Why "alternative"? Alternative to what?
by Eva Saks

What is the nature of my commitment to alternative medicine? Am I alternative? Am I alternative enough? After all, I believe in vaccines, antibiotics, and even – upon occasion – steroids. Call me mainstream.  But I also believe in the importance of fresh food and raw bones, not to mention the utility of acupuncture and the chemical power of (some) herbal remedies. Most of all, I believe in remaining critical of all institutions, in understanding the incentives driving the behavior of power players within them. In short, I believe in making an attempt – however futile – to  separate the politics of wellness from the science of wellness. 

Accordingly, I consider myself to be committed to “holistic” medicine thus defined: namely, a combination of traditional and non-traditional approaches to health and sickness, selected pragmatically and proven empirically. I have no allegiance to so-called alternative medicine  per se…but I don’t have any to conventional medicine, either. I am open to “whatever works.”

How did I become receptive to alternative veterinary medicine? Certainly, my liberal education – at the Ethical Culture School, Yale College, Yale Law School, and NYU Film School – trained me to be critical of corporations and corporate power, and by extension of the traditional veterinary establishment. More immediately, my experience with my Sheltie, Momo, spurred me to action.

I adopted Momo three and half years ago from Southland Sheltie Rescue in Southern California. He was eleven at the time. He is the love of my life. Like many pet parents, I was vaguely aware of controversy surrounding over-vaccination. So when I took Momo in for his annual vaccines after our first year together, I specifically asked the vet to give my dog as few vaccinations as possible. Momo was not due for a rabies shot, we didn’t live in an area where Coronavirus and Leptovirus were present, and he was never kenneled. 

Then I made the mistake of letting the vet take my dog into the back. I wasn’t worried. This was a reputable older vet in an elegant part of Los Angeles. He radiated authority. He looked like Jimmy Stewart. I assumed he knew what he was doing. I expected he would listen to my instructions.

When Momo came out, I put on his leash and started to walk him down the street to our car. After half a block, he collapsed in shock. I picked him up and ran for his life back to the vet’s. The staff whisked him in and the vet came out a few minutes later, looking sheepish. Momo’s vital signs were now stable but the vet wanted to watch him for an hour. Of course I agreed…and then thought to ask exactly which vaccines he had received.

They had given my 11-year-old dog NINE VACCINES, including RABIES.

Momo almost died. I was beside myself. I vowed that would be the last time I handed my dog’s health over to anyone else, the last time I blindly trusted traditional veterinary medicine.  I became, in the title of Elizabeth Cohen’s current bestseller, an “empowered patient.” Needless to say, I changed vets! 

I brought my consumer consciousness and excessive education to pet parenting. I read non-stop about canine health, nutrition, breeding, and politics. I found generous mentors in the dog world, including Leslie. Like many others, I began to question our fast food nation and the role of corporate food. Marion Nestle’s Food Politics and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma helped clarify the politics of these issues for me. I began feeding Momo fresh, whole food and watched him thrive. (Incidentally, Momo now receives titers, enabling me to tailor his vaccines strictly to what is necessary for him.) Joining a growing movement, I sought out organic products, even when I couldn’t afford them. I studied ingredient labels as if reading ancient runes.

When Leslie and I began selling articles to top magazines, we were shocked by the directions given to us by several editors: “Don’t criticize pet food companies – they’re our advertisers. Don’t suggest home-made food and toys – that could hurt our advertisers’ sales. Don’t tip off readers about shopping for human products priced lower than identical pet ones – our advertisers won’t like it. Don’t name any specific brands – they might be an advertiser or they might become an advertiser someday.” In short, don’t rock the boat.

So here we are, ready to rock the boat on behalf of our pets and yours. 

Call me alternative.