A Bigger Toolbox

Alternative and holistic healing gives veterinarians new tools to help keep pets in the pink.

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We’ve grown used to the idea that the human body can heal itself by means beyond traditional Western medicine—not just chicken soup, but acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal regimens, vitamin supplements, and other “alternative modalities.” But it turns out you don’t have to be a human to take advantage of them. Just as high-tech techniques of human medical care have been adapted for animals, so it is with holistic healing.

“Perhaps the main philosophical difference between conventional and holistic veterinarians,” says Dr. Gerry Buchoff, former President of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and a private practitioner in Little Falls, “is that holistic veterinarians focus on the body’s ability to heal itself. They direct a lot of their treatment toward removing impediments that block the immune system.”

In New Jersey as in other states, complementary and alternative veterinary medicine, or CAVM, is practiced by regular licensed veterinarians. Despite the name, CAVM is used not so much as an alternative but as a supplement to traditional practice. “I look harder, and listen more,” says Dr. Mark Newkirk, of Newkirk Family Veterinarians in Egg Harbor Township. “I know I have extra tools in the toolbox to help my patients.”

Newkirk came to CAVM in a typical way. “I’m like every other veterinarian and was taught to practice in the traditional way,” he says. “This works great with acute disease, trauma, surgery. However, when we get to chronic disease, we run out of therapy after a while. There are only so many antibiotics and steroids to be tried. We as doctors know that continual antibiotic or steroid therapy is not a good thing, but basically it’s all we have in many cases. So I began a search for other methods to help those chronic patients.”

Arthritis in dogs, for example, was traditionally treated with pain medications, and if those failed, steroids. “We still do use pain medications, but we also add glucosamine, chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathic pain remedies, Chinese and Western herbs and laser therapy,” Newkirk says. “These combinations have time and again showed superiority over pain meds alone. Iin fact, many pets don’t need the traditional drugs if they’re on alternative therapies.”

CAVM is not taught in veterinary schools, so veterinarians wishing to add it to their toolbox take courses in human acupuncture, chiropractic or herbal medicine and adapt it to animals with their veterinary know-how. “The most important thing,” says Newkirk, “is knowledge of anatomy and the disease process. Just as we learn how to do surgery, we learn how to do alternative therapies.”

Talk of alternative modalities can strike people as fuzzily New Age. But the precepts are not hard to grasp. “Holistic medicine trains us to look at the whole body, not just the symptoms,” Newkirk explains. “It trains us to understand relationships between organs, not to just look at the sick one.

“For example, let’s talk about a heart. There are lots of tests and drugs, including breakthroughs we all wait for in hopes of managing that patient who still ain’t right. Meanwhile, we know that the heart needs selenium, vitamin E, taurine, carnitine. But do physicians or veterinarians routinely prescribe nutritional support? An emphatic no. Why? Simple. We are not trained in it. And it takes time, money and interest to go learn it.”

Distinguishing between causes and effects is essential in all branches of medicine, but holistic practitioners have their own way of going about it. “I think it is a huge mistake to only focus on suppressing symptoms,” says Dr. Buchoff, of Little Falls, “because those symptoms are the body’s reactions to imbalances and to the buildup of toxins it is trying to expel. When we suppress symptoms of disease and don’t also rebalance the body’s energy, the disease continues to progress under the radar.”

Nutrition has become as hot a topic in veterinary circles as it is when we bipeds discuss our own care. “Most allergies in pets are probably due to foods,” says Dr. Buchoff. “Commercial hypoallergenic foods often do not give relief to allergic pets. This may be because they contain preservatives, artificial flavorings, colorings, and other chemicals. Grain, a major ingredient in pet foods, actually should have no place in pet diets. It is highly allergenic and even toxic in many individuals. Also, cooking food can change a substance so that it becomes allergenic.”

One possible remedy is raw food. As Buchoff quips, “Who ever saw an animal cook its food?” Raw food, he says, “is worthwhile trying in allergic pets. Raw food is more digestible because the food enzymes are an integral part of the digestive process, and are provided by nature as part of every fruit, vegetable, and meat. Heating food to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit destroys those enzymes.

“But a raw diet is not for everyone. About 25 percent of pets don’t get accustomed to it or refuse to eat it. It is inconvenient or too costly for many families. For them I recommend at least adding digestive enzymes, probiotics, and a whole food vitamin-mineral-phytonutrient supplement to each meal.”

Another holistic view of food is voiced by Dr. John O’Mahoney, a veterinary acupuncturist in Stewartsville. “The Chinese say that everyday you have an opportunity to take medicine,” he says. “The medicine you take is food.”

In his acupuncture practice, what Dr. O’Mahoney does, he says, is “transpose the human point onto the animal. It’s not exact, but a pretty good way to think about acupuncture and meridians is that we’re all affected by the same universal current, the same biorhythms.”

One caution about holistic medicine: empirical proof of efficacy isn’t always there. CAVM vets accept this, even if they wish that more studies were conducted to demonstrate whether alternative modalities work, or to what extent. But for them, it is enough that through whatever combination of methods, pets (and their owners) often regain that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed feeling.

Efficacy is a minor concern for Elaine Cuttler, whose 11-year-old collie-mix, Shayna, has battled renal carcinoma since 2004.

Cuttler has spent more than $30,000 on holistic treatments for Shayna. She drives two-and-a-half hours from her home in Millburn to Dr. Mark Newkirk’s office in Margate anywhere from once to three times a month.

“I can’t tell what’s working and what isn’t, because Shayna is on so many things,” Cuttler says. “If I were going to worry about empirical science, I would go the traditional route. But this seems like it works. I figure none of it can hurt.”

Dr. Newkirk has put Shayna on a heavy regimen of dietary supplements—Cuttler administers more than 30 pills a day—and a program of intravenous vitamin C and vitamin D intended to detoxify the body and stimulate the immune system. Shayna was the first dog Dr. Newkirk put on Neoplasene.

Neoplasene is the alternative toolbox’s leading hope against cancer. A bloodroot extract that targets cancerous cells and mostly spares healthy tissues, the drug is administered via mouth, injection or topically. The herb eliminates many of the side effects that diminish quality of life for pets on chemotherapy, but its use carries distinct risks.

“Neoplasene in high concentrations is caustic to normal cells as well as cancer cells, so dosage is important,” says Dr. Newkirk. “The tumor gradually heats up, ruptures and drains, causing a surface wound that needs care. As the dead tissue sloughs, normal tissue is left underneath.”

“I think the cancer is contained now,” says Cuttler. “It has come back, but it’s not all through her. I definitely credit Dr. Newkirk with that.”

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