Animal Health & Disease Management

Holistic disease management and veterinary treatment

Despite good care, animals sometimes get sick and diseased.

In organic farming, they should be treated with care, and supported to regain balance. This means, that disease is not only treated in terms of targeting the disease and e.g. eliminate bacteria. Disease is handled by supporting the animal and giving it care.

Holistic disease management and veterinary treatment



Health promotion is essential, to keep animals in good shape. Animals should be kept healthy and be given all opportunities to good animal welfare.


Read  more in the chapter on Health promotion and welfare.

Despite good care, animals sometimes get sick and diseased. In organic farming, they should be treated with care, and supported to regain balance. This means, that disease is not only treated in terms of targeting the disease and e.g. eliminate bacteria. Disease is handled by supporting the animal and giving it care. 

Intervene quickly

We humans have taken animals into our households. By doing that, we have given ourselves the responsibility for the animals and their well-being. In organic agriculture, we have a duty to let them be able to meet their natural needs. As explained in the section on health and welfare promotion, this means that we look carefully after them to make sure that they are well. Apart from that, we do not intervene through restrictions when it is not necessary. We let them live in ways where they can fulfill their natural needs, as much as we can under domesticated conditions. 

We need to know when it is necessary to intervene. This can be learned by observing and knowing about animals. 

When we judge that it is necessary, we need to intervene very quickly and very efficiently. In IFOAM's norms the following is written:

If an animal becomes sick or injured despite preventative measures, that animal shall be treated promptly and adequately, if necessary in isolation and in suitable housing. Operators shall give preference to natural medicines and treatments, including homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine and acupuncture. (IFOAMs Norms, 2012, 5.7.2 p.50). 


First: remove all obstacles to cure

This sentence was very precisely formulated by Samuel Hahnemann (the founder of homoeopathy). 

Homoeopathy is a holistic energy-based form of treatment. It acknowledges the existence of 'life energy', a vital force which helps all organisms to keep balance. Healing is supporting the living organism to regain balance. Balance can never be regained in an environment which makes the individual sick. This is the same for humans as well as animals. Antibiotics can still be used to beat bacteria down, also in a very unhealthy environment. But, in an organic agricultural system, where our thinking is holistic, we emphasize this principle no matter whether we use antibiotics or any other medicine: we should first remove all obstacles to cure. If an animal has become diseased because of dirty water, this should immediately be corrected and the animal given clean drinking water, and at the same time, relevant and appropriate treatment.

It is not fair to the animal to only give it disease treatment, if the surroundings make it sick. The factors which potentially can make it sick have to be identified and removed.


Second step: take care of the diseased animal - which often is taken parallel to removing all obstacles to cure:

The next step is to take hand of the diseased and injured animal and make sure that it is treated appropriately and is cared for. 

Responsible action is to decide the treatment on informed basis, but not just to give some medicine. See further below for discussion on when to use antibiotics.

Always give support treatment. The type depends on the situation. The animal needs care and extra support in terms of clean luke warm water maybe with something tasteful added (e.g. a herb), good qualitative special feed, and maybe other things connected to the specific condition, e.g. washing a wound gently and repeatedly with lukewarm soap water, bathing an injured claw or hoof, massage or providing an animal with extra much soft bedding material if it needs to lie and rest more, application of ointments, giving electrolyte water, bandage on a swollen hock, extra milking out in case of udder diseases like mastitis etc. In some cases, the animal can be supported to become healthy again, only through supportive treatment. Sometimes, it will be 'extra' to supplement the medical treatment.  


Third step: ensure that other animals will remain healthy

When having ensured proper care of the sick animal, the next step is to make sure that all other animals with which the animal have been or can be in contact with, are ensured non-diseased and not in risk of further exposure to the disease. This can be through keeping the diseased animal(s) isolated from the herd mates, and it can by removing all obstacles to cure not only for the diseased animal, but on herd level. Health care is important to support the immunity of all animals in its surroundings long time. 


Choosing the type of treatment 

There is a range of veterinary treatment choices. The limitations will often be knowledge and experience, and it is therefore very relevant to network and interact with other people who are involved in organic animal farming in some way: extension agents, veterinarians and fellow farmers. 


When to use 'synthetic allopathic veterinary drugs'?

Animals are sentient beings and can suffer. If synthetic medicine is the only way of ensuring that suffering will end, it is even required that it is used. This is a contrast to organic crop production. Here, reducing the suffering of the animal is given priority over the renunciation of chemicals. 

However, the standards clearly demand that priority is given to management practices which encourage the resistance of the animals thus preventing the outbreak of a disease. A disease outbreak is a potential sign of conditions which are not ideal.

The steps described above are therefore of crucial importance in organic animal farms. If conventional veterinary medication is applied, withholding periods must be adhered to before selling the animal products as "organic". This ensures that organic animal products are free from residues of antibiotics etc. 

