Holistically Yours


In some circles, I have been accused of not being “holistic.”  Frankly, I’m not sure what that means.  It must be important, however, because some folks proudly say they are holistic, and some other folks (like me) may get criticized for not being holistic (mostly by the same folks who say that they are holistic), and lots of products get sold based on their being holistic, so I figured that I should try to figure it out if for no other reason than because I’d like to know what it is that I may or may not be missing.

When I graduated from vet school, pretty much no one claimed to be holistic.  That’s probably understandable, because, after all, “holistic” is a pretty new word, and it wasn’t in common usage at the time.  I mean, the term “holistic medicine” wasn’t even used until 1960 (according to the On-Line Etymology Dictionary).  But no matter when it was invented, the word has got to mean something, right?

First place to start – the dictionary!

Here are some definitions – you can CLICK HERE to see where I found them.

1.  “Medicine/Medical . identifying with principles of holism  in a system of therapeutics, especially one considered outside the mainstream of scientific medicine, as naturopathy or chiropractic, and often involving nutritional measures: holistic medicine.”
DR. RAMEY, thinking out loud:  OK, so by this definition, in order to be holistic, I need to be considered “outside the mainstream of scientific medicine.”
You-mainstream-sheep-wouldnt-understandRats.  I don’t think I want to be that.  I’m already down one qualification.  The mainstream of medicine includes stuff like surgery, antibiotics, vaccination, X-rays, pain relievers, etc., etc.  It’s things like scientific studies, and trying to prove that things work:  trying to come up with objective measures of success.  Personally, I find that things that are inside the mainstream of medicine are pretty useful, and, when it comes to treating sick horses, I’d hate to throw them out.  I’m not that inclined to jump to far outside of the medical mainstream, which tries to use proven therapies that have been shown to benefit animals.

So what’s outside the medical mainstream?  Lots of stuff.  Stuff like trying to figure out a horse’s aura, magnetic healing, homeopathy, acupuncture, “energy medicine,” and many, many other things.  They don’t have objective measures of success, and they certainly aren’t mainstream.  If being outside of the mainstream is what it takes to be “holistic,” it can be done in endless numbers of ways, unburdened by trivial details like proof of effectiveness.


BY THE WAY:  I’m not sure where “nutritional measures” fit into that picture – it seems to me that feeding horses, or adjusting their diets for this, that, or the other condition is pretty much right in the middle of the mainstream.  I mean, they even give out degrees in nutrition, and publish studies.  How much more mainstream does it get?
honk.caveman.science.5.smallerSo far, I guess I am holistic in that I use and appreciate nutrition, but I’m not holistic in that I don’t really want to be to far outside of the mainstream of medicine.   Call it a draw at this point:  1 – 1.
The definition also talks about the “principles of holism.”  According to the definition, here’s what it means in terms of medicine:  “Medicine/Medical.  Care of the entire patient in all aspects. “
Now wait a second.  What the heck does “all aspects” mean?  I mean, I take care of colics, and teeth, and shots, and cuts, and respiratory disease, and pregnant mares, and hoof problems, and skin problems, and weight loss, and all sorts of other stuff.  That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re practicing medicine (I think).  I take care of the entire horse, and in all aspects.  I don’t know a single chiropractor, acupuncturist, dentist, laser therapist, animal communicator, homeopath, herbalist, etc., etc. – claimants to being “holistic” enthusiasts, all – who does all that.  If a horse is sick in the middle of the night, I’m the one that gets the call, not the massage therapist.  So by the definition, I must be practicing holistic medicine (although, honestly, I’d call it good medicine – or doing my job).
Two votes for holistic; one against.  Because I take care of all aspects, and I use nutrition, I’m apparently getting more holistic all the time.  And more confused.
horse_chiro_cartoon-266x234The definition talks about chiropractic, which is a field that’s basically defined as all problems somehow being related to the spine.  It seems to me that you almost certainly can’t be holistic if you’re focusing on one part of the horse, or one treatment – I mean, a horse is more than a big spine, right?  What about the rest of the horse?  How can a homeopath be “holistic” when the only solution that’s being peddled for all ills is water?  Is it “holistic” to assert that every condition can benefit from a well-placed pin?  That doesn’t sound “holistic” at all to me!
Clearly, I need some more clarification.  So, back to another definition.
“2.  Of or relating to the medical consideration of the complete person, physically and psychologically, in the treatment of a disease.”
DR. RAMEY, thinking out loud (again): Obviously, if we’re talking about veterinary medicine, we’d substitute the word “animal” for “person.”  And, if that substitution is made, I’d assert that anyone who is practicing medicine should consider the complete animal, physically and psychologically.  It’d be pretty stupid to look at a horse with a cut, for example, and not look for the screw head sticking out of the wall that he cut himself on, or to treat a horse for colic, and ignore his moldy feed, or to see a skinny horse, and not ask about what he’s getting to eat (to give only three examples – I could fill the page).  Looking at the complete horse isn’t “holistic” medicine – it’s “good” medicine.
Three votes for being holistic, and one against.  Apparently, either I’m about to conclude that I’m really “holistic,” or I must need more definitions.  I’ll keep looking.

