty adverse consequences later on; and that maybe smothering one’s dog in pesticide powder wasn’t the best way to deter fleas and ticks and the consequences of those pests. The Wellpet List was flourishing and information was being exchanged in the many online dog communities that I came across, and addressing a dog’s ailments and conditions through a ‘holistic’ approach meant that one would consider the whole dog, and would take into account every aspect of the dog’s health and care in determining how best to cure an illness or solve a problem. It meant that an owner wouldn’t just treat the symptoms, as conventional veterinary medicine did; and an owner certainly wouldn’t just suppress the symptoms and call that a cure.

But I also saw the term ‘holistic’ become pretty loaded, and often seemed to be a judgement on the dog owner. I still considered myself to be of the holistic persuasion, but IMO there really ought to be a distinction made between ‘holistic’ and ‘alternative.’ When Marina Zacharias set up a protocol to treat Sander’s cancer, in 1998, I spent hours on the internet reading about every substance she included in her plan. Some of them, like Cantron, I dismissed as being simply preposterous, and if you do a search for Cantron today, you will find articles like the one linked below that explain why. I never told Marina, but I never gave Cantron to Sander. (As I said, Marina and I were not on the same page 100% of the time, but I wasn’t going to throw out her entire protocol because of a few items.) https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/a-tale-of-false-hope-for-cancer/

Other supplements, such as organic germanium, made more sense to me: germanium is a naturally occurring element found in foods such as shiitake mushrooms and garlic. It acts as an antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals that can damage DNA and cells. I found references to a study in Japan in which germanium was shown to inhibit replication in some cancer cells. This is a substance that can help my dog, I thought, and I gave Sander organic germanium every day for seven years. I also gave him curcuma, because it had been shown to help fight infections and some cancers, and unlike Cantron, had been in use for thousands of years in various cultures. I know that’s not the same as scientific studies, but it does carry some weight – nobody is going to be using the Cantron concoction a thousand years from now, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has more to offer than we in the West have yet comprehended.

So holistic remedies and treatments were all over the place, ranging from absurd (–remember the ‘sharks don’t get cancer’ shtick?) to definitely helpful (–modified citrus pectin may, in fact, inhibit metastasis of certain cancers). What they all had in common, twenty years ago, was that they were shunned by the conventional veterinary community, which led to the appearance of the holistic veterinarian. This was someone who would offer treatments beyond annual vaccinations and a suppressive drug for every ailment, we were told; this was someone who would consider canine health as more than a collection of symptoms. Sounded great, sign me up!

Unfortunately, I found as much Cantron as Curcuma in this new modality.

Holistic veterinary medicine says that a healthy animal is impervious to disease. Yeah, it really says that. Quite a claim, eh? While it’s true that a good immune system is an excellent defense against all kinds of things, including infection, it’s also true that simply being in good health is not going to keep a dog from ever becoming ill or being the target of pests. Take the whole issue of being attractive to fleas, for example. That was one of the first claims I heard: a healthy dog won’t get fleas. Fleas prefer unhealthy, weaker animals. People would say, virtuously, that their raw-fed, unvaccinated, uber-healthy dogs never had a single flea! Never! Now, it is true – and I’ve seen it in my own household – that if a weaker, less healthy dog is living in the same house as a stronger, very healthy dog, the weaker dog will be more attractive to fleas. But that doesn’t mean that the fleas make a U-turn at the healthy dog and refuse to bite that dog. The healthier dog will generally not have a flea infestation, but the healthier dog is not immune to fleas and flea-bites. It’s absurd to say otherwise. If you live in an area where fleas are not common, good for you! I don’t, and for years, I felt like it was some sort of moral failing on my part when I saw a flea or two on one of my dogs, when I was doing everything I could to promote excellent health in those dogs. I really fell for the holistic line there. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that the holistic line so often ended in a baited hook, and I was expected to part with money to rectify my moral failing and elevate my dog to TRUE glowing health – money to a holistic vet, or money for a particular ‘remedy’ or supplement. There was always, always something to buy. In this respect it differed not at all from conventional veterinary medicine.

The holistic vets I knew were more of the same. I took Sander to a holistic vet in 1999; she now is quite famous in dog circles and a major presence on a website with a holistic orientation. You can buy her instructions on natural feeding for more than $100. Back then, she had never fed raw food, and told me that Abady feeds (preserved with ethoxyquin) were fine for Sander; she had never treated canine cancer with anything but the usual surgery/radiation/ chemo; and she encouraged me to find a vet who would do cryosurgery on Sander’s oral tumor and shrink it. I got absolutely nothing out of my visits to her, but each visit was quite pricey. And no, cryosurgery wasn’t in our plans. Sander couldn’t have any kind of surgery, the procedure itself would probably have overwhelmed his liver and caused his death sooner rather than later. The very suggestion was, well, silly.

Several years later, I took Sander to another holistic vet, driving to Wisconsin for this appointment. I brought with me the list of supplements that Marina Zacharias had Sander taking, and a description of his raw/natural diet. The holistic vet was impressed, and had nothing to add. Apparently he felt that he should give me something, though, so he told me I must never be in a bad mood around my cancer dog. Yikes. I was actually embarrassed for the guy – that’s holistic veterinary medicine? Okay, thanks, bye.

Today I was looking at the website of a holistic vet who claims that a ‘vital animal’ won’t get heartworms. As you can imagine, now that I’m treating heartworm in my beloved Border Collie, this touched a nerve in me. Apparently, Rowley is not a ‘vital animal’, in spite of being raw-fed, having no vaccines since 7 months of age, and living in a pesticide-free environment, where he gets plenty of outdoor exercise, regular chiropractic adjustments, and lots of mental stimulation, too. Go figure. I don’t know what a ‘vital animal’ is and I probably couldn’t comprehend it if I were to be told.

