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


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, 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


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,, 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


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, 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


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 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


At Mid-Atlantic Equine in Ringoes (609-397-0078,, 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


The doctors at Veterinary Acupuncture in Stewartsville (908-454-9689, 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


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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