The Benefits of Holistic Pet Medicine
By Jordan Kocen, DVM, CVA

Holistic pet medicine is often misunderstood. As a veterinarian using holistic therapies for more than 20 years, I spend a good deal of time educating my clients. It is sometimes called “integrative” or “alternative” medicine, as these terms tend to encompass anything that is not conventional Western veterinary care.

The meaning of holistic care
So what is holistic care? It’s an approach designed to assess and treat the whole patient, rather than simply treating symptoms as they manifest. The goal is to maintain health and avoid illness. Generally, holistic therapies are directed at trying to stimulate the body to work at their optimum capacity.

This is where holistic medicine strongly contrasts with Western medicine, which works to stop a symptom within the body – as evidenced by many of names of Western medicines, like anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, antacid, and so on. Western medicine treats the symptom as the problem. But it’s important to make this distinction: when a symptom is being treated, the dog – or cat – is not. A dog with liver disease is not a liver with a dog around it; it’s a dog with a liver, and should be treated as such. The patient may be affected in many more ways than are readily apparent.

In some cases, a stressor in another place of the body is actually creating the presenting symptom. We often see this with immune-mediated diseases, like irritable bowel syndrome or allergies. In these instances, when a pet’s system gets stressed, symptoms manifest or get worse. For example, a dog may have a perfectly healthy large intestine, but the minute he is put in a stressful kennel environment he’ll have diarrhea. If you treat the stress with Chinese herbs rather than treating the diarrhea, the dog’s symptoms may drastically improve and be less likely to occur the next time he is boarded.

The holistic approach appreciates that the problem could be in one area – a dog could have just a sore elbow. But we do seek a deeper understanding. If the manifestation is totally physical, we seek to isolate the stressors and determine where the body is compensating. It’s entirely possible the sore elbow is a result of hind-end weakness, which is causing the dog to shift his weight forward, thus stressing that elbow, in which case we’ll treat the hind-end in addition to the elbow.

At its core, holistic medicine seeks to identify and treat all underlying health issues, the belief being that the body is producing symptoms in an attempt to heal itself. By understanding where the underlying problem may be and stimulating the body system to fix it internally, you’re likely to get a better result. Once the body is stimulated and working again, it will often “clean up” other issues that we may not even be aware of.

A growing trend
As a holistic veterinarian, I am of the opinion that all therapies may be good – the idea is to determine which therapy is best suited for the patient at that point in time. Western medicine, which largely limits itself to drugs, surgery, and occasionally supplements, may be what’s necessary given certain situations. Holistic veterinary care simply offers more options; various therapies can be used to complement each other.

Some people think holistic medicine includes non-conventional therapies like magnets, gemstones or color therapy, and while they may be effective, those are not true systems of medicine. In contrast, many holistic veterinary therapies like acupuncture and chiropractic care have been recognized and authenticated; only a licensed veterinarian may provide these services.

I’m a classically trained veterinarian who had the good fortune to receive extensive training in non-traditional medicine. A few years into my practice I was starting to see the strengths and weaknesses of Western medicine. After receiving post-graduate training in acupuncture, homeopathy, and Chinese Herbal Medicine, I realized there were areas of opportunity where conventional therapies just weren’t that effective, like managing geriatric care and chronic pain.

I was the first veterinarian in Northern Virginia to offer acupuncture when I began providing the therapy in 1990. Within a few years 80 to 90 percent of my patients were coming in strictly for alternative therapies. I eventually had the opportunity to start and lead a holistic department embedded within a specialty center, where I practiced for 19 years.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been privileged to develop long-term relationships with loyal clients who not only encourage others to seek holistic care for their pets, but who have had multiple “generations” of pets benefit from holistic therapies. I credit my continued success to clients like Alexa Simmonds, who first started bringing her shepherd mix, Sport, to me for acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy almost six years ago after he had surgery on one knee and subsequently injured the other. In addition to caring for Sport, I have had the opportunity to use Chinese herbs to help Ms. Simmonds’ Pekingese, Miki, maintain his sight for several years after a glaucoma diagnosis and her Havanese rescues, Ella and Heidi, improve their confidence and anxiety issues that manifested as a result of the abuse they suffered in a puppy mill.

