It’s safe to say that “holistic health care” is pretty much a household term these days. But while we all know it’s important to care for the whole individual, it’s not always clear what the best ways are to support the body, mind, and spirit of our animal friends. Is it just a matter of using “natural” medicines that work with the patient’s innate healing capacities? That’s a start. However, if we don’t care for the environment the animal lives in, his body will be unable to respond vigorously to those wonderful natural remedies—and it’s hard to imagine his mind or spirit will thrive, either.

More than just choosing alternative medicine when an animal gets sick, holistic care for the body means attending to everything he eats, drinks, smells, and touches. Nutrition is a good place to start. If your companions consume processed foods made with poor quality ingredients and chemical additives, their bodies become overloaded with toxins that undermine health and may even cause serious illness. Eating wholesome, natural foods free from artificial additives means your friends benefit as you do from meals bursting with vitamins, enzymes, and other valuable nutrients, along with the life energy of fresh, living food. Keeping their external environment—in your home and in your yard—free of chemical cleaning agents, pesticides, and even cigarette smoke also contributes to excellent physical health.

We care for the minds of our animal family members every day when we ensure they feel emotionally safe, face a minimum of stress, and enjoy the stimulation of interesting things to do and an active social environment. If a neighbor dog terrorizes your friend through the fence every time she goes out in the yard, the stress will take its toll. And as much as she enjoys hanging out with you while you putter in the garden, when you play a game together or take her to that puppy socialization class you keep her mind active and engaged in a positive way.

Perhaps the most challenging—and most rewarding—aspect of holistic care has to do with spiritual health. The spiritual life of a dog or a cat or a fly or a mouse means different things to different people—if in fact it means anything at all. As a place to start, we can consider the ways we help our loved ones be more of who they are. It’s easy to shower them with love and provide a good, caring home, and yet hold expectations for them that are defined more by our cultural preconceptions than by the true nature of a given species and, more importantly, of a particular individual. A shy, sensitive dog may be overwhelmed by an afternoon of roughhousing with buddies down at the dog park, and find it far more rewarding to spend a quiet evening with you out on the deck. The messages may be subtle, but the more we observe and listen and tune in, the more we find our companions telling us who they are, and blossoming into unique beings with gifts all their own to bring to the world.

Finally, since we’re all part of that great interconnected web of life, each time we give our loving attention to our society’s attitudes toward the animals in our homes, on farms, in laboratories, and in the wild, and do our small part to preserve the planet that gives us all life, we serve the needs of the whole bodies, minds, and spirits of those who share our lives.