Sometimes, for just a moment, we feel safe. But when illness or tragedy crashes into our secure and well-planned lives, we can find the course of our lives changed in an instant. A loved one developing a life-threatening illness was just such an event for me. When my healthy and much-loved Irish setter, Sauts, developed a savage case of bloat, it jumpstarted me down a path of exploration into natural foods and alternative medicine for pets.

Sauts and I had just returned to my Manhattan apartment from the Animal Medical Center (AMC) in New York City, where skilled surgeons had performed relatively minor surgery to remove a nail that had partially torn out of Sauts’ paw. At home, when Sauts began to howl in pain, I phoned Andrew Carmichael, a good family friend and the vet who was the head of anesthesiology at AMC. He was perplexed that the dog was in pain until I mentioned that his belly was looking big to me. “Get him back up here as fast as you can,” Dr. Carmichael yelled into the phone.

Within minutes we were blowing lights in a race back up First Avenue. As we pulled into the emergency entrance of AMC, the doctor and techs, who were waiting downstairs at the main door with a gurney, pulled Sauts from the car and raced him up to the operating room. That evening I was told that my Irish setter had developed a severe case of gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), also known as bloat, a word that sends shivers up and down the spines of all horsemen and large breed dog owners. Bloat is a condition where the stomach quickly fills with gas and acids until it turns and twists the intestines, very often resulting in the animal’s having to be euthanized. From its onset, it can kill an animal in under 30 minutes.

Over the next two months my previously healthy three-year-old dog suffered and survived three more bouts of bloat. At that point, I was given the bad news that, with the attacks becoming more frequent and severe, the doctors had serious doubts that Sauts would survive much longer. The choice offered was to let the attacks keep happening or to perform an experimental operation to enlarge the openings of the stomach in a desperate attempt to prevent the stomach from shutting down. In theory, the experts said, it might work. In reality, they held out little hope.

But sometimes fate smiles on us at the precise moment we feel that the ground has given way and we are falling off a cliff. These events took place in the late 1970s, long before the Internet was born. Fortunately, I was working as a researcher at Rockefeller University and thus had access to one of the finest medical libraries in the world. What I learned was astounding — many people, especially babies, develop gastric dilatation after being given anesthesia.

From what I learned I made several changes in Sauts’ diet: no exercise or water prior to or after feeding; give many small meals as opposed to one or two large ones a day; and, finally, all wheat and dairy products had to be eliminated from his diet, due to the production of lactic acid.

I began cooking meals of brown rice and chopped meat divided into eight small portions a day. Within a year, he was able to cut back to three meals a day and his diet had expanded to include barley, turkey or chicken, fish, some vegetables, and high-quality supplements. Processed food never again touched his lips. Bloat never again attacked his stomach. He lived a long and healthy life.

The importance of what I had done, though, was driven home when Dr. Carmichael called me years later, after he had returned to his practice in London. He wanted the diet I had fed Sauts; he was treating another dog with the same problem and felt that the diet and exercise program I had developed for Sauts might afford another dog a chance to beat the bloat. It dawned on me that there was more to what had happened than I had first realized. Talk about a wake-up call.

In the years since, two major trends in animal health have developed: the natural pet food industry has come into its own and many veterinarians have begun to incorporate alternative medicine into their practices.

“All natural” and “holistic” have become the buzzwords of the pet food industry, an industry that saw its birth during the years of the Great Depression when food companies that manufactured food for people were functioning in the red and, rather than throwing away meat and grains that were deemed unfit for human consumption, they began reprocessing and packaging these by-products for dogs and cats. Many pet food companies producing the commercial brands found in grocery markets and chain pet stores today are still first and foremost producers of food for people. For instance, Nature’s Recipe, originally a small natural pet food company, is now owned by Del Monte Foods.

The end of World War II table scraps became a dirty word, somehow indicating that the owner did not care enough about their pet to buy good ready-made food.

Nowadays, pet owners who read their own food package labels to scout out transfats and hydrogenated oils do the same for their pets. Companies advertising “natural” or “holistic” food for human consumption must adhere to laws regarding such labeling, but — unleashed from these laws — pet food companies can play fast and loose with their usage of those terms. Those who label pet food as “organic,” nevertheless, must follow strict guidelines.

