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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

When Pets Go Natural


By Victoria L. Freeman

You’d have thought she was a model coming straight from a photographer’s studio. “Strike a pose,” Dan Mullaney would tell Tiffany, and she’d move into position for the camera, ready for the perfect photo. “There was no doubt she knew exactly what she was doing,” Mullaney says. Tiffany Louise, a most precocious sable Pomeranian, was quite the little lady.

So when Tiffany’s fur started falling out and she began having seizures, Mullaney and his wife Teri launched a desperate crusade to help their beloved pet. Her doctor, a respected conventional veterinarian, ran tests and diagnosed Tiffany with liver failure. Her prognosis: two months to live. The vet suggested that the Mullaneys give their dog milk thistle (Silybum marianum) and a commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drug that the Mullaneys quickly had to discontinue, because it made Tiffany even sicker.

Unwilling to accept the finality of their vet’s report, the Mullaneys sought a second opinion. Their search led them to Shawn Messonnier, doctor of veterinary medicine, a holistic veterinarian near their home in Plano, Texas. Based on details in Tiffany’s blood work, Messonnier, author of The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats and The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, arrived at a different diagnosis: Cushing’s disease, a glandular disorder that causes overproduction of the hormone cortisol and, consequently, obesity, muscle weakness, osteoporosis and other conditions.

“Many vets mistake Cushing’s for liver disease,” says Messonnier, “because there are similarities in blood test results.” He suggested several natural therapies, such as a whole-foods diet, a multivitamin supplement, an herbal supplement and a glandular support formula.

Cushing’s can be fatal on its own or can lead to other life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes, liver or kidney failure and congestive heart failure, but Tiffany rallied on the holistic treatments. And, even though the Mullaneys had to say a tearful good-bye to Tiffany just before her 14th birthday, Mullaney says, “I don’t have any scientific proof, but I believe the holistic approach bought us another two-and-a-half wonderful years with Tiffany—and that’s a lot better than two months.”

Complementary Avenues for Healing

Over the last decade, the U.S. medical community has slowly begun to recognize the importance of alternative and complementary therapies. Now, the same process is under way in veterinary healthcare, explains Allen Schoen, a doctor of veterinary medicine and pioneer in integrative veterinary medicine, who has authored Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live. Veterinary medicine looks very different than it did in 1982, when Carvel Tiekert, a doctor of veterinary medicine, founded the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA). Today, more vets than ever are answering public demand for alternative care for all types of pets, including birds and exotic animals.

“Membership in AHVMA has increased 35 percent in the last 10 years,” says Tiekert, now the organization’s executive director. He adds that AHVMA has spawned a number of medical specialty groups, such as the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy, the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association and the Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association. So, what’s driving the increased acceptance of complementary approaches to pet care? As is true for people, sometimes no conventional treatments exist for an animal’s condition. For example, explains Messonnier, he and others have found that leaky gut syndrome, which is common, but not often diagnosed by conventional veterinarians, responds well to probiotics and the amino acid glutamine—just as it does for humans.

Many consumers also believe that natural therapies are safer for their animal companions thanconventional ones. Consider the first-line conventional treatments for osteo-arthritis, a condition that usually affects older animals and often manifests as stiffness, limping or difficulty rising or lying down. Vets often prescribe corticosteroids and anti-inflammatories. Based on his experience, Messonnier cautions that both can have potentially nasty side effects, such as diabetes, Cushing’s disease, liver and kidney disease and gastrointestinal ulcers. On the other hand, he notes, glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate are research-supported and can offer effective and safe natural alternatives for pets, as well as people.

But in opting for alternatives, don’t throw the puppy out with the bathwater. If an animal has been hit by a car or faces some other emergency, conventional medicine is still your best bet, says Integrative Veterinarian Robert Silver, a doctor of veterinary medicine and founder and medical director of Boulder’s Natural Animal, in Boulder, Colorado. “You determine the most important thing to do first, but then reassess as you go along. Often, that means using conventional treatment to get through the emergency, and then including natural therapies for long-term support and recovery,” Silver advises. For example, surgery may be required to repair a fracture or a large laceration, but once the immediate crisis is over, alternative treatments, such as acupuncture for pain management or herbs to reduce inflammation can be effective.

