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
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
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
"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, 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
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
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
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
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
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
Magic Circle Healing Center in Stockton (151 Kingwood Locktown Road,
908-996-4134, E-mail email@example.com) 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,
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
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
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.