General J.C. Smuts, inventor of “holism”

“3. 1926, coined, along with holism, by Gen. J.C. Smuts (1870-1950), from Gk. holos “whole” (see safe(adj.).  In reference to the theory that regards nature as consisting of wholes.  Holistic medicine is first attested 1960.”

DR. RAMEY, really scratching his head now, asks:  “Who the heck is J.C. Smuts?”

J.C. Smuts was a famous South African politician, who, among other things, was instrumental in the formation of the League of Nations.  He was also a dedicated white supremacist.  According to a biographer:  “Small units must needs develop into bigger wholes, and they in their turn again must grow into larger and ever-larger structures without cessation. ”

DR. RAMEY says, with some assurance:  Clearly, when it comes to medicine, “holism” is not that.

These definitions seem not to be clearing things up much.  “Holistic” has to mean something, right?  It can’t be like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (paraphrasing from his decision that obscenity is not protected speech):  “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“holistic”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the doctor involved [me?] is not that.”*


Tiger bones, one of those good ol’ traditional Chinese medicines. The medicine is bad for tigers, however.

To further see if I’m “holistic,” I figure that I’ll go to the source.  The website of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.  They have an entire website about being “holistic.”  And what do they say?

“The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association explores and supports alternative and complementary approaches to veterinary healthcare, and is dedicated to integrating all aspects of animal wellness in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.”**

Hmmmm.  I may be on to something.  Is it “alternative and complementary approaches” that must be the key to holism, right?  But if that’s the case, what does “alternative and complementary” mean?

Back to another definition.  According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “The theoretical bases and techniques of CAVM [DWR Note:  That’s an abbreviation for “Complementary and Alternative Medicine] may diverge from veterinary medicine routinely taught in North American veterinary medical schools or may differ from current scientific knowledge, or both.”

mainstreamDR. RAMEY, maybe starting to get it now, says:  Can’t get much more outside of the mainstream than not being taught in veterinary schools, and differing from current scientific knowledge.

So, if “holism” looks at the whole patient (as I do), and takes care of the entire patient in all aspects (as I do), and considers nutrition important (as I do), what we’re pretty much left to differentiate “holism” from “partialism” (or whatever) is “outside the mainstream of medicine.”

My guess is that, as far as proponents go, being considered outside of the mainstream isn’t a bad thing.  If you’re outside the mainstream of medicine, you can talk about how bad antibiotics, vaccinations, surgery, drugs, etc. are, and you can set your self-up as a counter-establishment maverick.  People have pretty much always liked being “rebels,” heck, being outside of the mainstream, you could even portray yourself as avant-garde.  If you can paint the mainstream as bad/closed-minded, etc., then you get to say, “Well, we’re certainly not that.”

DR. RAMEY notes:  And you can advertise that, too!  Think that could be it?


Bozo the Clown

The working’s of the horse’s body are mysterious.  Veterinary medicine doesn’t have the answer for every question, or the solution for every problem.  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with exploring treatment options, but keep in mind that it’s possible that when someone from the medical mainstream dismisses someone for not knowing what he or she is talking about, it’s possible that the person really doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.  Or, to quote to late Carl Sagan, “… the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

This question of what “holistic” means is really a very serious issue.  Because the border of where “holistic” ends and where “quackery” starts is pretty blurry.  I am personally inclined to give people a great deal of latitude how they want to treat their animals, but there has to be some way to define the limits of that latitude. We need new therapies, but there has to be some sort of guideline regulating their development, as well as their use.   Of course, this system already exists – it is called the scientific method – but if you hung your hat on that, you’d be right back in the mainstream of medicine, which, I think, is precisely where people who claim to be holistic don’t want to be.

I, however, fit most of the relevant criteria to be holistic, except that I like science.

Wait.  I’ve got it – I’m an “alternative” holistic practitioner!

Holistically yours,

Dr. Ramey


* CLICK HERE to read more about Justice Stewart’s famous phrase.

** I’m not sure about this environmental and social responsibility stuff.  For example, “Traditional Chinese Medicine” is supposed to be “holistic,” but it uses stuff like bear bile, tiger parts, and rhino horn.  How the heck is using that stuff supposed to be socially and environmentally responsible?

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