In Defence Of Conventional Medicine – View From The Vet

White GSD at the Vet, courtesy of Ildar Sagdejev (

Conventional Medicine: Natural, holistic, and safe

As alternative medicines seem to get so much media exposure, I thought it was time I tried to explain how the conventional approach to medicine works, as I think people take it for granted without really being aware of what is involved. Alternative therapists often promote their treatments as being natural, safe and holistic, when often they are anything but that!

As a vet I believe I take a holistic approach to how I practise veterinary medicine, and approach my cases. If someone brings an ill animal into the surgery, before I examine it, I take a detailed history, which includes asking questions about the animal’s diet and lifestyle…. What food does it eat? Any recent change in diet? How many animals in the household, indoor or outdoor, and how many are showing symptoms. Any recent stress factors (e.g. moving house, people moving into or out of the home, recent kennelling, trauma, accidents or fights; major renovations). I’ll look at its previous medical history and check if it’s on concurrent medication, and check if the owners have medicated it with ‘over the counter’ or their own medication. What flea and worming treatments are being used, and when last applied. Vaccination status. Body condition. The animal’s signalment, ie breed, age, sex, entire/ neutered, all of which affect the conditions it could be susceptible to. I’ll keep in mind that very young, or old animals, as well as those that are obviously ill, may not be able to tolerate certain medications, or procedures.

By the time a dog has walked into the consult room, or a cat has been hauled out of its box, a decent vet will already have been judging it’s mental status, ability to walk, level of co-ordination, noted any lameness or neurological signs, any exercise intolerance, or dyspnoea, we’ll have looked for any swollen or bleeding areas, and we’ll be starting to pick up on on any coat or skin changes. We will also be assessing how friendly / aggressive it is, but that’s self preservation not medicine!

Then I’ll examine the animal head – tail, or by body system. Often people accuse us of only glancing at their animals, as the examinations are often done at speed. There is a time limitation here, not only due to the appt. system but also because animals quickly lose patience with being poked and prodded, so the longer you take, often the more difficult and less useful the exam can become, especially with cats, and aggressive dogs. By the time I have stroked your pets head, and had a look at it’s ears, mouth, nostrils and eyes, if everything looked ok, I’ve already started to rule out … glaucoma, hypertension, jaundice, dental disease, skull or mandible fractures, poor circulation, anaemia, polycythemia, clotting disorders, FIP, oral/ocular neoplasia, upper respiratory tract infection’s, conjunctivitis, blocked tear ducts, ocular and nasal FB’s, otitis externa/media/interna, retrobulbar abscesses, cyanosis, shock, and dehydration. But I’m not going to tell you all of that as I’m sweeping over the animal, because my brain is already onto the next part of the animal, while making a problem list, and a potential differential diagnoses list, as well as working out if further tests are required, and which would be the most helpful/ relevant and/or cost effective. I will bear in mind that your animal may have more than one thing wrong with it, and that not all of it’s clinical signs may be relevant (e.g. if a cat has had shit teeth for years and then stops eating … there’s likely to be something else wrong with it too.)

If we do prescribe medication for your animal you can be sure that it has been thoroughly developed and tested to ensure that it’s both effective and safe. I studied pharmacology as part of my training, so I understand how the medication works, when it’s appropriate to use it, and any potential side effects. The practice is inspected to ensure that the medication is correctly stored, and that records are kept of amounts and batch numbers, so that if there was ever a problem, it can be traced.

As well as the obvious treatments of medicine or surgery being provided, vet’s also give advice on husbandry. This can include changes in lifestyle such as rest, or more exercise; physiotherapy or swimming, a change in diet; advice about behaviour e.g. decreasing stress and providing a more stimulating environment. That’s what I call holistic. Yet the term is more often associated with alternative medicine and it shouldn’t be! Perhaps people would rather be told their dog had diabetes because it’s chakra’s were out of sync, rather than facing the fact it was caused by a high fat diet of leftovers and treats, and a lack of exercise.

Possible scenario… The acupuncturist suggests your dog is lethargic because it has a problem with its spleen. They tell you that the spleen is responsible for helping the body to get rid of toxins, and in your dog it’s not working properly. They suggest acupuncture (of course), and place needles through the dogs skin based on the meridians for the spleen. They tell you they will unblock the meridian, and the dogs energy levels should rise after. Even as I’m writing it I can’t believe people buy into this crap.

Of course they wouldn’t actually tell you what they thought was wrong with the spleen… e.g. infection, trauma, cancer, autoimmune problem etc. And of course there is no way to tell if there was a problem with the spleen just by looking at the dog, although you could suspect it was enlarged by abdominal palpation, in thin relaxed animals. In conventional medicine, if the spleen was causing the lethargy, it would be because it was affected by a not uncommon vascular tumour called a haemangiosarcoma. One of the reasons the dogs are lethargic is because they are bleeding into their abdomens, and without prompt diagnosis and surgery, they bleed to death. Sticking pins into a dog isn’t going to stop that happening. You might as well stick pins into a voodoo doll, and save the dog the discomfort!

If you really feel that the vet hasn’t given your animal a proper examination, or if you think they are incompetent, go and see a different vet for a second opinion. Don’t completely turn your back on conventional medicine and head off in search of the nearest Woo practitioner! Not only are you receiving poor quality diagnosis and treatment, but there are many potential dangers.

At best, nothing may happen, as treatments like homeopathy won’t have any effect at all. Of course an animal may deteriorate as it’s being deprived of an accurate assessment while you waste time with the quack. At worst, you may be told to stop giving medication that it’s already taking, with potentially catastrophic results. Many therapists promote the phenomenon known as the ‘healing crisis’ where they tell you to expect the animal to get worse before it gets better, supposedly due to the body fighting back and expelling toxins! Of course this would lead you to try and ignore your animal as it got worse, instead of seeking veterinary advice and help as soon as possible. Alternative medicine can be directly harmful to your animal too. Incorrect placement of acupuncture needles can cause bleeding, or nerve damage. The needles can spread infection if not sterile, or can break off and potentially cause a foreign body reaction. Manipulation therapies like osteopathy can cause bruising, pain and paralysis. Unlike conventional pharmaceuticals, herbal remedies have not been properly tested to ensure their safety. They can be directly toxic, interfere with other medications, and often contain other compounds and contaminants. For example, milk thistle has been associated with colic, diarrhoea, vomiting and fainting; and can interfere with anti diabetic and antiviral drugs. Artichoke just causes flatulence…

And lastly, some advice:

Please don’t tap the table or the animal when I’m trying to listen to it’s heart, or wait until that moment to tell me you’ve just remembered that it ate your mothers heart medication along with the packaging, but you’d forgotten to tell me until now. Please stop making homophobic jokes about ‘shirtlifters’ when I’m taking your dogs rectal temperature. And please don’t tell me that your pet didn’t mean it, just after it’s tried to bite my face; it doesn’t make me feel any better.

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  1. #1 by Colonel Molerat on September 21, 2009 - 16:45

    “And please don’t tell me that your pet didn’t mean it, just after it’s tried to bite my face; it doesn’t make me feel any better.”

    Ha! When my rats go for your face, they MEAN it!

    Ah, I jest. My rats (though 1 foot under the ground, and since dug up by foxes) were gentle creatures. Except for the phase Siegfried went through when he hated feet. The little bugger would chase me around the room until I leapt onto a table, screaming.

    But surely, a rottweiler acupuncturist will get what’s coming to them eventually?

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