What is Holistic Pet Care? An Expert’s Guide on How to Care for Pets Naturally


Cute pets

The meaning of holistic pet care is embedded in its name. Taking into account the entire animal, holistic veterinary doctors look at the symptoms of conditions and the disease pattern, in addition to the pet’s environment and genetics, nutrition, stress, and its relationships with its owner and family members. This is done in order to uncover the root cause of the illness. The holistic practitioner then develops a treatment plan that makes use of a combination of conventional and complementary (or alternative) therapies to heal the patient.

Some of the therapies provided by holistic practitioners (along with modern drugs, surgery, and diagnostic tests) include acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractic care, flower essences, herbal medicine, homeopathy, low-level laser therapy, mega-nutrient therapy, nutritional therapy, osteopathy, rehabilitation and sports medicine, and stem cell therapy.

In anticipation of National Holistic Pet Day on August 30, 2021, we wanted to learn more about innovative approaches to veterinary care.

In the following interview, integrative veterinarian Dr. Richard Palmquist spoke to us about his professional journey and what his work entails, as well as what pet owners should know about holistic veterinary care and advice for aspiring veterinary professionals.

Interview with Richard E. Palmquist, DVM, GDVCHM, ACCHVM

Richard E. Palmquist

Dr. Richard E. Palmquist is the director of integrative health services at Centinela Animal Hospital, Inc. and the research and communications chair of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation (AHVMF). He is also past president of the AHVMF and a consultant for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN).

Dr. Palmquist has been practicing veterinary medicine for close to 40 years. He shared, “I became a veterinarian because I really fell in love with the profession and the idea of taking care of animals. At that time I didn’t actually like people. Veterinary medicine actually taught me how to like people.”

A graduate of the Colorado State University veterinary medicine program, Dr. Palmquist can be found on Twitter and Instagram where he publishes research and poetry.

VetTechColleges: What brought you to the field of holistic animal care?

Dr. Palmquist: I went to Colorado State University and graduated in 1983. I was selected as the top small animal student in my class, and I was all about conventional medicine. My father was a microbiologist who was in charge of the Weld County public health department microbiology laboratory, and my mom was a dental hygienist who [also] worked at the public health department. My family was a very science-oriented family, so I was a very science-oriented doctor.

When I got out of school, I had a series of cases where things did not go the way that I thought they should go based on my conventional medical training. In particular, one patient didn’t respond to appropriate Western medicine but responded to an herb, which at that time, really upset me because there wasn’t any evidence for that herb.

That still didn’t change my track, and when I got into private practice, I had a client who I was very fond of. I heard that she had gotten tied up with this “quack” veterinarian in New York who was treating her dog’s cancer without chemotherapy—just using vitamins and herbs—and I got incensed about that. So I decided that I would fly out to New York and get his license revoked for taking advantage of this nice person.

I spent some time with him in New York and ultimately saw that he knew things that I didn’t know and was doing really miraculous work. So ultimately he became one of my best friends, and he’s the subject of a movie that premiered last year, called The Dog Doc. There are about four minutes in the film where we tell the whole story together. His name is Martin Goldstein. He’s now retired from practice, but he’s a really amazing holistic doctor. He literally changed my view by showing me that I didn’t know what I was doing. In a very nice way, he caused me to coin this new term, which was “results-oriented medicine,” whereas before, I thought that evidence-based medicine was the way for us to go.

Evidence-based medicine has a really laudable purpose, but you can get trapped in that—if you haven’t got a study, you can’t use something. So, results-oriented medicine to me was looking at things that seem to have results, and then as we report those as pioneering practitioners, then maybe we can engage the academic communities and get more evidence.

That ultimately led to the development and enhancement of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation, which was where I was president and the research chair for quite a while. I’m still research chair and in charge of fundraising for that organization, which is setting out to get 20 million dollars to do research in integrative medicine, which is humane and effective, so that conventional veterinarians get access to these things which everybody else is using but they don’t know works.

VetTechColleges: What does your work entail as the research and communications director of the AHVMF?

Dr. Palmquist: The Foundation is basically a nonprofit organization that does fundraisers twice a year to raise funds for what we call “humane clinical research” projects. We don’t fund animal-harming research, so the Foundation wouldn’t fund giving cancer to mice, cutting off the limbs, or crushing the spines of small animals to do research on how we could fix those spinal injuries. So that’s the “humane” part of that.

And we do clinical research, so we only use animals that have the actual disease. We compare their responses to certain interventions. As an example, one of our big research projects is looking at canine lymphosarcoma, which is the most common cancer that’s treated in dogs in the United States.

Right now the standard of care for lymphoma is only the use of chemotherapy and immune-modulating type substances that can affect the outcome of the tumor. Lymphoma is not cured. It’s actually just treated palliatively, which means we don’t cure the disease—we just prolong the quality of life.

And so we’re involved in a study that looks at one test group, which is just dogs that are treated with conventional chemotherapy, and then the other arm is a cohort that is looking at dogs treated with conventional chemotherapy plus Chinese herbs.

That study is ongoing, so I can’t give out a lot of specific information, but what we can see in the preliminary results is that there is a marked improvement in survival indicated so far in the data that we have in the patients that are treated with both with chemotherapy and Chinese herbs. So, this is a good example of how we’d like integrated medicine to develop, which is more research-oriented but utilizing the clinical experience of practitioners over thousands of years.

VetTechColleges: What is important for pet owners to know about holistic veterinary practices?

Dr. Palmquist: Well, every holistic veterinarian is different because we all come with a different life story, and a different set of skills, abilities, and opportunities.

