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  • Jo De Klerk

    Complementary Therapies For Dogs

    There will inevitably come a time when you will need to take your dog to the vet, for one reason or another. But in this day and age, many owners are exploring options to reduce the intake of medications by their dogs. As a result, many veterinarians and animal therapists are now offering complementary therapies for dogs and other animals.

    Responsible vets and therapists will only offer these services as complementary therapies, and not as alternative therapies, as conventional medicine is still the most proven effective method of treating many ailments.

    A complementary therapy is a type of therapy offered by a veterinarian or animal therapist which improves the dog’s response to a medication, procedure or rehabilitation process. It, therefore, improves comfort and healing time. Some complementary therapies have been used for hundreds of years, with plenty of scientific backing, whilst others are relatively new on the scene or do not stand up in rigorous scientific research. Nevertheless, if they are used in conjunction with conventional medicine, as long as they do no harm, they can only do good or nothing at all.


    Physiotherapy in the UK is carried out by professional veterinary physiotherapists. To become a veterinary physiotherapist requires extensive training to first become a human physiotherapist, then pursue postgraduate qualifications in the veterinary physiotherapy field.

    Physiotherapy is a therapy which helps improve the function of muscles and general mobility. It is often used for orthopaedic and neurological cases; however, the application of it can be endless.

    There are several types of exercises which are commonly carried out in physiotherapy sessions. The first type of exercise is general massage. There are many different types of strokes which can be used in a massage session; however, the general aim of the massage is to improve blood flow and relaxation of tired, overcompensating and injured muscles.

    The mainstay of physiotherapy sessions are exercises which encourage movement and functional use of limbs or balance. This can be done by using inflatable exercise balls to lean over, or inflatables to stand on so that the body has to react and judge its position. This improves balance and tones postural muscles.

    Other common exercises, which can easily be carried out by owners at home too, are exercises which build up muscle. These include ‘passive range of movement’ exercises, which involve bicycling legs when they are not bearing weight, and exercises such as sit to stand, and weaving in and out of cones.

    Finally, many physiotherapists also make use of laser or light therapy. This uses infrared light to activate an enzyme called cytochrome C. This, in turn, causes a chemical reaction which releases energy and results in blood vessels dilating. Consequently, there is improved blood flow to the area which aids in the healing of injuries.


    In the UK, acupuncture can only be carried out by a veterinarian, or a veterinary nurse under the supervision of a veterinarian. There are two types of acupuncture; Chinese and Western. Chinese is still widely practiced; however, the explanation of the therapy is now fairly outdated. There have been some major scientific advancements in the acupuncture world, which has given rise to Western acupuncture. This type of acupuncture is backed up by a great deal of verified scientific research.

    It is now known that acupuncture works through stimulation of nerves, rather than by the flow of energy through meridians. There are many nerves in the body, some of which travel as bundles. These nerve bundles are thick, and can be targeted at certain points by acupuncture needles.

    If stimulated by a needle, the body will release a large amount of endorphin, which is like a natural morphine. This causes profound pain relief, as well as relaxation, minor sedation, improved blood flow, and a general happy feeling. As a result, acupuncture is usually used for painful conditions.

    The endorphins are initially released in the area of the needle placement, but they gradually make their way back up the nerve to the spinal cord as well. Once they reach the spinal cord, they travel both up and down for a short distance. From there, the endorphins then travel down any nerve which originates at that part of the spinal cord. As a result, there is a local, spinal and regional pain relief. This enables the acupuncturist to target painful sites without directly placing a needle in them.

    Many owners are apprehensive about their pets receiving acupuncture; however, it is not a painful procedure. The needles are not much thicker than a strand of hair, and once inserted, the only sensation is an aching feeling similar to that which is felt after heavy exercise.


    Another popular rehabilitation therapy, now widely used, is hydrotherapy. This is more than just an expensive swimming session. Hydrotherapy is usually carried out by canine hydrotherapists, veterinary physiotherapists or veterinary nurses, all of which will have had extensive training.


    Most people running hydrotherapy sessions will only do so on the referral from a vet. The wrong type of exercise can exacerbate conditions, rather than help them, and so a full history from the vet is important.

    A hydrotherapy session will not just be in a general swimming pool. Usually, there will be a purpose-built pool and underwater treadmill, specifically for canine hydrotherapy. Floats will often be used to aid dogs to stay in a good position in the water, and toys may also be brought out to encourage a positive experience.

    Hydrotherapy is most commonly used for dogs that need to build up muscle without putting stress on other anatomical parts of the body. For example, a dog with arthritis will have sore joints, and the force of gravity when moving will put pressure on those joints. However, when a dog moves in water, there is very little pressure on the joints, meaning that muscle can be built up without exacerbating the condition.

    Herbal Therapies and Homeopathy

    Some veterinarians will also provide options for herbal therapies and homeopathy. These two therapies are very different, yet are commonly confused. Herbal therapy has a large amount of scientific research behind it. Most modern drugs have derived from plants, and therefore, medications made out of plants and herbs can be extremely effective. Unfortunately, even though herbal therapy is a more natural way of treating your dog than synthetic drugs, there is no guarantee how much of the active component of the medication is in the herb or plant, and therefore, results can be highly variable. Synthetic medications, on the other hand, ensure that each dose is effective as the next.

    Homeopathy is another form of medication, however, there is not a great deal of scientific research to justify homeopathic remedies in place of conventional medication. Homeopathy is a treatment modality that treats like with like. This is done by taking the root cause of the issue, for example a toxin, and diluting it again and again until there is no more trace of the initial substance. What is left in the solution is the energy of the substance, which in turn is used to treat the condition. Whilst this sounds like it couldn’t possibly work, there are many compelling case stories in the world which promote its use.

    Regardless of how you choose to treat your dog, whether it be with conventional therapy or with complementary therapies, in the end, as long as you are doing no harm by withholding a required medication, you can only do good for your dog.

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    Jo De Klerk

    Jo is a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, London. She has a Masters degree in Tropical Animal Health, and has spent most of her career working in mixed veterinary practice.

    Recently, she has become involved in one of the UK’s fastest growing veterinary telemedicine services for dogs and cats.

    She is a published author of several books, and enjoys working as a freelance veterinary writer around her clinical work.

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