Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
A “zebra” in medical slang is a rare or surprising diagnosis. A vet may say, “It looked like a typical infection, but it turned out to be a zebra.”
BOBBI REMAINED CALM AS I INSERTED A THIRD NEEDLE INTO HER massive striped neck. I was silently elated. Applying the ancient art of acupuncture to zebras had never been done before, so no one, including me, could have predicted how she would tolerate the treatment.
When the zoo veterinarian had called to ask if there was anything I could do for Bobbi’s epilepsy and arthritis, I decided it was worth a try. Acupuncture works well for horses, so I was keen to do it, even though zebras are notoriously high-strung, suspicious, and sharp-hooved, and potentially quite dangerous. After weeks of practice with pretend needles and many rewards for Bobbi, it was time to give the real thing a shot. Bobbi trotted over when she saw I had her favorite brush. Grooming her with my left hand as a distraction, I picked up a needle with my right. This one would be tricky to place—inside her shifting foreleg.
With a quick conspiratorial glance at the zookeeper, I felt for the acupoint. Just where Bobbi’s bristly hair changed to the softer undercoat, my fingers found the divot. I inserted the needle knowing that one powerful kick to my head could be the end of me.
With my hand right on her solid, muscular leg, it was easy to imagine this beautiful Grévy’s zebra running free on the Serengeti Plain. I wondered, would she have developed arthritis and epilepsy if she lived in her natural habitat? Most animals I’ve studied in their natural surroundings are chronically healthy. While walking in a forest teeming with robust species, you’d never see diabetic robins, arthritic squirrels, obese rabbits, or asthmatic deer. Part of this may be because survival of the fittest and predation take the weak and those with endemic, species-specific diseases, but the vibrant health of all remaining animals is significant. There is an innate state of healthful equilibrium in every ecosystem, benefiting creatures great and small.
Nature effortlessly propagates health, but in our civilized world, maintaining health takes effort.
A zebra that is wildly healthy is in a balanced state of well-being. But this can only happen if a zebra’s basic needs are met. When a zebra doesn’t eat zebra food, doesn’t run in a zebra way, doesn’t live in zebra-like environment, that’s when disease can take hold. It’s very telling that the healthiest environment for any zoo animal is one that meticulously mimics its natural habitat. This premise is somewhat obvious for wild animals like zebras, but also must be recognized for our dogs and cats.
For our pets to be truly healthy we must recognize the wild in them, too. It’s okay to call your puggle Mr. Grumpy and dress him in a sailor suit, but his health depends on your awareness of his true nature and your dedication to making sure his basic evolutionary needs are met.
I once treated a male cat named Toast, who had a history of feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD). FLUTD is a chronic, potentially life-threatening urinary tract disease that can affect more than 30 percent of all cats. Toast was urinating on his owners’ bed pillows instead of the litter box.
Apparently the female cat in the house felt the need to protect the territory around the litter box. With just a subtle tail flick or a glance—strong language between cats that translates into an aggressive rebuff—she consistently discouraged Toast from using their shared bathroom. As a result, Toast’s bladder was not emptied often enough, and this contributed to his condition.
One way to prevent FLUTD is to provide more litter boxes than the number of cats in the house. Then there will always be one free, unguarded box. This was how Toast was eventually healed. If you live in a studio apartment and have twenty cats, hide your bed pillows.
In the wild, no one guards the litter box, and so Toast wouldn’t have been susceptible to this kind of stress-induced FLUTD. But does it make sense that any cat suffers from chronic, life-threatening urinary tract disease? Particularly since, as far as we know, FLUTD is not seen in wild felines? An animal in a balanced state of wild health will be more adaptable to circumstances that tend to be unnatural for it. In other words, your wildly healthy animal will fit into your non-animal world with fewer health problems if his or her natural constitution is not compromised.
The basic genetics of canine and feline biology has not strayed very far from that of their ancestors. Indeed, part of the allure of having a pet is that they draw us closer to the natural world; so we shouldn’t pull them too far away from it.
Zoos are microcosms of the natural world. Because we’ve removed the animal from the wild, we must reconstruct the wild for each animal in these controlled environments. And it always starts with the fundamentals of a good diet. Zookeepers do their best to avoid feeding animals anything other than what they would eat in their natural habitat. Not surprisingly, the greatest percentage of illness occurs when diets aren’t properly formulated and assiduously followed.
The same is true of our pets. No matter how we train, dress, and pamper them, they are still the product of their genetic past. Countless years of adaptation have turned dogs into carnivore scavengers, which means they need meat, but they’ll take what they can scavenge and make do until meat is on the table again. Cats have adapted into obligate carnivores, which means that they will become very ill without a primarily meat diet—it is a requirement, not an option. It is more than menu preferences. The triggers and mechanisms of behavior and survival are based on those essentials. If we don’t give our pets what they need and they have no other way to get it, they will inevitably grow sick.
