March 18, 2010

A New Age in pet care arrives


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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Tuesday, December,11, 2007. Vet. Dr. Ruth Dalto treats Joyce Shelleman's 17 year old cat, Murgatroyd, with a burning Chinese herb that warms needles during acupuncture at her Yarmouth office today.

Staff Writer

YARMOUTH — Murgatroyd had 12 needles sticking out of him, but he wasn't jumping off the table at the Holistic Healing for Animals clinic.

In fact, the black and white cat sat calmly while veterinarian Ruth Dalto used a burning Chinese herbal stick to warm the needles she had inserted to strengthen the 17-year-old cat's rear legs, which don't function well due to arthritis and an old injury.

And as Dalto began doing quantum healing on the cat -- a type of energy work using massage on nerve endings -- Murgatroyd slumped comfortably over onto his side, a picture of cat contentment.

''The day of his visit (to the clinic), he's always very peaceful,'' said Murgatroyd's owner, Joyce Shelleman of Portland. ''It relaxes him and he's definitely more mobile.''

Shelleman said she brings her aging cat to Dalto's clinic to give him ''a better quality of life.''

Just as humans are increasingly seeking alternative treatments for their own health care, they are also looking for alternatives for pet care, even if it can be more costly. And there are a growing number of veterinarians across the nation and in Maine who offer animals holistic treatments such as acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy and Chinese herbs.

''I do think it's definitely on the increase over the past several years, both as alternative medicine becomes a little more mainstream and as veterinary medicine has learned more about the value of different forms of alternative medicine,'' said Anne Del Borgo, a veterinarian who is president of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association. ''Our position is that as long as it's being practiced by a licensed veterinarian that is trained in these therapies, we're very accepting of that.''

Of the more than 300 veterinarians listed on the association's Web site, some 15 to 20 vets specify that they offer such treatments as acupuncture, chiropractic and herbal medicine. But Del Borgo said that other vets may provide those services but not list them because it's not the main focus of their practice.

For example, she said, she occasionally uses herbal and homeopathic remedies in her mainstream practice at Sunray Animal Clinic in Brunswick -- for such cases as treating a pet with mild anxiety or something like a thunderstorm phobia. That avoids the side effects of conventional drugs, she said.

In fact, Del Borgo said, as alternative treatments become more accepted, even the name is changing. ''A lot of time, we don't call it alternative. We call it complementary (care),'' she said.


Tom McPheron, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said the group doesn't track how many of its 75,000 members use complementary care.

However, he said that ''it's on the rise nationally,'' and noted that sessions on alternative treatments at the association's annual conference always fill up quickly.

Maine vets with holistic practices agreed that conventional and alternative treatments need not be at odds. Dalto said sometimes vets blend the two in their practices and if they don't, they refer patients to one another.

For instance, Del Borgo said she will sometimes send an animal to a vet that does acupuncture or chiropractic. And Dalto said she refers patients to conventional vets for surgeries, emergencies and for diagnostic tests that she doesn't have the laboratory equipment to do.

''I definitely think they're both needed,'' she said.

Still, she and other holistic vets say important differences set their approach apart from conventional treatment.

Dalto said that the typical conventional medicine focuses on curing a specific disease or illness. But holistic medicine, she said, also ''tries to treat the patient as a whole.'' The vet seeks the root cause of a problem, and tries to make an animal stronger by boosting its immune system and overall health, she said.


The patients of holistic vets can range from young, strong animals whose owners want their pets to live a healthy lifestyle from the start, to animals with such chronic problems as arthritis. Holistic vets also often get cancer patients, some of whom have run out of conventional treatment options.

''I do get a lot of cancer patients,'' said Lee Herzig, the vet at Full Circle Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Belfast. ''Quite a few of them have survived and a number of them have lived for quite a few years actually.''

One was Handsome, a golden retriever who was 11 when he came to Lee with mast cell cancer three years ago. Handsome died in September, but his owner, Gretchen Hartzog of South Bristol, is convinced Herzig prolonged her dog's life with alternative treatments. ''He gave us three extra years with him,'' Hartzog said. Also, she said, her dog ''had a vitality he didn't have before.''


Herzig, a vet for more than 40 years, began practicing chiropractic and acupuncture in the 1980s. He started his Belfast practice three years ago and said it is now thriving. He focuses on Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture and diet in treating his patients, he said.

Handsome had surgery but then an even larger tumor appeared. Hartzog brought the dog to Herzig, who treated her pet with herbs, vitamins and acupuncture, she said.

''Handsome would lay down in Lee's office and Lee would put needles in one whole side of him and Handsome would go to sleep for 45 minutes and (Lee) would roll him over and put needles in the other side and he would go to sleep for 45 minutes,'' Hartzog said.

Perhaps one reason animals are so accepting of such alternative treatment is the calming atmosphere many holistic vets strive to create in their clinics.

For example, Dalto and Herzig both have their offices in older houses that have such home-like amenities as carpets on the floors and wooden examination tables instead of cold metal ones.

Before he examines animals, Herzig lets them wander around and sniff and get to feel at home while he talks to their owners. ''I don't just grab them and put them on the table.''

Dalto tries to stagger appointments so that her patients don't have to wait long. She said that when a sick, frightened animal is in a room full of other ill and nervous pets, ''I think they really pick up on that environment.''


Dalto also practices homeopathy, which her clinic's Web site describes as ''a medical treatment that aims to restore balance to the body through the uses of non-toxic medicine.''

Each homeopathic remedy covers a variety of symptoms so the vet has to match the specific remedy to the physical and mental symptoms of the patient.

Homeopathic medicine is not easy, so not many practitioners offer it, said Judith Herman, a vet who specializes in homeopathy at the Animal Wellness Center, the Augusta practice she started in 1995. However, she said, ''it's fun, challenging and it's nice to see these guys getting better without having the side effects that you get from conventional medicines.''

Herman, a vet for more than 30 years with a full-service clinic that also offers conventional treatment such as surgery to spay and neuter animals, said that to determine an animal's symptoms with a disease like cancer, she needs to gather a lot of information from its owner. ''That's why we end up talking forever,'' she said.

Because holistic vets spend so much time with patients and their owners, it can cost more to visit them than conventional vets. Prices quoted by holistic vets ranged from $60 to $140 for visits that can range from an hour to 90 minutes. Follow-up visits are necessary for such treatments as acupuncture.

But while the price of a conventional office visit may be lower, the cost of conventional drugs or surgeries can quickly mount if an animal becomes ill, said Dalto, a vet since 1998 who said her Yarmouth practice has grown from three days a week to five since she started it four years ago.

She said holistic treatments could save owners over the long term by giving their pets a healthier life.

''It's preventative maintenance in a sense,'' she said. ''You're trying to build the body up and make it stronger.''

Don Hoenig, Maine's state veterinarian, said he has just one concern with vets offering alternative veterinary care: that they keep their patients current with rabies vaccinations. Maine law requires dogs and cats to be vaccinated against rabies, but some veterinarians and pet owners believe the vaccinations are effective longer than the maximum three-year time period currently allowed between vaccinations. They contend that too-frequent rabies vaccinations expose pets to health risks such as cancer.

Vets interviewed said they inform their clients about state law, but sometimes write letters of waiver for animals too sick for a vaccination or with a compromised immune system -- which is permissible under the law.

Herman said she believes that whatever treatments vets use, they all have one thing in common.

''Whether conventional or holistic, their main focus is to help the animal,'' she said. ''We all do it in the best way we can.''

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at:

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