There are now lots of complementary treatments available for cats and dogs. Some you’ll have heard of – like acupuncture or hydrotherapy – and some might be totally new to you.
The problems with alternatives to conventional treatments for pets are the same as those for humans: they might help, but on the other hand they could be expensive, ineffective or even harmful.
We’ve looked into what complementary treatments are available, how much they might cost and how to find a reputable and properly qualified complementary therapist for your pet.
What’s the difference between alternative therapies and complementary therapies?
The terms ‘Complementary therapies’ and ‘alternative therapies’ are often used interchangeably.
But, "although 'complementary and alternative' is often used as a single category, it can be useful to make a distinction between the two different ways of using these treatments,” says the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA).
“Complementary therapies are used together with conventional medicine while alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medicine,” it clarifies.
What this essentially means for you is that you should always access these therapies through your own vet. Follow their advice for a treatment plan and don’t seek out alternatives that aren’t recommended by your vet.
If you do, you could unwittingly be choosing something that's at best useless for your pet and at worst harmful.
It’s also unlikely that your pet insurance will cover it, even if you have a policy that includes some cover for complementary therapies.
The law and complementary therapies for pets
The laws around who can carry out complementary or alternative therapies on your cat or dog are set out in the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966.
In most cases, the only people who can legally diagnose and treat your pet are registered veterinary surgeons.
That means that treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine must be carried out by a vet.
There is an exception for musculoskeletal therapies, but these therapists must be part of a vet-led team.
Musculoskeletal therapies include physiotherapy, osteopathy, and chiropractic treatment. Hydrotherapy is also a type of physiotherapy.
A vet must first diagnose your pet and delegate the treatment to a practitioner.
What complementary therapies are there for pets?
Complementary therapies for pets include:
All of these treatments are either carried out by a qualified veterinary surgeon or by another qualified practitioner that your vet can refer you to.
If you don’t access treatment via your vet, you risk letting an unqualified person loose on your cat or dog’s health.
Musculoskeletal therapies for cats and dogs
These treatments don't have to be performed by a vet. They do have to be carried out by a suitably qualified therapist that a vet has made a referral to.
Hydrotherapy – Pet hydrotherapy involves your dog exercising in a swimming pool or on an underwater treadmill. Canine hydrotherapy is commonly recommended by vets for gait and joint problems, but it can also be used by cats in some circumstances.
There’s nothing legally to stop anyone setting up as a canine hydrotherapist without relevant qualifications or experience. That means it’s really important to make sure you ask your vet for a recommendation and check that the centre is accredited by either the Canine Hydrotherapy Association (CHA) or National Association of Registered Canine Hydrotherapists (NARCH).
Physiotherapy – Physiotherapy for your cat or dog works to improve your pet’s movement after injury, illness or surgery. Instead of using medicines to do this it focuses on physical methods like massage and exercises.
Make sure that you choose a chartered physiotherapist for your dog. That means they will have spent years training and qualifying for the profession.
The title ‘animal physiotherapist’ or ‘veterinary physiotherapist’ isn’t protected by law. That means that an unqualified person could set up as a pet physiotherapist. That’s why it’s important to make sure you use a ‘chartered’ vet physiotherapist - they can only use this title if they’ve achieved the relevant degree and postgraduate training.
Osteopathy – Osteopathy applies manual movements to the musculoskeletal system to improve mobility.
Although the title ‘animal osteopath’ isn’t protected in law in the same way as the human version, a pet osteopath can only legally treat your cat or dog if a vet has referred the animal to them for treatment.
It’s highly unlikely a vet would refer your pet to someone who wasn’t suitably trained and qualified, so again the best way to find a reputable animal osteopath is to ask your vet to refer you.
Chiropractic treatment – An animal chiropractor aims to relieve pain by working specifically on the spine.
Many animal chiropractors are actually qualified as human chiropractors who have taken additional training to treat dogs and horses as well. You still need to be referred to them by your vet.
Complementary therapies carried out by a vet
All other types of complementary treatments must be administered by a qualified vet.
Acupuncture – Acupuncture involves inserting needles into specific points on your pet’s body to promote a healing response.
In the UK only a veterinary surgeon is qualified to perform acupuncture on your cat or dog. If your own vet doesn’t offer it they may be able to refer you to another vet that’s trained in acupuncture if they think it would be of benefit for your pet.
Homeopathy – Homeopathy for pets, like human homeopathy, follows a principle of ‘like cures like’. That basically means it involves diluting certain substances that trigger a set of symptoms then using it to treat a condition with the same symptoms.
Only a qualified vet can offer homeopathic treatment to pets. Anyone else offering these services is breaking the law and could harm your dog or cat.
Herbal medicine – Herbal medicine revolves around using plats to heal your pet.
There are lots of herbal remedies you can buy from pet shops and online vet pharmacies, but it’s a good idea to only use treatments that your own vet recommends or ask them to refer you to a vet that practices herbal medicine if they don’t offer it themselves.
Laser therapy – Laser therapy for dogs and cats involves directing an intense beam of light at an area of pain or an injury. This is supposed to improve symptoms and promote healing.
Sometimes lasers can be used for pain relief, for example before spaying or castrating a dog.
As with other complementary treatments, laser therapy should only be carried out where it’s been recommended by your vet. This means it’ll usually be administered in a veterinary surgery by a vet or a vet nurse.
What counts as complementary treatment on pet insurance?
Lots of pet insurance providers include some cover for complementary therapies, but there will usually be conditions to meet.
In general, only complementary therapies that your vet has referred you for will be covered. And ig the therapist isn’t a veterinary surgeon they’ll need to be suitably qualified and may need to be part of an industry body.
At ManyPets, all our policies include some cover for complementary therapies as part of your overall vet fee limit. Cover ranges from up to £500 on our Value policies to £2,500 on the Complete policy.
Your pet will need to be diagnosed by a vet first. If the vet decides they need hydrotherapy, homeopathic and herbal medicines, acupuncture, physiotherapy, osteopathy or laser therapy, we will pay the costs up to the complementary therapy limit of your policy.
Complementary treatments must be carried out by a veterinary surgeon or by a qualified person who is part of the relevant industry body.
Complementary therapies will usually support your vet's medical care plan. Online pharmacies are convenient, affordable and deliver quickly. Before you pay for your prescription in person, investigate dispensers online too. Find out more about online pharmacies here.