Eleven years ago, Shellee Rae began a journey into holistic medicine she attributes to the end of a long list of ailments, including a dysfunctional thyroid, bleeding ulcers and gouty arthritis. So when her cat recently began suffering from a hyperactive thyroid and kidney dysfunction, the obvious choice was to seek a holistic veterinarian.

"I really didn't want to just throw medication at my 17-year-old cat," Rae said. "I wanted to find out why he was sick and do something that the body can recognize ... conventional medicine for me is the very last-ditch effort. You should try every thing else before going there."

Rae, who owns an alternative healing practice in Ashland, is part of a growing trend of people seeking holistic medical treatment for their pets.

"It is a trend that has been around for a while, and it's become especially popular in the last decade or so." said Anette Heaslet, a veterinarian at Lithia Springs Veterinary Care who has practiced what she calls integrative care for the past ten years. "In Ashland people are more aware of these natural options than in many areas, but I still find people that are really skeptical."

Holistic medicine looks beyond the symptoms of a medical condition and examines the pet's lifestyle for clues and possible cures, Heaslet said. Treatment may still involve conventional medicine, but it could also include acupuncture, herbal remedies and improved nutrition.

"If you have a broken leg, you're going to want surgery, but if you have a more chronic condition, there are times when a more natural approach is helpful," she said.

Of all the patients she sees, Heaslet estimates only about 10 percent of them receive strictly alternative treatments. Even if alternative treatments aren't the best route, pet owners seem to appreciate having them as an option.

"I think people in Ashland are looking for that approach more and more, so it's really nice to find a veterinary clinic that's changing with the times," said Kim Levy, whose dog Beenz got an herbal ointment and antibiotics to treat a wound on his back, along with probiotics to lessen the impact of the antibiotics on good bacteria.

Acupuncture

One trademark of Heaslet's holistic practice is acupuncture, which can be used to treat everything from arthritis and heart disease to seizures and behavior problems.

Like any treatment, she said, it is not 100 percent effective, but she remembers being surprised watching an early treatment on a stressed dog with chronic back pain.

"The dog just put out a big sigh and laid down his head, and I was astounded."

Heaslet was inspired to learn the practice after watching her dog Wrecks recover from two orthopedic surgeries as a puppy. In addition to switching him to a special diet and providing natural supplements, she performed acupuncture to speed the healing process. Now that Wrecks is developing arthritis at age 11, he receives acupuncture treatments about once a month. The process involves tiny needles the size of human hair stuck in specific points throughout the body to release endorphins, which act as natural painkillers, Heaslet said.

Home visits

Ann Swartz, a veterinarian with a practice called Housecalls, does just that as part of her own holistic approach to treating animals.

"There have been a number of times that all you have to do is walk in the house and see the problem," she said.

For example, a cat that frequently urinates in the house instead of going outside may be afraid of the big dog next door, or have a cat door that's too high and difficult for the cat to use. Although seeing how an animal acts in stressful places such as a clinic can aid a diagnosis, Swartz said, being able to see pets in their home environment helps her observe animals' natural behavior, which is often different in an unfamiliar veterinarian office, she said.

Although she doesn't practice acupuncture, her partner Paula Backus does, and Swartz has also incorporated homeopathy, another choice under holistic medicine. Homeopathy is an individualized approach to treatment, in which practitioners say a sick animal can be treated with substances that produce symptoms similar to those of the illness in a healthy animal.

"My goal when I see a client is to offer three or four options," she said. "One of them will always be western medicine, and one of them will always be homeopathy, and then usually there's some gradation in between."

That range of options helps people who like the idea of a natural remedy, but often are still looking for a quick fix and not a true holistic approach.

"What's frustrating for me is there are a lot of people who think that's what they're looking for, but they want yet another drug," she said. "They want an herb that fixes everything, but that's never going to be the case."

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