Healing Pets With a Holistic Approach

The New York Times, August 5, 2001 by Kathleen Kiley

It was a good session, Dr. Marcie Fallek had guided several razor-thin needles a half an inch into Ted E Bear without a yelp or even a flinch from the 13-year Labrador retriever, who had ruptured a disk and could not walk.

"Most dogs don't have a problem with the needles; it's being anxious over what might happen to them," said Dr. Fallek, a homeopathic veterinarian and acupuncturist who practices in Fairfield and Manhattan.

Sticking needles into an animal to alleviate pain or promote healing would have been an anomaly 10 years ago, mostly practiced by a small group of veterinarians on the fringe of the holistic medicine movement, said Dr. Carvel Tiekert, a holistic veterinarian and the executive director of the American Holistic Veterinarian Medical Association in Bel Air, Md.

"These alternative practices didn't exist 10 or so years ago," he said. "What we learned in vet school was an emphasis on drugs and surgery, with a minimal emphasis on nutrition."

This is slowly changing. Dr. Joyce Harmon, a holistic equine veterinarian in Washington, Va., who recently made a presentation on holistic animal medicine at the American Medical Veterinarian Association's annual convention in Boston, said some conventional veterinarians are using herbs, vitamins, acupuncture, chiropractic and other holistic methods in their practice.

"There's definitely an increase in holistic practices, and chronic disease is one of the driving factors," she said.

Dr. Edward Senker, a veterinarian and owner of the Broad River Animal Hospital in Norwalk, said he considered himself a conventional doctor, even though he uses acupuncture. What led him to acupuncture was, when it helped one of his patients, a dog, that was paralyzed after being hit by a car.

The owner brought the dog to an acupuncturist, and, after, it was able to walk again, Dr. Senker said.

"Maybe he would have ended up walking anyway, I don't know, but that incident piqued my curiosity," he said.

"I don't practice acupuncture exclusively in my practice. I just see it as another modality of therapy.

Depending on the situation, sometimes I reach for a drug and other times acupuncture."

Dr. Craig Smith, a staff consultant for the veterinarian association, a trade organization that represents more than 65,000 veterinarians, said there isn't any data that proves if more conventional veterinarians are using holistic medicine and if it works.

"It's all subjective, based on phone calls from vets asking about training and people looking for holistic vets," Dr. Smith said. "We're open to considering it, but were looking for scientific data. We're not shutting the door, but we're urging vets to do the research." Although there is a lake of statistics, many people are treating their pets with alternative methods and reporting success.

Dian Wood, a cosmetologist in Stamford, recently discovered that Junior, her 8-year-old Doberman-mix, had kidney disease. Her initial reaction was to go the traditional route: Junior had blood work done, X-rays were taken and antibiotics and intravenous fluids were administered.

"It got to the point where he couldn't lift his head off his bed," she said. "He stopped eating for 11 days and then the doctor told us he wasn't going to get better."

As a last-ditch effort, Ms. Woods said she started looking for a holistic animal doctor.

"I use homeopathy on myself and my kids, and I thought to myself, 'I have to find a holistic vet,'" she said.

Dr. Fallek, she said, started treating Junior with homeopathy, which is a branch of holistic medicine.

Within a week, Junior's condition started to improve, Ms. Wood said. One of the most tell-tale signs was that he was begging for table scraps again; a few weeks later, he was back to taking a walk around the neighborhood. "The regular vet was in shock," she said.

There are other stories of pets being brought back from the abyss, which tends to be when many holistic veterinarians get their hands on them, said Dr. Anne Hermans, a certified acupuncturist and homeopathic veterinarian in Bridgewater.

"Sometimes I'm the doctor of last resort, and other times, I get animals earlier because people weren't happy with a particular diagnosis," she said.

Pet owners are also questioning the use of drugs such as steroids.

"It had terrible side effects on Berin," said Sara Muirhead of Farmington. Berin, a 10-year-old Rottweiler, was diagnosed with lupus, an auto-immune disease, a few years ago. Side-effects such as diarrhea, vomiting and a bleeding ulcer pushed Ms. Muirhead to consider acupuncture, nutrition and eventually homeopathy.

Her efforts to cure her dog have ballooned into a full-fledged business called Naturally Raw Pet Foods. What began in her mother's kitchen, cooking naturally prepared food for Berin and a handful of others, has kept Ms. Muihead busy. And Berin's lupus? "Haven't seen any signs of it," she said.

Whether or not holistic practices work will require more research and development money, Dr. Harmon said. The money usually comes from drug companies, but they need to get something out of it, she said.

"If drug companies can't patent it, they aren't going to invest in it," she said.

Besides research, universities need to acknowledge holistic medicine to enhance its reputation and give it more widespread acceptance, said Dr. Allen Achoen of Sherman, a certified acupuncturist, and chiropractic practitioner. He is also an adjunct professor at Tufts University, where he said, he is developing programs in holistic medicine for the university. "No form of medicine has all the answers, it's taking the best of both," he said.

Barbar Callaghan of Darien is searching for that balance. She has been looking for answers to help her 11-year old Irish Setter, who has had a host of problems since he was a puppy. The conventional veterinarians have not been able to provide enough answers, while a holistic doctor failed to treat Tucker with antibiotics for Lyme disease, a traditional course of treatment for the tick-borne illness.

While searching for answers, which included a trip to see a neurologist at Tufts University, she was trying to get an appointment with Dr. Schoen, who was not taking on new patients at the time, Ms. Callaghan said.

When she heard he was opening up a new office, she went to the opening reception, with Tucker in tow.

"He spent a lot of time with him that day," she said, "That amazed me."

More trips followed, and eventually Dr. Schoen found arthritis in Tucker's shoulder.

"He did acupuncture and I saw immediate results," Ms. Callaghan said. "His eyes rolled up and you can see it relieved his pain."

Tucker still had medical problems, and Ms. Callaghan is not giving up as she shuttles him between conventional and holistic veterinarians.

"There's a need for both," she said.