Various companies now offer natural and organic products, foods geared for the allergic pet, the elderly, the overweight. Home cooked meals are available along with fresh or frozen foods, some cooked, some raw. The natural food business has become the fastest growing segment of animal products. As one vet I met said, “If you can’t pronounce it and you don’t know what it is, don’t feed it to your pet.”

Dogs and Cats Rule is an all natural pet food store that opened this past year in the Hopewell Crossing Shopping Center in Pennington (800M Denow Road, 609-730-1190, www.reigningdogsandcats.com). Owner George Parente, whose original pet food store is in Newtown, PA, carries only natural and organic products for dogs and cats. His sister, JoAnn Parente, a nurse who joined her brother two years ago to run the pet food stores, uses her years of medical experience to help customers find the right food and supplements for their pets.

As you walk into the Pennington store, you’ll see a large case of dog cookies and biscuits decorated with brightly colored designs. All are homebaked with no salt or sugar and the icings are made with yogurt. Shelves are lined with products boasting elk, rabbit, buffalo, ostrich, and quail along with the regular lamb, rice, turkey, and chicken fare. All products, whether natural or organic, come from USDA plants. Customers can choose between freeze-dried, frozen, raw, or dried foods but I also noticed fresh-cooked dinners in jars by the counter. Even the treats are special, resembling pieces of rawhide but with names like “Sam’s Yams” (made from freeze-dried sweet potatoes).

George and JoAnn Parente grew up in a Philadelphia family that has been in the food business for more than 85 years. While their grandfather owned a fruit stand, their father had deli grocery markets around the city. When their father died at age 54, their mother took over running the business and thus George Parente has worked in the food business since he was 16. Today he lives in Bucks County and runs the Newtown store while his sister runs the Pennington store.

“Raw diets are becoming increasingly popular, especially at the Pennington store,” George Parente says, adding that his client base is made up of “people who are knowledgeable about nutrition for themselves and want to incorporate those same principles for their pets.”

Parente says some customers come armed with questions about their dog’s poor-quality coat, allergies, hot spots, or other physical problems. Parente admits, since people often seed medical advice first at the pet store before spending the money to go to their veterinarian, it helps that JoAnn has a nursing background. Serious problems are referred to vets but some conditions, says Parente, can be greatly helped with a better diet tailored for the particular pet.

Parente says: “Seventy percent of people still feed their pets grocery store brands, which is why we include a segment of value-priced food for the customers who would normally go to the grocery store. We can get those pets eating better quality foods.”

Dogs and Cats Rule will participate in the “National Dine With Your Dog Day,” Saturday, October 21, by serving up samples of the new Natural Balance “Edibles” line, including Irish Stew, Hillbilly Chili, and Chinese Takeout (all of which are produced at the Dinty Moore beef stew plant).

Walk past the clothing shops and restaurants of Palmer Square in Princeton and you’ll come to Pawtisserie (609-921-7387, 53 Palmer Square West, www.pawtisseries.com), a small but well-stocked store featuring high-end foods and supplements for dogs and cats along with a collection of toys, bowls, gifts, and even a few items for the owners. I could not resist treating myself to a “Life Is Good” shirt that says “doggone” on it. Owner Will Hassant bakes all-natural dog cookies for dogs and cats right on the premises with ingredients like catfish and buffalo. The shelves also contain some of the best books on natural pet health and care.

Shopping at Pawtisserie evokes a European experience, where everything is on a small scale and each item carefully selected. A portrait of Hassant’s 95-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback dog named Hannah adorns the wall with the Jan Purnel quote, “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” They recently debuted all natural ice cream made especially for them by the Bent Spoon, a few doors up — sans sugar or salt, of course. A big proponent of customer service, Hassant provides home delivery.

Hassant grew up in Woodbridge and earned a bachelor of science degree in economics/administration from Fairleigh Dickinson in 1978, and an MBA in marketing from the University of Phoenix. He moved to San Diego in 1989 to take a job in telecommunications for Sprint. He says: “It was there that my wife, Afton, and I saw our first pet bakery. We were both intrigued but without any glimmer of a clue that one day this would be my vocation.” They returned to New Jersey when his wife, a clinical psychologist, accepted an associate faculty position at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“One evening Afton suggested I follow my heart and do something more fulfilling,” Hassant says. “She asked me what I like and jokingly I said, ‘the dog.’ Well, the Pawtisserie evolved from that moment of soul searching and we have never looked back.” Hassant and his wife live in Princeton Junction with their son, Liam, and four-legged daughter, Hannah.