So it’s understanding systems of healing and trying to find someone that you can respect and communicate with. If you can’t communicate with the doctor, you’re not going to be able to get into healing, because the word healing means “whole.”

In my opinion, the most important part of that decision process is actually diet. We’re really underspending in our research opportunities to look at food. And I think that’s because in many instances, the food industry is more about making profits on the food and making a stable product than necessarily looking at the influences of those products over time.

There are these molecules called advanced glycation end products. In essence, these are the result of a molecular reaction and habits when you put protein, fat, and starch together on high [heat]. You manufacture these molecules.

Advanced glycation end products are what turn things brown. Fried chicken tastes better than steamed chicken because it’s got brown crusty stuff on the outside. That brown crusty stuff is mostly advanced glycation end products. Steamed bacon doesn’t taste good, but crispy fried bacon tastes delicious. That’s because of these advanced glycation end products.

So we all eat them. Processed foods are really high. Anything that’s crunchy, brown, processed with heat—cheese puffs, potato chips—all those kinds of things are all loaded with these molecules.

They directly attack the mitochondria and damage the cell. They accumulate in the body because they’re not metabolized and excreted. So, over periods of time, they basically lead your body to get all those things that people go to doctors for—arthritis, heart disease, dementia, diabetes, kidney failure, high blood pressure—all these things relate back to advanced glycation end products.

Obviously, we’re all consuming large amounts. For instance, you want to keep your consumption of advanced glycation end products below 20,000 units, and one crispy fried piece of bacon is 15,000.

So when we’re eating these things, a bag of chips here and fried chicken for lunch and all this kind of stuff, we’re loading our bodies with these things, and guess what you’re going to end up with? You’re going to end up with a population that’s overweight and has difficulty with diabetes and heart disease. But these things are major fuelers of those diseases, and we aren’t researching these adequately in veterinary medicine. We’re not looking at that topic.

It turns out that the advanced glycation end product content in dry food is sky-high. So pet food companies don’t have to add a flavor enhancer, they can take crappy food, and they can put it in the oven and bake it at a high temperature with oil, and suddenly now it’s a tasty, crunchy snack.

Holistic doctors have observed that when we take patients off dry conventional food and put them on fresh diets that they oftentimes get over their disease without any medication at all. Or, where they weren’t improving before, suddenly they’re doing better.

And we’ve attributed that to a lot of things. One of the things is that chi in fresh food is better than the chi in processed, dry food. So the holistic veterinarian’s explanation is that food has shitty chi. Okay, what about the chi is shitty?

Obviously, just ask somebody. “Here’s a bag of kibble. Would you rather eat this three times a day, or would you rather have fresh food? Everybody will go, “No, I won’t eat the kibble, but I’ll throw it in the bowl for my dog because it’s cheap and easy.”

Now whether that’s complete and balanced and really good for the dog is a whole question. I think that, honestly, most dry foods should not be fed to animals on a regular basis. This is my own personal opinion. Dry food has these advanced glycation end products.

What’s in the food? Well, there are mold toxins. These can cause allergies. There’s glyphosate in a lot of these foods. That’s the weed killer, Roundup, that’s causing cancer in people. But we’re feeding it to dogs in all these grain-free diets that have peas and beans and those kinds of things that are sprayed with herbicides before they’re harvested and put in the bag.

And we know that dogs have much much higher blood levels of glyphosate than people do. So maybe putting that in there with these advanced glycation end products is irritating that immune system and causing damage and making the immune system make bad choices and decide that the food is bad when actually it’s the ingredient in the food that is bad. Sort of the devil in the details. But we have to prove that with research before people accept it.

So I would say the most important thing to tell the new person is to feed fresh food and canned, but not dry food if you want to make a big difference. I think that if we are really interested in health and longevity and maximizing the genetic potential and the epigenetic potential of our patients that fresh food is a must.

More and more people are catching on to this. There are companies now that are fulfilling this need: Nom Nom, Farmer’s dog, Just Food for Dogs. And these guys are springing up and their companies are growing like crazy. And it’s not because people want to spend more money for their dog—when they feed this food to their dogs, they can see the difference usually in about six weeks.

There’s a funny biblical phrase that I just adore, which is, “Test everything; keep what’s good.” And we don’t always have to spend a million dollars to do the task. You can feed that food [to] your dog, and see if the dog does better on it. Less gas, better coat, brighter, happier, sleeps well at night. Then no matter whether there is a study or not, that’s what’s good for your dog.

VetTechColleges: What advice do you have for people thinking about entering holistic veterinary care as a profession?

Dr. Palmquist: Well, I think they should get educated. One of the best ways to get educated is to go and work. I went to work for a veterinarian. I went to his house and I said, “I really want to find out if I want to do this, and I’ll work for you for free.” And [a year later] that led to my first job.

If you’re interested in a holistic, integrated career, go to the holistic health food store. Go to the holistic doctor. Talk to people. Meet them. Ask them because the holistic pet store knows who the good doctors are in the area.

Test everything and keep what’s good.

Additional resources:

  • Meet Dr. Martin Goldstein, the vet that changed the course of Dr. Palmquist’s career. They appear together in the film, The Dog Doc.
  • In episode 11 of The Canine Condition, Just What the Doctor Ordered, Dr. Palmquist speaks about his work as an integrative veterinary professional.
  • In this 30-minute TED talk, David Turner explains the effect of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) on health.
Cevia Yellin (Writer)

Cevia Yellin is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon. She studied English and French literature as an undergraduate. After serving two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, she earned her master of arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cevia's travels and experiences working with students of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have contributed to her interest in the forces that shape identity. She grew up on the edge of Philadelphia, where her mom still lives in her childhood home.