What is health? Putting the Principles of Holistic Care into Veterinary Practice

Are you and your pet healthy?

dog walkIt’s an odd question, which you’ll probably answer depending on how you feel, especially if you’re suffering with, say, a cold or a broken leg. And if your pet is currently having treatment, it’s easy to say that he or she isn’t healthy, but would that automatically be the case? Is a contented cat with well-controlled hyperthyroidism any worse off than a depressed horse? Is a puppy with a rash any healthier than a very old dog without any obvious issues?

Defining health is like trying to catch fog in a net. To start, there are lots of different viewpoints of what it actually means, and it soon becomes apparent that perfect health is an impossible ideal, faced as we are by so many challenges every second of our lives. Unless you’re holding your breath, you’ll have breathed in a lot of germs just since you started reading this, one of which may make you ill next Tuesday. How depressing – unless, of course, you were hoping to avoid that work meeting next Tuesday, in which case the world is suddenly a brighter place.

Context matters with these things: a gut full of bacteria is normal; a lung full of bacteria isn’t. Worms aren’t something you’d want to have, but it’s not that long since diet pills for ladies contained tapeworm eggs, in order to maintain that ‘healthy’ figure. We spend more time, effort and money on polyfilla to mask signs of ageing than we do on exercise and decent diet, because we think that a wrinkle-free face on an unfit body is healthier-looking than someone who looks their age only from the neck up.

So what might it mean to be healthy? Is there one theory which brings it all together? Can it be defined without a blood test? More to the point, how does your vet define it, and can he or she explain it to you? I’d like to discuss three theories of health which could really alter your perception of what it means, for you and your pet. They might seem complicated to look at, but in reality they’re very simple, like all the best ideas:

  • Biomedical Health
  • Activities of Living
  • Self-Care Deficit

Biomedical refers to the presence of disease: imagine if I had a Star Trek type scanner, which I could wave at you and it would tell me if you were biomedically healthy in terms of infection or organ function. But I wouldn’t have a clue about how happy you were, how many friends you had and whether you played sport last Saturday. Aren’t these important as part of a healthy life?

So three very clever people called Roper, Logan and Tierney came up with the Activities of Living. These are twelve basic activities (since expanded by other theorists), ranging from eating, drinking and breathing, through social interactions and sexual expression, to dying, as normal parts of a healthy life. It’s not enough to be free of disease: in order to be truly healthy, one has to be able to take part in all of the activities (even dying, but hopefully only at the end of a long and fruitful life).

JunoDorothea Orem produced the wonderful Self-Care Deficit Theory, which simply means that anything you can’t do to look after yourself is called a self-care deficit: so if you can’t put your own socks on, that would be a deficit. Orem considered that where a deficit was identified, enough help should be given to overcome it, but no more. So, when my collie Juno was recently struggling with getting out of her basket after a vestibular attack, she got just enough support to make it happen, but that was all. She had to make some effort herself, and that meant that she overcame the problem more quickly.

These are brilliant theories, but what really made them great was combining them and incorporating them into medical care. You often hear the term holistic applied to alternative therapies and lifestyles, but its true definition has its roots in this kind of care: veterinary medicine shouldn’t just be about curing disease, but about enabling patients to live as full a life as possible. The veterinary profession has identified with this ideology since it first evolved, but the recent introduction of these theories into the education of young vet nurses and vets has cemented their importance. So, there’s now a very good chance that your local vet practice is already putting the principles of holistic care into practice:

  1. We do, of course, look at your pet’s health from a biomedical point of view
  2. Then we may go further and look at how they get on with the Activities of Living.
  3. If there are any that they can’t manage (apart, usually, from sexual expression), we may look at their inability to do it – or self-care deficit – and work out how we can help to put it right.

In this way, health is about more than just a negative lab test, and the common presentation of “he’s just not right” can be looked at more fully.

Ginger catIf Tiger, the car-chasing cat, is hospitalised with a broken pelvis, his care won’t just be about pain relief: it’s possible to put food into a cat even against his will, but the real trick is to make him happy enough to want to eat it. So the team will look at what activities would make him a whole, happy cat again, and what his self-care deficits for each activity are. And they’ll give him the help to bridge those gaps: so if he can’t self-groom all over, they’ll do the bits he can’t reach; if he can’t wee, they’ll take care of that. When the gaps between what he can do and what he needs to be able to do have dwindled to nothing, he’ll be healthy again. A lot of that work can be done at home, so when Tiger is discharged, there should be a good chat about what can be done to carry on the process.
Labrador crop
If Tess, the old Labrador with arthritis, has lost her spark even with painkillers, the practice may have ways to get that spark back – finding new ways to play and to interact, stimulating (as though a Lab would ever need it) interest in food and people. We should look at her expectations out of life – and she won’t want to run for ten miles in the rain each day – and make sure that she’s not being limited by her routine.

Curious bunnyAnd for concepts designed for a rabbit, look no further. Rabbit welfare in terms of general lifestyle and care is one of the most pressing problems we face in veterinary medicine: the lives of some (but by no means all) of these creatures are simply miserable. So if you’ve got a rabbit stuck in a small hutch all day, dig out a copy of the Activities of Living and see how you score as an owner.

We’re pretty good at keeping our pets free of disease. Where we might need some work is in making sure they’re truly healthy. Dogs can’t tell the difference between a cheap collar and an expensive one, but they do know all about quality time and the importance of a good play session. So it might be that looking at our pets’ health helps us to look at our own, and who knows where that could lead?

If you are worried about any aspect of your pet’s health, talk to your vet or use our Interactive Symptom Guide to help assess the urgency of the problem.

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