Last Wednesday night I met with a group of pet people to give a talk on holistic veterinary care. Now, I’m no expert, but I’m definitely a proponent of holistic medicine. And so the topic of discussion wasn’t so much the intricacies of holistic vet care (which I’m not qualified to discuss). Rather, it was about informing my audience about how to source the kind of care you want and need for your pet with the help of your typical, one-kinda-care-minded practitioner.

Sure, like most traditionally trained vets, I have my concerns about potentially unsafe or essentially unproven therapies (especially when researched online and implemented without a vet’s weigh-in), but I like to look at this kind of medicine in a broad sense. So here’s my philosophy:

For me, holistic vet medicine is “wholistic.” That means that a vet is willing to take the time to understand a pet’s home environment, his nutrition, her exercise regimen, his parents’ bank account, his stressers and his physical state in a way that involves mental, physical and—yes—spiritual well being.

OK, so the latter claim may sound hokey to some of you. After all, most major religious cannons don’t exactly consider animals capable of spiritual perception. But if you believe animals have some intrinsic value then you might well be able to widen your perspective on this.

Truth is, though, I’m a standard vet school educated kind of a vet. I’m big on evidence-based medicine but I’m also into the art of healthcare—which all vets implement to varying degrees. Few of us, however, have the disposition and drive that might lead us to complete extra training in these areas.

And that’s why I have aces up my sleeve. I know I can always refer my patients to someone who knows much more than I do about these kinds of care options. Whether it’s a behaviorist, rehabber, acupuncturist, herbalist or homeopath, I can always find someone to implement the alternative therapies my patients might benefit from. The hard part, as with anything in this world, is finding a good one.

But I don’t always refer. In fact, vet medicine, like human healthcare, is getting to the point where even the most conservative providers are willing to try their hand at the most conventional non-traditional approaches: basic herbal medicine for stress, behavior modification, nutritional and vitamin therapy for chronic diseases, even acupuncture in limited situations (I use it for respiratory distress, otherwise I refer to a certified practitioner).

Mostly, though, I think about holistic medicine in its broadest sense as everything that can be used to help achieve optimal conditions for a pet’s happiness. And usually that means that I’m looking to the owner to give me cues that let me know how involved they want to be in this process.

So here’s where you and your big mouth come in. Sometimes, if you don’t say: “Can you think of anything else that will help Fluffy out in this department that doesn’t necessarily include drugs and/or that I might do at home?” or “Do you believe in acupuncture?” then your vet will have no clue that you are looking for alternatives or complements to traditional care.

As with human medicine, sometimes a vet will look at you with eyes full of wonder and derision and say: “Now why the hell would you want to do that?” In that case, you’ll know you and your pet’s healthcare provider are perhaps not such a good fit. However, if she actually has a good answer for you, with or without a referral attached, then you’re probably in the right place (unless all non-traditional medicine is anathema to your basic life philosophy—in which case you won’t have read this far anyway). But you won’t know until you open that mouth of yours.

That was essentially the point of my talk. Sure, you didn’t get the greasy ribs and the potato skins with it but consider yourself a few pounds lighter for the omission. I’m no expert on holistic vet care but this much I do know: You won’t get the best from any doc if you don’t use your God-given assets. Ask and you shall receive, right?

NB: If you ever want to find  holistic-minded vet in your area, this is a great site with a seemingly complete listing.