Once you’ve made the commitment to a holistic approach to looking after the animals in your care—starting with excellent nutrition in a safe, nurturing environment—you’ve laid a good foundation for maintaining their health and happiness. But as conscientious as you are, there may come a day when your best efforts can’t prevent an illness or injury from putting an animal out of balance. One afternoon you notice your friend is a little stiff when she gets up after a long nap. Or she snaps at a bee that annoys her while she’s sunning out on the porch, and comes in with a swollen lip. Perhaps you catch your breath as you find an unfamiliar lump on your companion’s jaw while the two of you are lounging in front of the TV.

In spite of your best efforts, there are times when illness or injury is unavoidable. When problems do come along, there is a huge array of treatment options to choose from. You may for years have relied on conventional western veterinary medicine with its array of painkillers, antibiotic ointments and pills, anti-inflammatory medications, and even surgery to address health concerns. But like so many people you’re drawn more and more to explore more natural health care options such as homeopathic remedies, herbs, nutritional support, and hands-on healing therapies. So when your friend needs you to find the just the right treatment for a life-threatening illness or an injured paw, claw, or hoof, how will you decide which course of treatment is best? What do alternative therapies have to offer that conventional medicines do not?

In order to choose wisely from among the many treatment options, it’s helpful to understand the essential differences between the conventional and the holistic approach. Where conventional medicine tends to look at a specific complaint or diagnosis and prescribe a treatment that will alleviate that particular difficulty, holistic health care examines how that ailment is part of a bigger picture—it quite literally treats the whole individual. Holistic medicine asks, “What is there in the overall physical and emotional health of the patient that predisposes him to this illness? What can we do to improve his general well-being so that he will be less likely to become sick again?”

The therapies associated with these very different approaches to health care reflect those differences in perspective. Conventional medical treatments tend to be oriented toward treating specific physical symptoms, often without truly affecting the course of the disease or addressing the underlying problem. This is what is known as palliative treatment. Alternative therapies, on the other hand, are generally “non-palliative.” That is, they treat the underlying cause of the symptoms, and supply nutritional and energetic support to facilitate the body’s natural healing process.

But wait—when your animal friend isn’t feeling well, getting rid of the symptoms is what you’re after, isn’t it? Maybe—or maybe not. The symptoms of disease are just a small part of the whole picture. They may even serve a useful purpose as part of the healing process. When an animal gets sick, many of the symptoms that appear are, in fact, a part of the body’s natural healing process. If your cat is limping a bit after chasing her sister up and down the stairs in a game of “kitty krazies,” the soreness she feels is her body’s way of telling her to rest so that strained muscles or ligaments can recover. Or if your dog runs a slight fever in response to that kennel cough he picked up, it’s a sign that his immune system is responding to the invading organism that’s causing his illness. That fever may even help to destroy the offending bacteria.

The alternative therapies used in a holistic approach help to make your companion comfortable by easing the symptoms, but in a gentle way that does not interfere with the healing process. They’re generally made from natural substances that provide the nutrients her body needs as it heals, and stimulate her vital energy to bring about a complete recovery. When conventional medicine targets a symptom without addressing the underlying cause, the disease may actually be suppressed, or hidden away at a deeper level, only to emerge again later in a similar or perhaps even more debilitating manner.

For example, when a dog has red, itchy skin, the conventional approach might be to prescribe prednisolone, a form of cortisone. Chances are the drug will do an excellent job of relieving the itchiness, regardless of what is causing it. The dog will feel better for a while, the redness will go away and his guardian will be happy. But when the drug wears off—or in some cases when allergy season strikes again the next year—the dog’s problem will return.

A holistic response, however, would seek to stimulate the body’s ability to actually heal the skin trouble, and could draw on any or all of a variety of treatments. You might begin with a thorough examination of your dog’s diet, and remove any ingredients that could be aggravating the condition. A homeopathic remedy that matches his overall symptom picture—including emotional factors—would help his system find a new level of balance, and simulate the vital force to facilitate the natural healing process. You could select herbs and nutritional supplements that supply vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and other nutrients necessary to create healthy new tissue, or stimulate the body’s internal cleansing process. Acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and acupressure could help to rebalance the Qi, or life energy, and support your dog’s body in its efforts to heal.

As a result, while you may not see the immediate relief offered by the cortisone injection, your dog will enjoy the benefits of a more complete healing at a much deeper level. He’ll experience a more permanent improvement in his skin condition and overall health that will sustain him for years to come.

In addition to treating illness at the deepest level, using natural therapies also minimizes the risk of side effects. While many of the commonly used conventional medications and treatments come with a frightening array of side effects, most alternative treatments do not. In fact, they tend to support the overall health of the animal in addition to treating a particular illness. That cortisone shot that within hours may stop a dog from scratching also suppresses the adrenal glands and immune system, thins the skin and weakens muscles, makes the animal prone to urinary tract and skin infections, and can lead to joint degeneration. Natural medicines, on the other hand, often provide nutrients that enhance the immune response and support organ function while they alleviate the particular illness that is of immediate concern. That’s not to say that cortisone and other conventional medicines don’t have their place—they can save a life in a crisis situation. But aren’t all those side effects a high price to pay for a few months of itch relief?

The benefits of alternative therapies are clear. But does that mean you should avoid conventional treatments altogether? Definitely not. There are times when conventional western medicine will play a vital role in restoring your animal friend’s health. In the event of a serious illness, a broken bone, or even as a valuable diagnostic tool, western medicine may provide the resources you need to complement your holistic health care program, or even to save your companion’s life. With a little practice you can find the right balance between conventional and alternative health care. You may develop a small “pharmacy” of homeopathic and herbal remedies that will help you address many health concerns right at home. Still, from time to time you may find that the powerful effects of western medicine are necessary to see your friend through a crisis. In other cases a blood test or X-ray may provide valuable information that will guide you to the right treatment—conventional, alternative, or a combination of the two—to restore your loved one’s good health.

As is true in so many areas of our lives, finding balance in your choice of health care modalities is ultimately the best approach of all. Create a holistic lifestyle and turn to natural medicines to maintain your companions’ good health whenever possible. But remember that conventional treatments and diagnostics also have their place as valuable resources that complete your repertoire of options as you care for those who care so well for you.