A Cockatoo Named Jaffa

Birds and other more exotic pets can benefit from natural therapies, too. In 1995, when Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Cynthia Lankenau first met Jaffa, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, she was deeply saddened by the bird’s condition. Jaffa’s grief over the death of her first human companion had led to serious feather picking and self-mutilation.

“Birds are very sensitive and emotional, so it’s not surprising that up to 80 percent of the health conditions I see are behaviorally or emotionally based,” explains Lankenau, from her clinic in Colden, New York.

In Jaffa’s case, too many hours left alone, too many emotional upheavals and an undetected food allergy had caused the bird to pluck out many of her own feathers and tear at her flesh, resulting in a crusty sore that covered her entire chest. Her new caretaker did her best to help, using many conventional treatments, such as antibiotics and a cone over Jaffa’s head, but all had dismal results.

Lankenau first treated Jaffa with acupuncture (birds respond especially well to acupuncture, she says) and the homeopathic remedies Pulsatilla and Natrum muriaticum. Just a few months later, Jaffa had allowed her feathers to fill in and her chest ulcer had shrunk to the size of a nickel. Unfortunately, Lankenau didn’t see Jaffa again for nine years. This time, she was in even worse shape and was scheduled to be put down. Her whole chest was once again an open sore and she had plucked out all of her vent and flight feathers.

“Her owner had many emotional traumas in her life and very little time to devote to Jaffa,” Lankenau explains, “so we decided Jaffa should come live with me.”

After more homeopathy, nutritional supplements and dietary changes to address her allergy, Jaffa became a brand-new bird, contentedly spending her days either riding around on Lankenau’s shoulder during veterinary client visits or chatting with office staff. “It’s a big commitment to care for one of these birds,” Lankenau says. “These creatures are worth the effort, though,” she adds. “Even when things were the worst, Jaffa was always very kind and loving. She gave great bird hugs.

“When I first met Jaffa, I was told she was in her 20s,” Lankenau continues. “Actually, she was in her 60s. She had a stroke in December 2007 and was really doing an incredible job of healing, but she was very old and did finally pass on. I am amazed at how well she did heal, considering her age, and am grateful that during her remaining years with me, she enjoyed a healthy and contented quality of life.”

Two Paws Up for Holistic Approach

Many pet lovers can be classified as either dog people or cat people. Ann Huey definitely falls in the cat-loving category and feels she owes a great deal to holistic vet care. Huey’s gentle, 3-year-old tortoiseshell-and-tabby cat, Deluxie, became a running, jumping testament to the value of integrative medicine. But, she wasn’t always this healthy and active. Diagnosed in 2003 with polyarthritis (arthritis occurring in multiple joints), Deluxie nearly died a year later from her high daily dose of prednisolone, a steroid prescribed by her veterinarian. Intended to address the pain and inflammation associated with her condition, the drug initially gave Deluxie a much-needed reprieve, Huey says.

Yet, after a few short months, low dosages were no longer helping and the increasing dosages took their toll.

In horror, Huey watched as Deluxie found it harder and harder to move. Then, her previously alert ears started drooping, a sign that the steroid was causing the cat’s tissues to degenerate. When a veterinary technician picked Deluxie up to do a routine blood draw, her skin literally ripped. Huey knew something had to change, and fast.

They tried taking Deluxie completely off the prednisolone on numerous occasions, but her condition immediately deteriorated each time. What they ended up with, Huey explains, was a plan that combined a greatly reduced dose of prednisolone with natural therapies such as a more wholesome diet, an antioxidant supplement and various homeopathic remedies directed at treating Deluxie’s arthritis and supporting her immune system.

Did the holistic plan work? Huey says yes. “In only a few weeks, we got to watch Deluxie run again. She started climbing trees and was even up on the roof of our storage shed.”

Victoria Freeman, Ph.D., is a freelance writer in Goodland, KS. Connect at

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