Last year, we were hit with an unexpected flea infestation. In our nearly 16 years of owning our oldest dog, Finnigan, we’d never dealt with any flea problems before. My husband and I had just moved our family of three humans and two dogs from a 3,000 square foot home in the middle of the woods in northern Maine to a 1,000 square foot space in a Minneapolis suburb, seven minutes from the Mall of America. Somewhere between ME and MN, our dogs got fleas.
Our two terrier mixes were covered in them, and I had red bites all over my legs. My husband started looking for the best prices on flea shampoos, flea collars, and what needed to be sprayed where in order to nip the apartment infestation in the bud, and more importantly, keep it from happening again. I told him to wait… maybe we could try the homeopathic route? He side-eyed me, pointedly looked at my flea-bitten legs, and then reminded me that we had already tried the homeopathic/natural/holistic/Eastern route and that’s why we were in this mess.
I hated to admit it, but he was right. (Do not tell him I said that!) I had been relying on essential oils to prevent and repel fleas on Finnigan and Nibbler, spraying the couches and dogs with diluted homemade flea sprays, and was even using a homemade shampoo for their baths. The holistic and natural route has worked for us and our boys in certain respects - we give them charcoal bones or plain, pureed pumpkin for upset stomachs, plain low-fat yogurt for healthy skin and coats, and stick to grain-free, gluten-free dog foods for optimum health benefits. And at nearly 16, Finnigan is still jumping on and off our bed on his own, enjoys multiple daily walks, and our veterinarian and groomer marvel at how he’s still doing so well, so obviously, we’re doing something right. But this sudden flea infestation meant that natural wasn’t going to cut it.
“Buy what works,” I told him, and he did.
After a run to the stores, my husband arrived home with shampoo, collars, and a flea and tick prevention topical that works for three months for every application. It took two sets of three baths, a week apart, for our boys to be flea-free again. To rid the apartment of the infestation, we called our vet and used products she recommended. Essential oils, she said, might work for certain things, but homeopathy isn’t the answer for everything.
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Dr. Alex Kintz Konneger, graduate of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria and owner of the K. Vet Animal Care practice in Greensburg, PA, agrees. As pet owners, she says, it is in our dogs’ best interests for us to avoid getting stuck in all-or-nothing thinking. Our dogs are healthiest, Konneger says, when we incorporate both Western and Eastern philosophies into canine veterinary care.
“At K. Vet Animal Care we practice integrative veterinary medicine, which means we offer Western and Eastern medicine, chiropractic care, and physical therapy,” Konneger, 42, says. “This gives us more "tools in our toolbox" and the opportunity to select the optimal treatment choices for our patients. Both Eastern and Western medicine have their limitations, yet compliment each other harmoniously when applied correctly.” The most significant difference between Eastern and Western medicine (homeopathic or holistic and traditional, respectively) says Konneger, lies in the philosophies of each approach.
“Western medicine excels at the linear connections between cause and effect. If there is an infection - take your antibiotics. If there is a tumor - cut it out. It offers the opportunity to prevent diseases with vaccinations and certain medications (flea/tick/heartworm preventatives).” Konneger explains. “Yet, we define health basically as the absence of symptoms in Western medicine: "Your diagnostic tests are all normal, there is nothing wrong with you, you must be well."
But that, she adds, isn’t always the case.
“I would not want to practice a day without antibiotics or steroids or the option to perform surgery to save a patient's life,” Konneger says. “Still sometimes in Western medicine we seem to hit a wall and find ourselves without further valid options to improve the patient's quality of life. In Eastern medicine…We are not chasing a diagnosis of disease, we are analyzing patterns leading to the disease.”
Konneger and her staff believe that their integrative approach means choosing the best of both worlds of Eastern and Western Medicine, also incorporating into their core philosophy what is known as The Five Element Theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine. This theory holds that life force, or Qi, must flow freely between all five elements (organ systems). If there is a deficiency - or not enough Qi in one element, the patient will experience imbalance, disease, and potentially pain.
Julie Katz Baker, the Adoption Coordinator for Shepherd Help & Rescue Effort in Boca Raton, Florida, also is a believer of integrative medicine. Her dogs, a 10-and a-half-year-old golden retriever named Kelsey, and a five-and-a-half-year-old German Shepherd named Journey, have both benefitted from utilizing traditional and holistic treatments.
Kesley, says Katz Baker, has had positive results from acupuncture. Her old Golden Retriever, Buttons, Katz Baker adds, had Reiki treatments to treat her arthritis.
“Alternative treatments work” says Katz Baker. “Acupuncture seemed to help release the immediate pain.”
Pam S. of San Fernando Valley, CA, also owns German Shepherds. The 64-year-old says she loves veterinarians, but sometimes it’s necessary to use both Eastern and Western medicine. She also is a believer in the benefits of CBD oil.
“Timber is my shy, timid senior who, when we go to regular vets shakes all over, has to be coerced to go into a room but when we go to the holistic vet for treadmill underwater therapy or massage, laser, or chiropractic she doesn’t shake & she seems to relax,” Pam S. says. “My Franzie, who passed in April, was on all kinds of pain meds in addition to his holistic treatment, but I do believe he would have never lasted two-and-a-half-years after he became disabled if I hadn’t combined both services.”
Dr. Konneger notes that it’s important to discuss options with your integrative practitioner whenever in doubt about how to proceed.
“All natural is not always the best or safest approach to any given situation.” Konneger adds that the excessive use of non-diluted essential oils is one example.
Essental oils can have a wide variety of applications for both humans and dogs, including nausea, digestive issues, anxiety, and parasite control.
“When applied topically at full-strength, these highly potent herbal extracts enter the blood stream, where they are metabolized by the liver, potentially resulting in liver stress or elevated liver function enzymes.” Konneger says, also adding that she strongly advises for year-round, regular flea, tick and heartworm preventatives.
“I get to teach at the Chi Institute for TCVM (Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine) in Florida several times a year and I am excited to see hundreds of veterinarians studying to become certified in acupuncture and herbal medicine,” Konneger says. “This makes my heart sing, as our pets are clearly going to benefit from us humans expanding our knowledge. In the long run this will hopefully lead to Eastern medicine not being a last chance hail Mary, but part of an integrative approach to both preventative medicine and disease treatment.”
Editor's note: Kibble & Dribble will be exploring this topic further in the future, as we believe alternative therapies will become an increasingly popular choice for pet owners, when feasible. If you have had a personal experience with trying homeopathic or natural remedies on your pet, please let us know in the comments (or send us an email!) and we might feature your story!
Pauline Campos is a widely-published author who has written for The Washington Post, Marie Claire, and many others. She’s the mother to an amazing autistic girl, dog mom to Finnegan and Nibbler, and believes ADHD is her superpower.