Complementary therapies

Some forms of alternative or complementary medicine such as osteopathy and physiotherapy are widely used in veterinary medicine alongside conventional treatment. However, owners of dogs and other small animals are increasingly looking at other alternative therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine and homeopathy to help with a wide variety of common complaints.

Acupuncture is an ancient system of healing, likely to have originated in Tibet or India but developed extensively by the Chinese. It is one of the oldest therapies in the world and is essentially the stimulation of specific points on the surface of the body, either by using needles, laser or local pressure (acupressure).

The Chinese recognise that these points have a direct relationship to some of the main internal organs and with the muscles, nerves and skeleton. These points lie on specific energy channels called meridians which link all the points associated with a particular organ together. Stimulation of the points results in physiological changes which can help resolve illness, relieve symptoms and change body energy, allowing it to flow more freely, in effect re-balancing the body. Acupuncture is also used to diagnose and prevent disease, as well as treat symptoms.

Conditions in small animals that respond well to acupuncture include back and neck pain (including disc prolapse), muscle spasm, arthritis (DJD), lameness issues, injuries in general, nerve paralysis and nerve injuries, urinary incontinence, weakened immune system, lick granuloma as well as support for all the major organs of the body.

In the UK, only vets can perform acupuncture treatment on animals as the use of needles is an invasive procedure which, by law, only a vet is permitted to perform. If anyone other than a vet gives an animal acupuncture treatment they are committing a criminal act. Vets who perform acupuncture are properly trained and, ideally, should be members of the Association of British Veterinary Acupuncture (ABVA).

Useful website:

  • Association of British Veterinary Acupuncturists –

Herbal medicine is essentially the art of using plants to heal. It is not a new form of therapy; in fact it is an ancient system of healing which is undergoing somewhat of a revival in the light of modern analytical methods and new-found knowledge and understanding of exactly how plants work.

Practical knowledge of herbal remedies was once ingrained in folklore and backed up by scant evidence of efficacy, but now many plant based medicines can be prescribed backed up by a sound knowledge of plant chemistry and botanical therapeutics, which can explain how plants are able to interact with the body allowing it to heal. We now know that plants are complex mixtures of compounds which support and augment each other in helping to resolve a particular health problem.

Herbal medicine has a worldwide presence, not only as represented by the use of healing plants in Western culture, but as being an integral part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine and combined with acupuncture as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM. In recognition of the growing importance of this type of treatment, herbal medicine is more often referred to by a much more appropriate term – phytotherapy.

Herbal remedies for domestic animals are widely available commercially and sold as nutritional or food supplements. However, an increasing number of vets are undertaking training, and using herbal remedies within their practices. So, for more complex health issues, or where a customised or individual prescription is needed, owners are urged to seek qualified veterinary advice.

Useful websites:

Homeopathy is a form of natural medicine that has been in regular use worldwide for over 200 years. Based on a principle that was discovered by the Greeks, and developed by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century, it is based on the principle of “like cures like”.

Using infinitely diluted medicines it seeks to address the patient as a whole on a constitutional, historical or pathological basis. By carefully matching the presenting signs and symptoms to a remedy, homeopathy aims to gently ease or cure signs of illness by working energetically through the body’s own healing mechanisms.

Currently the mechanism by which homeopathy works is not understood, although ongoing research suggests that it is linked with quantum physics and the ability of water molecules to remember or store energetic vibrational imprints.

Homeopathy can be used for a wide range of conditions in small animals, including arthritis and lameness, skin problems such eczema, dermatitis and allergies, recurrent ear infections, epilepsy, behavioural problems, digestive problems such as diarrhoea and colitis, liver, bladder and kidney disease as well as chronic conditions affecting many other areas of the body.

In the UK, vets who practice homeopathy are registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and must retain their professional membership of this body in order to practice. Ideally, they should also be registered with the Faculty of Homeopathy and have undergone suitable training. It is illegal for anyone to treat animals homeopathically if they are not a qualified vet.

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This evidence-based discipline is used to deal with the assessment and treatment of a wide range of musculoskeletal disorders. It can also be applied to the rehabilitation of animals after surgery or injury as well as in a preventive role.

Physiotherapy can help animals suffering from a wide range of conditions, including back pain, sprains and strains, injuries, gait abnormalities, reduced performance and a number of other conditions, such as changes in behaviour that can be linked with these problems. It can be used to improve the biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system and in rehabilitation after surgery.

Techniques employed using manual therapies include manipulation, massage and mobilization, as well as machine based treatments such as laser therapy, ultrasound, pulse magnets, H-wave, shockwave, spa treatment and hydrotherapy.

In the UK, a veterinary physiotherapist will have undergone several years of training with a recognised school of physiotherapy to become a ‘chartered physiotherapist’. Animal physiotherapists must see practice with veterinary practices and become a member of either the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT), or the National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists (NAVP), to be able to treat animals.

A code of professional conduct for animal physiotherapists has been agreed between the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, and they are bound by the Veterinary Act. However, non-chartered physiotherapists, i.e. people that have no formal training, are still allowed to use the title ‘physiotherapist’, so be sure to check the qualifications of any therapist you intend to use.

Useful websites:

  • Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy –
  • National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists –
  • Institute of Registered Veterinary and Animal Physiotherapists –
  • Chartered Society of Physiotherapy –

Osteopathy is an established science and system of healing using manual techniques, in order to remove tension and restriction and encourage structural and physiological harmony. Treatment is aimed at improving mobility and reducing inflammation using gentle, manual osteopathic techniques on the musculoskeletal system, i.e. joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Osteopathy is useful for a number of problems, including loss of mobility, joint, neck and back pain, muscle stiffness and to help recovery from injuries. Veterinary osteopaths are trained to recognise and treat many causes of pain with their hands, using a variety of different techniques, including soft massage, stretches, and various joint movements.

By law, an osteopath will need to get permission from your vet to undertake any treatment, and you should always consult your vet before having your animal treated. It is an offence for anyone to treat your pet without referral from a vet first. Many insurance companies will cover osteopathic treatment but only if the animal has been referred by a vet.

Always make sure that the osteopath you are going to use is a qualified therapist and has the appropriate insurance to allow them to practice.

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Chiropractic is a healthcare discipline using manual techniques that emphasise diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, in particular the spine. It focuses specifically on the biomechanical dysfunction of the skeleton, muscles, tendons and ligaments and its effects on the nervous system and general well-being of the whole body.

Chiropractic is useful for treating chronic musculoskeletal disorders, e.g. lameness, tension and stiffness, and pain in general; it is also used in a preventive role to maintain fitness and soundness, and to enhance general well-being.

Currently, it is only possible for vets and human chiropractors to become qualified veterinary chiropractors. You should always check that a practitioner has recognised qualifications before you allow them to treat your animal.

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