Looking ahead Hassant says he and his wife are currently evaluating a nearby second location that would include similar products and services available at the Palmer Square shop, as well as a salon for grooming, daycare services, a center for learning/ educational workshops, and, are you ready for this, pet parties.

On the other side of town, Cutter’s Mill, which bills itself as “the natural pet place,” opened in the Princeton Shopping Center the day after Labor Day (609-683-1520, www.cuttersmillpetstore.com). Mark Hunsbedt, the store manager, says the store is about 60 to 70 percent natural or organic. I found a wonderful selection of top-quality foods as well as natural treats and toys. A refrigerator was packed with frozen foods, raw foods, and bones — something for every palette.

Mirroring the natural pet food trend is alternative medicine for pets. Just as doctor-authors like Andrew Weil have integrated holistic medicine with traditional western medicine, many veterinarians — including some in central New Jersey and Bucks County — are beginning to offer non-traditional medical practices.

The Animal Healing Center in Yardley, PA, offers acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, herbs, NAET allergy elimination, and nutritional counseling (1724 Yardley Langhorne Road, Yardley, PA, 215-493-0621). Heading up the practice is Deva Khalsa VMD, one of the top holistic veterinarians in the world and a faculty member of the British Institute of Homeopathy. Growing up in New Jersey, she learned about natural healing from her grandmother and spent a year studying holistic medicine for people as a hobby while waiting to be accepted into the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (she graduated in 1981).

Once she began practicing, Khalsa says in a fax from Florida, where she is doing advanced study, “I used the knowledge I had gained during that year of studying homeopathy with great success and was so impressed that I began to travel to various places in the world where veterinary homeopathy and other forms of holistic medicine are practiced. A wonderful Scottish gentleman named George MacCleod, who wrote a great many books on homeopathy for pets and practiced until he was almost 100 years old, mentored me until his death.”

As for the trend of whole, organic food for pets (and people too), Khalsa says, “What is driving this increase is a desire for a healthy, vital, disease-free life, something that is becoming more precious and rare as new statistics show that 45 percent of pets contract cancer. Fifteen years ago the statistics were 33 percent for people and who knows what it is now. Too many vaccinations that are not needed, carcinogens in food, genetically modified food, toxins in the environment — all combine with an immune system that is not up to par to cause disease and cancer. ‘Avoid the carcinogens’ and ‘eat to keep your immune system healthy’ seem to be the new mottoes of much of society.”

Khalsa is married and the mother of twin sons. In 1993, she co-authored the book “Healing Your Horse: Alternative Therapies” (Howell Book House).

Sharon Marx, who works with Khalsa at the Animal Healing Center, got her first exposure to alternative medicine when acupuncture treatments on her 13-year-old golden retriever greatly improved both the quality and length of the dog’s life. “We are always learning ways to solve old problems,” Marx says, adding that these new developments include a new cancer vaccine that can help shrink certain tumors; NAET (Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique), which helps treat allergies by giving animals a low-energy potency of the food or environmental factors that they are allergic to; and even new natural supplements formulated to minimize the development and progression of some cancers.

Magic Circle Healing Center in Stockton (151 Kingwood Locktown Road, 908-996-4134, E-mail magiccircle@blast.net) is often the last stop for desperate owners trying to find a way to keep their pets from dying. These pets are being treated by their veterinarians but their owners are trying to give them a few extra months or years of quality life. Owner Maggie Smiley, a long-time resident of Stockton, became acquainted with the work of Dr. Khalsa in 1986 and began studying herbs in the treatment of cancer. Most of the pets she sees are referred to her from veterinarians.

“I have seen animals with tumors on the throat, with lymphosarcoma or lymphoma, testicular cancer, adrenal cancer, cancer of the pancreas, and so on, go into remission,” she says. “Is there a guarantee? Absolutely not, but it is certainly worth a try. I have had dogs live for two more years beyond the dreaded diagnoses and have a quality of life.” She uses muscle testing, and natural diet and herbs to treat the entire body rather than just the disease.