From the IFOAM Norms (2012): 
- 'Use of synthetic allopathic veterinary drugs or antibiotics will cause the animal to lose its organic status. Producers shall not withhold such medication where doing so will result in unnecessary suffering of the livestock (5.7.3; there are some exceptions which may be applied in relation to this, see below).
- Prophylactic use of any synthetic allopathic veterinary drug is prohibited (5.7.4).
- Substances of synthetic origin used to stimulate production or suppress natural growth are prohibited (5.7.5).
- Vaccinations are allowed only in the following cases (5.7.6):

  • When an endemic disease is known or expected to be a problem in the region of the farm and where this disease cannot be controlled by other management techniques , or
  • When a vaccination is legally required.

Regional or other exceptions to the rule that an organic animal loses its status if treated with allopathic veterinary medicine, as appendix to 5.7.3: The animal may retain its organic status if:

a. The operator can demonstrate compliance with 5.7.1, and
b. Natural and alternative medicine and treatments are unlikely to be effective to cure sickness or injury, or are not available to the operator, and
c. The chemical allopathic veterinary drugs or antibiotics are used under the supervision of a veterinarian, and
d. Withdrawal periods shall be not less than double of that required by legislation, or a minimum of 14 days, whichever is longer.
e. This exception is not granted for more than 3 times on a given animal. 


Critical selection of cases for treatment with synthetic medicine

Ideally, a decision to treat animals should be based on observations and evaluation of the options to treat animals. In many large herds, treatment programs are set up as a part of the management, especially of animals in large groups (fx. calves, chicken and pigs), and even though the program was started because of a disease outbreak, it seems difficult to take a decision to stop such a treatment program. Disease treatments of individual animals like treatment of MMA in sows or mastitis in cows are normally based on observations of an individual animals and noticing a range or combination of disease signs, which release a treatment. Decisions when to treat and when not to treat are made based on a combination of signs, and what animal it is, and experience from the specific herd from previous disease events and actions, and what the situation is in the herd. 


Why is it relevant to reduce and target direct the use of antibiotics?

Antibiotics and other types of pharmaceutical, synthetic and/or chemical medicines are allowed in organic animals, because it is un-ethical to not treat a diseased animal. But they are chemicals, and as such, a continuous effort to phase them out is relevant on an organic farm. Apart from this, there are two main reasons for reducing antibiotic, by target directing it considerably and not just blind use:

  1. Antibiotics has a great potential to kill bacteria, but when used in a wrong way - either by applying it blindly without checking whether it can actually target the bacteria involved in each disease case, or by using wrong dosages - it can in best case be useless, and in worst case cause that bacteria become resistant to that antibiotics, and this can spread in a whole population. In some North-Western European countries, farmer families have to be isolated if they are hospitalized, because there is danger that they spread antibiotic resistant bacteria at the hospital because of overuse on their farm. In industrialized farming, antibiotics has become a management tool.
  2. Many diseases can be prevented through good health promotion and disease prevention efforts. In organic agriculture, this is the way: by supporting the animal to live a good, healthy life, disease is also avoided. If antibiotics is always there as a kind of 'security net', some farmers may not do an effort to solve the underlying problem. By emphasizing the need to reduce antibiotics, more emphasis is also put on health promotion and disease prevention. 

Explanation about the different treatment methods 


A professional medical school described in late 1700s by the German medical doctor Samuel Hahnemen, based on a holistic view on the living organism. Disease is viewed as an imbalance of the organism, and health should be regained by stimulating the vital force, or life energy of that patient in a way which is specific to the particular patient in the specific situation. This is done by using medicines - homoepathic remedies - which are potentized, that is: stepwise diluted and shaken in between each step. This is one of the controversial characteristics of this treatment method. 


Ayurveda means 'knowledge of life'. A system of traditional medicine which was developed in India, and probably is the oldest holistic medical system on the planet. It is a broad range of different disease treatment approaches, which are all based on an idea of gaining, regaining and keeping balance especially between three elemental substances (wind, bile and phlegm), connected to or representing the five elements: earth, fire, water, air and ether. It is still practices by many in India and Sri Lanka, and has also gained some interest in Europe and other continents. 


Acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which is an ancient treatment system based on the idea of 'life energy' - Chi - which is running in our organism. Disease occurs when Chi is stopped somewhere on its way through our bodies via meridians, which are 'channels' for life energy. The imbalance causing the blockage in the meridians, is regained when the condition has been properly diagnosed. Treatment consists of applying acupuncture needles into points. In farm animals, acupuncture has been shown to be specifically useful in cases of reproduction disorders, birth complications and some metabolic diseases. 

Allopathic medicine: 

A term which was introduced by the founder of homoeopathy, Samuel Hahneman, to describe treatments which 'work against the organism', that is, beat disease down rather than takes a holistic approach and stimulates the life energy in a person or an animal, to regain balance. It covers all types of 'mainstream medicine' or 'conventional medicine', where e.g. antibiotics or other pharmaceutical products are involved.

Review process

Content supplied by: Dr. Mette Vaarst, veterinarian, and Gidi Smolders, agronomist, orgANIMprove (2013)

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