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Integrative veterinarian Dr Matthew Muir is in big demand with the increasing number of clients who want practitioners who utilise the best of traditional and alternative medicines for the care of their pets. By John Burfitt
Not long after Dr Matthew Muir began his career as a mixed practice vet in rural NSW, he conducted consultations with pet owners during which he would recommend a change to an animal’s diet with the aim of improving the pet’s wellbeing with better nutrition.
But when his recommendations of certain high nutrition value pet foods were met with concerns about the cost, Dr Muir decided on a different tack.
“I would closely read the labels of the prescription brands and note they were regular dog food but with things like turmeric, broccoli extract and fish oils added,” he recalls.
“So I would advise the client to head to the supermarket, pick up those additions and tell them how much to add to their regular dog food to replicate the expensive brands. I just thought if I could make the approach to nutrition easier, there would be better outcomes, and in many of those cases, there usually were.”
Dr Muir’s commitment to the value of good nutrition and gut health in pets has grown since those early days, as has his dedication to the practice of integrative veterinary medicine. He utilises traditional and natural therapies in his work as a director at Sydney’s All Natural Vet Care.
According to the Australian Veterinary Association, integrative veterinary medicine is the blending of conventional and complementary medicines and therapies to care for a patient.
Integrative vets use traditional medicine in conjunction with a range of modalities to formulate individualised treatment plans for a range of animal diseases, taking into consideration nutritional, behavioural and environmental factors.
Once on the sidelines of veterinary care, the integrative approach has become more mainstream in recent years, with Dr Muir one of its strongest advocates.
After graduating from Charles Sturt University in 2010 with degrees in Veterinary Science and Veterinary Biology, Dr Muir also completed training in natural therapies, and has among his qualifications a Certificate in Chinese Herbal Medicine and Chinese Food Therapies.
Dr Muir claims the change in the greater acceptance of integrative medicine has been driven not only by a greater understanding in the profession of all the modalities of health care, but also by client demand.
“A lot of clients want different approaches and are better informed about options than they were previously,” he says. Indeed, where once Dr Muir had to convince clients about the value of an integrative care plan, these days clients will specifically ask for one. “Sometimes with a particular condition, I will decide the animal definitely needs pharmaceutical medication, other times it’s a natural-based approach,” he says.
“But I need the client to know my clinical rationale and I’m hyper-vigilant about my informed consent process. We’re very conservative with our efficacy statements about what we do and what it is likely to achieve.”
Into the mainstream
Within the veterinary profession, Dr Muir has noted a distinct change with a “far more open-minded” attitude from the other vets he deals with. “They’re not only more supportive of what we do, but also really interested in this approach and keen to understand more about it.” He adds some of the loudest advocates for adopting an integrative approach are specialists.
“I’ve found specialists acknowledging that with all the information on nutritional medicines rapidly evolving, it needs to be considered among all the available options.”
Even so, Dr Muir admits there are still questions raised by colleagues about research and trials into various protocols.
“Translational medicine is outside the framework of many vets, but the evidence is indeed growing—particularly around nutrition, nutraceuticals, supplements and herbal medicines—that [integrative veterinary medicine is in] the animal’s best interest,” he says.
Some of the recent research he’s been following includes the use of spirulina supplements to reduce allergies in dogs, adding fresh vegetables and omega-3 acids in a diet to reduce the risk of cancers, and administering medicinal cannabis to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy. He’s also currently involved in a number of new research projects.
“We’re looking into a nutraceutical that modifies the gut microbiome for a number of health diseases and how that changes inflammatory and ageing markers in the body,” he says. “Metabolomics and deep phenotyping, using AI-generated datasets for precision medicine, will be the new frontier in how research is done.”
Who is Dr Muir?
As a boy growing up in Griffith in the NSW Riverina area, Dr Muir wanted to be a vet from the age of three. With a dog, birds and a turtle among his menagerie of pets, he would regularly read up on the appropriate dietary needs of each species.
“I had books about animal husbandry, so I knew each of my pets needed biologically appropriate nutrition,” he says. “So, when people ask how I ended up taking a holistic approach, I explain that vet school was in the middle of my experience. I was working with animals this way when I was a kid and since I graduated. It just has always made sense to me.”
His final year at university included a year-long research project into microbiome and nutrition, and he completed placements with an equine acupuncturist in Singapore and at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. He also spent a few years working in London in emergency medicine and internal medicine, before returning home to work in Griffith.
The turning point in his career came in 2015 when he joined the All Natural Vet Care practice under the mentorship of Dr Barbara Fougere, whose studies since the 1980s into traditional medicine practised in conjunction with Chinese and Ayurveda treatments saw her emerge as one of the pioneers of integrative medicine.
Under Dr Fougere’s mentorship, Dr Muir found his existing philosophies about integrative medicine were put to the test.
“I quickly found I had to walk the talk,” he says. “I was sure I had been following the best ways to practise medicine, but here I found I needed to really work on integrative methods and align my values with all of that. Barbara practised multiple modalities and put all that into a framework that was more friendly to how a veterinary practice can work.”
Petfood and into the future
These days, Dr Muir spends three days a week in the clinic and the other two days working on his home-delivered dog food range, Lyka. He formulates recipes that prioritise nutrition, using high-grade wholefoods to create specifically tailored meal plans. Dr Muir is a co-founder of Lyka with CEO Anna Podolsky. To date, over one million meals have been delivered across Australia.
The purpose of the new business, Dr Muir explains, is to make more nutritious dog food options readily available and improve pet wellbeing as a result.
“At All Natural Vet care, we now rarely diagnose diabetes because of how we feed pets,” he says. “As there are only so many patients I can see in a week, I wanted to translate what we do into a way a wider audience can access this information, and give other vets a tool to have solutions for their clients who want to go this way with their pets.”
As for the future landscape of integrative veterinary medicine, Dr Muir predicts its current expansion will continue at a more rapid rate in the coming years.
“There will be a far bigger focus on the role of nutrition, with regards to promoting metabolic inflammation in the body and more understanding of ‘inflammaging’—the connection of inflammation and ageing,” he says. “There will be more precision and individualised medicine, nutraceuticals, functional foods, and a decreased reliance on drugs as we get more real about the superbug issue.”
He also predicts acupuncture and laser therapy will be standard offerings in conventional practice, and there will be more exploration of the uses of medicinal cannabis.
“The main thing for the profession is understanding they can dip their toe in and just work with aspects of this at their own level,” he says. “Vets have to work together and not be in different camps, and my hope is this integrative approach is an area other people discover they can thrive in.”