The third needle went into the massive striped neck smoothly. I was silently elated. This had never been done before. Applying the ancient art of acupuncture to zebras was not at the top of the list in veterinary protocol. Nevertheless, the zoo veterinarian had called me here to help treat this zebra for epilepsy and arthritis. After four weeks of pretend needles and rewards, no one, including me, could predict how this zebra would tolerate the treatment.
So far, it was going remarkably well. The zebra even trotted over when she saw I had her favorite brush. Grooming her with my left hand to distract her, I picked up another needle with my right. So far, so good. The fourth one would be trickier to place -- inside her shifting foreleg.
With a quick conspiratorial glance at the zookeeper, I felt for the next acupoint. Just where her bristly hair changed to the softer undercoat, my fingers found the divot. I inserted the last needle carefully, knowing one powerful kick to my head could be the end of me.
It was easy to imagine this beautiful Grévy's zebra running free on the Serengeti plains. I wondered if she would have these conditions in her natural habitat? Most likely not. Picturing her as a healthy wild zebra, I felt certain I would be able to address what had gone wrong.
I have worked as a veterinarian with wildlife, zoo animals, and pets for over 15 years. I used to worry about specific diseases and their treatments. Now I direct my energy to better effect, thinking about health. Wild health. Health that is based on defining and fulfilling an animal's evolutionary needs according to its species.
Animals in their natural surroundings are healthy -- chronically healthy. While walking in a forest teeming with robust species, I never ask myself, where are all the aging ravens with their pill boxes? Or the diabetic robins tucking syringes in their nests? Where are the arthritic squirrels, the obese rabbits, and the deer taking puffs from their inhalers?
Yes, survival of the fittest and predation may take the weak and the diseased. But this doesn't fully account for the vigor of the remaining animals. Nature effortlessly propagates health, but in our civilized world, maintaining health takes effort.
The other day, I examined a male cat. He had a history of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), a chronic, potentially life-threatening urinary tract disease that can affect more than 30 percent of all cats. He had been avoiding the litter box and using the bed pillows instead. To change the cat's behavior, resolve this condition, and reclaim the bed, understanding the nature of felines was key.
Apparently the female cat in the house was protecting the territory where the litter box was placed. With just a subtle tail flick or a glance -- strong language between cats -- she consistently discouraged the male cat from using the litter box. This resulted in his bladder not being emptied often enough, contributing to his condition.
In the wild, no one guards the litter box. I tell cat owners, consider providing more litter boxes than the number of cats in the house. Then there will always be one stress-free, unguarded box. (If you live in a studio apartment and have 20 cats, hide your pillows.)
But there are more fundamental questions arising from this cat's situation. Does it make sense that any cat suffers from life-threatening urinary tract disease? As far as we know, this is not seen in wild felines, so why do we see it so often in our cats? What have we done to undermine the innate health of our pets?
Why do a record number of dogs suffer from thyroid, adrenal and other endocrine diseases? Why would a carnivore be allergic to meat? Should a six-month old cat be plagued by allergies? Why do we expect arthritis to occur in Labradors? Does this abysmally low standard of health make any sense at all? Not in my book.
Clearly the relevance of our pets' ancestry is being overlooked. Many people say, "my dog is a pet, not a wolf." True, but wolf and tiger biology have not been fully bred out of dogs and cats. They have undergone a relatively brief period of selective breeding to land in our living rooms. In fact, wolves and dogs are so genetically similar that when bred together, they can successfully produce fertile puppies.
The healthiest environment for any zoo animal is one that meticulously mimics their natural habitat. A zebra can't change her stripes. When a zebra doesn't eat zebra food, doesn't run in a zebra way, doesn't live in a zebra-like environment, that's when disease can take hold. To make our pets truly healthy we must foster the wild in them, too.
It's okay to call your Pomeranian Mr. Grumpy and dress him in a sailor suit (if you must) but his health depends on your awareness of his true canine nature. Pets' basic genetics have not strayed far from their ancestors. Their connection with the wild is arguably part of their allure. There are more similarities than you might expect between your pouncing housecat and a stalking Bengal tiger, between your mischievous peekapoo and a wily fox.
The GI tract of a carnivore -- whether in a lion, wolf, dog or cat -- does not expect processed grains. Why then, are they major ingredients in some pet foods? My patients' conditions dramatically improve when they follow my advice to gradually change the diet to one that doesn't contain corn or wheat. It is easy to check this by reading the tiny print on pet food labels -- if you're not over 40. If you are, good luck.
Even with the best intentions, a good diet can be inadvertently undermined. In the case of the Grévy's zebra, no one had thought about the effect of bread rolls given as treats, even though she was being fed a carefully regulated diet and multiple medications for her conditions. (You may be shocked to discover that zebras don't forage for baked goods on savannahs in Kenya.) If there is any connection between processed glutens and an inflammatory response, it makes sense to eliminate bread rolls from the menu of an arthritic, epileptic animal. Without a good, species-specific diet, no medication can sustain long-term health.
At my clinic, we've successfully helped desperately ill animals reduce or discontinue medications and regain their vibrant health, solely by changing the diet.
I'm a big fan of whatever works. But I only use what makes sense.
Fortunately, having a common sense, integrative approach gives me plenty of healing options as I work to make a difference in striped, spotted, and furry lives.
After the zebra's fifth treatment, I read in the zookeeper's log: no seizures in over a month.
Turns out, she liked acupuncture better than bread rolls.
Dr. Barbara Royal is the owner of The Royal Treatment Veterinary Center, in Chicago where she practices integrative veterinary medicine. A zoo veterinary consultant and international lecturer, she is also Oprah Winfrey's local veterinarian.
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Dr. Royal's debut book The Royal Treatment: Making Pets Wildly Healthy, will be published by Simon and Schuster in Spring of 2012.