Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Pragmatist’s View of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

     I have a confession: I am a nerd. I like to study, read, investigate and analyze. I like things that are logical and make sense. I want to understand the world around me and how things work.

     Because of this, complementary and alternative medicine (commonly referred to as “CAM”) poses a quandary for me. On the one hand, most of these practices have been used for thousands of years in one culture or another and almost none of them do harm. I like that they are something positive we can do, rather than filling ourselves or our companions with medicines that almost always have some negative side effect. I rebel against the idea that the man in the white jacket has all the answers and I appreciate that some things work and we just don’t understand why.

     On the other hand, I do believe there is a reason why something works or doesn’t and I am driven to understand that. Frankly, some of the explanations CAM practitioners give as to why their modality works just don’t ring true for me and I have a hard time buying in.

     I find myself intellectually skeptical and yet emotionally drawn at the same time.

     Ultimately, I come down as a pragmatist (pragmatism: "a straightforward practical way of thinking about things or dealing with problems, concerned with results rather than with theories and principles").  I recognize that there are many, many things in this world that we do not yet understand, and that if people and creatures for centuries before us have tapped into something that works, we should not eschew it simply because we do not understand it.

     Many skeptics think that CAM appears to work only because of the “placebo effect” – that the person so strongly believes in the cure that they report success where there is none or their mere mental attitude is what truly affects the change. When you work with animals as we do, however, there is no such thing as the placebo effect. The animal doesn’t believe that the acupuncture needle is going to cure it. They don’t associate a flower essence with health. They don’t have a mental picture of chi or energy flows.

     We have seen truly remarkable things happen in animals treated with chiropractic, acupuncture, Reiki, TTouch, flower essences and homeopathic remedies. We have witnessed animal communicators diagnose physical issues with pinpoint accuracy that were later confirmed by diagnostic veterinary tests. And we hear resounding success stories from people all over the world about their experiences with many different types of CAM.

     There are also those who report no improvement, who spend thousands of dollars on remedies without effect, who blame themselves for not finding the right cure or for using a traditional medication that might have countered the homeopathic remedy, or whose companion suffered because they elected a natural remedy over an available conventional medication or treatment.

     At New England Pet Hospice, we neither promote nor discount CAM. We are open minded, interested and willing to explore all options that offer alleviation of suffering to the animal if and when the family wishes to do so. We let the animals be our guides: if something works for them, terrific; if it doesn’t, we move on. We are not invested in the modality, but rather the effect. Our only goal is to ease suffering in all its manifestations from physical pain, to emotional distress, to family disharmony.

     It is not about how much you spend, how many things you try, having the right world view, or even how long your companion lives. It is about alleviating suffering and bringing peace, love and comfort to your companion, your family and your home at a time when you need it the most.

     This is the true beauty of hospice care.


  1. Heather, I love your way of thinking here and couldn't agree more. Recently we came upon a blog written by a "SkeptVet" who remains anonymous and criticizes CAM because it's not scientifically proven. But one doesn't get the feeling that (s)he actually has had experience with it, and certainly not in hospice care. It's a relief to have opinions like yours, so craftfully written, to counter those kind of opinions.

  2. Thank you, Michelle. I think I read the same blog and it got my blood boiling. It is easy to criticize something from the outside without knowledge or experience. As with so many things, I find that we wish for black and white when there are really shades of gray. Or perhaps not shades of gray but an infinite number of colors.

    Especially in hospice care, I think we need to use every tool in the toolbox. What matters is what works for that particular animal at that particular time.

    - Heather
    Founder & Team Leader
    New England Pet Hospice, Inc.