Khalsa and Smiley often refer patients to each other, sometimes combining conventional and alternative medicine. In one recent case, Khalsa combined traditional western thyroid medication with acupuncture. A year ago, Baby, (one of Smiley’s own dogs, who is actually now a senior citizen and not a baby) a Poodle/Bichon Frise mix, developed problems walking, getting up and down, refused to eat, and began deteriorating rapidly. After a round of blood tests and X-rays, the consensus of three traditional vets was that Baby had major problems with his spine and immediate surgery was required.

Fearful of having surgery done on an elderly dog, Smiley took Baby to see Khalsa, who had his blood sent to holistic vet Gloria Dodd in Gualala, CA. The results came back clean but Khalsa felt that the thyroid was a little low and put Baby on the standard thyroid medication Soloxine. In addition, she had Baby receive acupuncture treatments twice a week to enhance the blood flow to the spine as the lack of circulation was causing the area to deteriorate and die.

Within a few months Baby was once again walking, albeit gingerly. Now, after a year of treatment, Baby is eating regularly, has regained his weight, and walks all around the property. He still receives acupuncture on a weekly basis and is living a normal life. The Harlingen Veterinary Clinic in Belle Mead (10 Sunset Road, 908-707-9077) also offers acupuncture and allergy eliminator treatments.

At Mid-Atlantic Equine in Ringoes (609-397-0078, www.midatlanticequine.com), which offers top traditional care for horses, Tiffany Marr incorporates both acupuncture and holistic herbs to enhance performance and relieve pain in her equine patients. In addition, she teaches owners and grooms to use cold lasers and cryo machines to improve the performance of their horses instead of using anti-inflammatories.

The doctors at Veterinary Acupuncture in Stewartsville (908-454-9689, www.veterinaryacupncture.net) travel throughout New Jersey and some parts of New York to care for their equine patients by appointment while maintaining a home-based practice for their canine and feline patients. John O’Mahony, VMD, graduated from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. His wife, Sabine O’Mahony, graduated in veterinary medicine from the University of the State of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Both are certified in veterinary acupuncture. In addition to acupuncture, they offer osteopathic adjustments and herbal treatments.

O’Mahony says that he “likes to have the ability to use the structure of Chinese medicine to see where the imbalances lie, but if you break a leg, you want western medicine.” The key is to use both at the appropriate time.

It has been a long time since I first encountered the healing power of an all-natural diet with my dog, Sauts. In the years since, I have had and loved many dogs and cats, some adopted, some found in the streets, and a few beautiful golden retriever puppies who left a hole as big as a locomotive in my heart when they died. I like to think that they lived well and long because of the food and care they were given all of their lives.

This past weekend, I was walking my dog, Dakota, and met up with a couple who were visiting New Hope with their beautiful Irish setter, who instantly brought back visions of Sauts with a deep mahogany coat and unrelenting focus on squirrels. When I commented on how their beautiful girl looked so much like the boy I once had, the man smiled and said “yes, but she already has so many medical problems.” When I inquired, they told me a story I have heard many times before. Their puppy became very sore and had a difficult time walking, Their vet was perplexed (although I don’t know why, as this is a common problem with large dogs) until they found the answer themselves on the Internet. The dog had developed a condition that occurs when puppies are fed high protein food (better known as puppy chow) at a young age and their bones grow too fast, causing them to ache. The vet had put her on a slew of medications to which she had bad reactions and developed still more problems, including losing her hair. “Now she’s on six different types of medication and she’s only 18 months old,” the owner said to me.

And then came the response I have encountered so many times before. When I suggested that they take to dog to Dr. Khalsa, they said they don’t come out to the area very often because they live in New York. Being a former New Yorker, I then told them about a terrific vet I know, Marty Goldstein in South Salem, NY. “No, we go to Long Island,” they replied. I then recommended J.J. Wen of the Hampton Veterinary hospital in Speonk, NY. “Oh, that’s not near us,” was the wife’s answer.

At that point, I did what it has taken me years to learn to do — I walked away. There are people for whom no expense is too much, no distance too far to travel, no lesson to difficult to learn when it comes to their children, whether two-legged or four. But it takes a desire to become aware to drive that learning forward, and often our pets act as our guides as well as our companions. I hope that she can lead her owners on that path as well when they are ready.

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