As the volume of patients seeking alternative therapies steadily rose, I recognized an opportunity to expand my practice. I opened the Veterinary Holistic Center (VHC) in September 2015 in a 5,000-square foot space in North Springfield. The new facility has allowed me to collaborate with other holistic professionals to provide several integrative services, conveniently located under one roof. The newly renovated building boasts six exam rooms, a 1,600 sq-foot training room, dedicated space for a soon-to-be-installed underwater treadmill, and a small retail area.

The expansion of VHC is a conscientious effort to meet the growing spectrum of my existing clients’ needs, and to expand the availability of holistic veterinary medicine to more people in the region. Many of my clients come in because they’ve tried other options without success. Some seek alternative therapies for their cat or dog because they’ve personally benefitted from holistic treatment and believe the same can hold true for their beloved pet.

Several clients schedule consultations because of positive word-of-mouth; they’ve seen results in a friend or neighbor’s dog. We also have many return clients who’ve had prior pets treated by me or my associates and then they bring additional generations for care. As more clients seek alternative therapies, acceptance of holistic options by traditional veterinarians has grown, and a growing number of our clients are referred to us.

What to expect
Just as with conventional veterinary care, holistic care is often driven by a particular issue or symptom. Clients typically come in with a main complaint, and as holistic veterinarians, we seek to understand the pet and the full spectrum of the issue before recommending any alternative therapies that we expect the pet may benefit from. We examine the animal and evaluate the complaint, taking into consideration any supporting diagnostics that may come from a traditional veterinarian.

It’s important to note that a client doesn’t need to have robust medical records before booking an appointment. However, the more complete the records we receive, the better informed we are and the more efficient we can be. If necessary, we will call a patient’s conventional vet and ask for records before seeing a new patient.

How the pet presents in the first evaluation is used as our baseline status against which we measure outcomes. Our goal is to get the pet to use as much of its available capacity as possible. For example, my long-time client, Nicole Russell, has two eleven-year-old Great Dane rescues, both of which have received acupuncture, among other alternative therapies as needed. While otherwise generally healthy, Ms. Russell’s male Dane, Kiba, receives acupuncture for hind-end weakness. He was having difficulty getting up without assistance or walking more than one or two houses down the block to relieve himself. As an older dog, Kiba may only have access to 80 percent of the capacity he had when he was young. Before treatment, he only had access to 80 percent of that 80 percent. We want to help him have access to 100 percent of the capacity he has.

Ms. Russell brings Kiba into the new VHC clinic for maintenance treatments about every three weeks—a schedule determined by Kiba’s unique needs. (Ms. Russell reports that if he goes much longer than three weeks between treatments his demeanor and physical ability to manage steps and take walks are noticeably diminished.) We discuss Kiba’s progress and any new information I should be aware of before I insert the necessary acupuncture needles—a process which, like most holistic therapies, is minimally invasive.

The needles do not put anything in his system; rather, his nerve endings are stimulated to help get his nervous system back to normal function. I am simply guiding his internal systems in the right direction. His body is figuring out what it needs and doing the work. Of course, the body can only fix itself to the best of its ability. While we can treat chronic conditions and improve the function or alleviate discomfort, the sooner pet owners intervene and begin holistic therapies, the better we can support their pet’s health in the long-term.

Achieving the best results
Conventional therapies and alternative therapies are not mutually exclusive. Just as some alternative therapies complement and enhance each other, sometimes you need both conventional and alternative medicine to produce the best results. For pets in long-term holistic maintenance programs, we must accept that they may reach a point where their issues have become too severe for the body’s response to be adequate, and at that point we may consider adding in conventional medicine. Alternatively, conventional medications may be used to treat acute symptoms and then holistic therapies can be used afterwards to decrease the likelihood of recurrence or the development of additional issues. In the end, my job as a holistic veterinarian is to help you make the best decision for your pet’s needs. ND

Dr. Jordan Kocen began practicing holistic veterinary medicine exclusively in 1995 – as Veterinary Holistic Care – after nearly a decade in a traditional practice; he opened the Veterinary Holistic Center is 2015. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rutgers University, he earned his DVM from the University of Missouri in 1986.  Learn more at