Why I Switched to "alternative": The Chances of a Lifetime
by Leslie Crane Rugg
For about a year, I fancied a future career as a pathologist. I thought my lifelong interests in literature, history, archeology, anthropology, and psychology would meld dynamically with medicine. Then I received a poor grade in my freshman college chemistry class (loved the lab, couldn’t fathom the textbook). In those days, pre-med was still pre-med; the raised consciousness of medical school admissions that valued liberal arts was not yet on the horizon. So I resorted to my first love, majoring in English, and contented myself with an autodidactic medical education. Little did I suspect that my day would finally come through veterinary medicine.
No, I didn’t go to vet school. I ended up getting ad hoc training as I went from veterinary appointment to veterinary appointment, tending to the increasingly odd and disturbing health issues of my beloved Collies. One Collie with hypothyroidism and reproductive sterility. Another Collie with hypothyroidism and von Willebrand's disease. Yet another Collie with hypothyroidism, dermatomyositis, mesaesophagus, seizures, food and environmental allergies, interstitial cysts, and a terminal case of bloat. Several Collies with hypothyroidism and a variety of concomitant conditions such as prostatitis, monorchidism, corneal ulcer, allergies, etc. One Collie with underdeveloped organs. One Collie with a vaccine reaction leading to severe allergies. And yet, here and there, an unscathed healthy Collie.
Chance also played a decisive part in my education. By the time I owned dogs, our family’s veterinarian had retired and turned his practice over to an enterprising veterinarian with ideas definitely outside the traditional box. He was among the first veterinarians to recognize the danger of using ethoxyquin as a pet food preservative. He went on to create a trace mineral supplement and co-found a line of novel protein pet food formulas, all preserved with vitamin E.
Despite his nutritional forward thinking, this veterinarian stuck with Western pharmacology and treated a variety of endocrine, allergy, and autoimmune conditions with a controversial prescription of thyroid hormone replacement therapy and low dose prednisone. Many of my Collies’ health problems were managed this way, but some could not be managed with this treatment and died too young. I decided it was time to seek a different veterinary approach and certainly time to move away from the constant use of steroids.
Determined to learn as much as possible about health issues affecting my breed, I attended specialty conformation shows, joined a local breed club, and volunteered to be part of the committee planning a national educational seminar. To our good fortune, Jean Dodds agreed to be one of our key speakers. I never learned so much in such a brief amount of time as I did during Jean’s session. For the first time, my Collies’ health problems stopped being a jumble of disconnected phenomena and became a solvable puzzle of genetic and environmental clues. Suddenly, Collie pedigrees transformed from lists of championship names into a roadmap of traceable medical paths and destinations.
The first thing I did differently was to stop giving my Collies annual and, in some cases, quarterly (parvo) or bi-annual (lepto) vaccinations. I felt my decision was vindicated when I learned of horrific injection site cancers that were occurring in cats. I looked for a vet hospital that used Antech Diagnostics, the laboratory group Jean recommended.
I also looked for a veterinarian who would titer instead of blithely shooting up. Ultimately I found a superb holistic veterinarian just minutes from my house. Nancy Scanlan specialized in Chinese medicine, acupuncture, nutritional counseling, among other holistic modalities. She recently completed a term as President of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and still serves on a number of key AHVMA committees.
My professional life also benefited from my personal passion. Through my educational seminar committee work, I met the editor of a couple of dog magazines who was looking for part-time help. I got the job and shortly thereafter began editing the Collie magazine. A few years later, I teamed up with a good friend, who was deeply involved in the dog world as a breeder and handler, to start a magazine devoted to rare dog breeds. Finally I became a freelancer, writing for a variety of magazines including AKC’s “Gazette” and “Family Dog,” and Pet Publishing’s “Dog & Kennel,” “Cat & Kitten,” and “Bird Times.” As a journalist, I had access to devoted breeders, researchers on the cutting edge, and practitioners who broke through conventional medicine barriers. I covered both AKC and rare breed events, attended veterinary conferences where I was able to talk to researchers, and made contacts with vet-related company representatives.
Meanwhile, at home, I made one more significant change. Premium quality pet food was adequate, but my sensitive Collies still had digestive issues expressed through skin and coat conditions. I began experimenting with food sources other than kibble and cans. I recalled what my mother had fed the pets of my childhood; invariably it was food we ate too – whole fresh foods. It was the right time to take on the challenge. I read Pitcairn and Billinghurst. I tried salmon diets from New Mexico and frozen chicken bars from the Northwest. When I came across Steve’s Real Food for Dogs, I read the brochure, saw the phone number, and dialed Steve himself. (When in doubt, go to the source!) Just as generous with his time and knowledge as Jean Dodds, Steve Brown spent a long time explaining how and why he came to invent his grain-free raw food. He had an incontinent female whose problem literally dried up when he removed grain from her diet.
It was just what I needed to hear. At the time, two of my Collies were incontinent. The only treatment available was a drug that solved the problem but created a secondary one for my dogs; any change in dosage prompted seizures. When I switched my dogs to grain-free raw food, their incontinence lessened tremendously. I’ve removed grain permanently from my dogs’ diet, since I’m also convinced that grain plays a role in a number of diseases ranging from arthritis to cancer. For years now, my dogs have thrived on a BARF (Bones And Raw Food) diet. I no longer rely on prepared raw diets but create my own, based on each of my dog’s needs. I’ve purchased human grade food from co-ops, markets where I buy my food, and restaurant suppliers.
While I would have preferred that all my dogs were healthy and long-lived, allowing me to remain blissfully ignorant, I can thank my dogs’ ill health for allowing me to practice pathology after all. In my fervent desire to understand the nature, causes, and effects of the diseases that have afflicted my dogs, I have embraced complementary medicine and sought out alternative diets. My health choices nowadays are simple and practical rather than occult and beyond my control.