This vet has a ‘drug-free heartworm prevention program that works’, his site says. On the webpage, there are three separate invitations to purchase that program, and those invitations dominate the page. The cheapest version of the ‘drug-free heartworm prevention program that works’ costs $47 for the PDF document that details the program. This rubs me the wrong way, bigly. There are countless websites and internet boards that offer information about what tick repellents work for some dog owners; what the most effective herbal sprays are that keep mosquitoes away; and similar things. Dog owners discuss things like black walnut hull extract, hawthorne, CoQ10, and even wormwood as they search for alternatives to chemical heartworm preventives. This vet won’t utter a peep unless you send him money. How familiar. And by the way, I’ll bet anyone $47 that his drug-free prevention program consists of heartworm nosodes and Paratox.

Here’s the thing: if you want to stop feeding processed crap-in-a-bag to your dog, and if you want to stop bombarding your dog with unnecessary vaccinations, and if you want to rely more on natural (herbal or floral) pest repellents than on Monsanto’s latest – just do it! You don’t have to exchange one dependency for another! Most of good health consists in NOT doing things to your dog — you don’t need to add fourteen supplements to the food, you don’t need a cabinet full of remedies – don’t over-think it! When I started feeding a raw diet, I put together meals from a very simple recipe I found: one-half protein, one-quarter cooked grains, one-quarter pureed vegetables. I made sure the calcium/phosphorus ratio was okay, I added some fish oil, and that was it. After a few months, I sent my diet to someone (on the Wellpet list) who had some chops in canine nutrition, and she tweaked it for me; I spent several weeks putting it all on an Excel spreadsheet and putting in nutrient values from the USDA Nutrient Database website. It was worth the time I spent on it: 19 years later, I’m still feeding pretty much that same diet. My dogs, in those 19 years, have lived much longer than my first Sheltie did, and I do think their nutrition is the big reason for that.

When I quit jabbing vaccine needles into my dogs, I didn’t titer them annually – I parsed the whole subject of titers, immunity, and what diseases could prove fatal, and I made my choices accordingly. Until rabies titers are accepted by health departments in lieu of vaccinations, I won’t titer any of my dogs for anything. Not saying anyone else should or shouldn’t, I’m just saying that establishing good health in our dogs is not complicated and does not require a special veterinarian to guide anyone through it or explain things to you at $225 an hour.


The vet who sees my dogs now isn’t particularly holistic, and his first choice of treatment is sometimes one that I won’t use. He’s suggested Science Diet prescription foods a few times, and I’ve reminded him that I won’t feed that. It doesn’t affect our vet/client relationship, or if it does, we’re polite enough to overlook it. When Banjo, one of my senior rescue Shelties, collapsed and died a few years ago, my vet was worried that the cause might have been leptospirosis – I will never give any dog a lepto vaccine, for many reasons – and he gave my other dogs antibiotics for ten days while we sent a blood sample to the lab for a lepto titer on Banjo, after his death. I gave the antibiotics; I was certain that Banjo did not have lepto, and the titer test confirmed my certainty. I don’t fault the vet for having that concern, and I think he was thinking logically. (I think Banjo died from an undetected cancer that was already well-established when the rescue pulled him from the shelter in New York.) But what I know my vet will never do is to refuse to use antibiotics on a bite wound on one of my dogs, smear on some calendula ointment, and send the dog home so that three days later, the wound is suppurating and the dog has a heart murmur and a fever of 103. My vet will stick the dog with a needle full of antibiotics and send oral antibiotics home with me, if necessary. That calendula thing? A holistic vet did that to my Sheltie Sundance.

Yep, I’m about as holistic as a bag of Jay’s potato chips. Mmmmmm, potato chips!




2 thoughts on “Holistic? Hmmmmm …

  1. As your post reflects, responsible dog owners learn and grow, research and question, and don’t blindly accept everything a vet – conventional or ‘holistic’ – throws at them. Sometimes that means changing our minds about something as more information (science based and/or based on our own experience) becomes available. I struggle with this every day with my highly-allergic dog. Thankfully my primary vet (a mobile vet who uses both conventional Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine) is supportive and doesn’t push things on me. What is interesting is how different her approach is to that of the clinic vet I sometimes have to use and with whom she has a working relationship – they push Science Diet, my vet won’t recommend it and offers a better brand of novel protein kibble but also recommends raw (which is what she feeds her own dog). The clinic vet is appalled that I feed raw and gives me many dire warnings every time I see him. My vet is cautious about vaccines and has no problem with the decisions I make to avoid most vaccines after the initial set; the clinic vet pushes annual vaccines by sending me reminders and by verbally recommending them even when I have ancient dogs and even though our provincial veterinary association specifically issued a statement changing it to a three-year protocol. Thankfully, the only time I have to use the clinic is when a dog needs to be anesthetized for a procedure.


    1. I still remember the vet who told me I would kill my dog (Sander) by feeding him raw chicken wings. Instead, the wings cleaned Sander’s teeth, and he never needed a dental. 🙂
      And I’ve been at clinics like the one you describe, where the bad old ways are still enshrined and the emphasis seems to be on control by the admins rather than on the dog’s wellbeing. Sometimes using those clinics is unavoidable, which is frustrating. But authority figures don’t give over that authority easily, it seems.


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