Nature never breaks her own rules. —LEONARDO DA VINCI
The following often underestimated maladies may be a sign that your pet’s natural constitution is unbalanced. The good news is that they may be alleviated or eliminated, by restoring innate balance.
The Royal Treatment Warning System
Chronic lumps, bumps, and growths
Chronic ear infections, skin infections, and eye infections
Picky eating habits
Inflammatory bowel disease, chronic pancreatitis, or chronic loose stool
Hormonal problems (thyroid, adrenal, pituitary)
Urinary tract disease, urinary “accidents,” urinary infections, stones or crystals in urine
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract of carnivores—like lions, wolves, dogs, or cats—has not adapted in a way that allows the systems of these animals to contend with processed grains. Why then are those grains major ingredients in many pet foods? My patients’ conditions dramatically improve when their owners follow my advice to gradually change the pet’s diet to eliminate corn and wheat. It is easy to check whether grains are included in the mix, by reading the tiny print on pet food labels.
Living in a zoo presents dietary limitations that can affect the many species there. Bobbi had been fed a carefully regulated diet but was occasionally given bread rolls as treats, yet no one had thought about the effect of them. You may be shocked to discover that zebras don’t forage for baked goods on the savannas of Kenya. If there is any connection between processed glutens and inflammatory response, it makes sense to eliminate bread rolls from the menu of any arthritic, epileptic animal. Without a good, species-specific diet, no medication can sustain long-term health and even small “treats” can have a very negative impact on health.
Wild health seems a more logical and realistic concept when we’re talking about a wild animal such as a zebra. But when it comes to cats and dogs, people and even some veterinarians seem to accept chronic ailments as the price they pay for fitting into our world as pets. But it shouldn’t be this way.
I’m in favor of whatever method works best to heal a sick animal. And often that means using common sense. When things seem right, but feel wrong, that’s when that internal warning voice pipes up, and I tell my clients to pay attention to that voice. Although the practice of medicine may seem complex and mysterious—especially when delving into the more arcane traditions of Chinese medicine—I encourage my clients to ask questions. When they understand what is happening, we are better able to make a plan that can work to truly benefit their animal, using rational, thoughtful care.
This kind of integrative approach provides me with an array of powerful treatment options—and I need all of them because I deal with so many animals, and different species, each with its own variety of potential ailments.
Wild health is such a powerful concept because it defines the elements that are essential to the way all animals thrive—and illuminates what so often makes them sick.
Mammals breathe in the oxygen that is created by plant life and then breathe out the carbon dioxide that plants need to survive. In this and many other ways, all animals, no matter how evolved, depend on and are sustained by their environment. When an animal is nourished by a natural diet, given a natural amount of exercise, and allowed to behave in a way that is natural to the species, it has a much better chance for health and happiness—the way nature intended.
That does not mean that your pet cannot thrive in your seventeenth-floor apartment. He can, provided you educate yourself on how best to provide for his natural needs and tendencies. Domestication has taken the sting out of leaving nature behind. Being fed and loved is not a bad deal for our house animals. However, don’t throw away the owner’s manual Mother Nature provided. You’ll need it for your pet’s sake.
Genetic variations and innate behaviors serve a purpose. For example, stripes on a zebra may seem like an extravagance, but they camouflage and confuse predators that are trying to pick a spot to attack in a herd.
Because of the need to find food, a hunting lion “exercises” during the search and the chase. If dinner is delivered right to them, their musculature suffers. Foot health in an elephant is dependent on long foraging walks to find their food. Elephants that stay too long in one place are found to have foot problems, which can be quite serious.
Every enduring species finds its place and the food that keeps it healthy. Giraffes got tall while monkeys got small—both to get to the top of trees. Each species has a way of life that supports health and reproduction from every angle. With the loss of just a couple of crucial elements from that way of life, a species can disappear. Rhinos in a shrinking habitat are not reproducing well. The river otter could not tolerate the poor water quality of our polluted rivers, and was lost in many areas. On the hopeful side, as we reconnect animals with what nature can provide for them, we see some species rebounding.
Here’s a bunny example. Say you have decided to bring home a cute little rabbit for your children. What could go wrong? The guy at the pet store has probably told you to buy a type of hay called timothy, which has the proper balance of minerals for a rabbit (better than alfalfa, for example), and fresh greens and vegetables for your new pet and provide him with a cozy enclosure. You’ve got that covered. However, there is a very real possibility that your new bunny, who is by nature a prey animal, will think he is about to be eaten every time you or one of your kids tries to pick him up—until he becomes used to you. Why is that important? Because stress is bad for health and the rabbit could actually break its own back in a panicked attempt to escape.
We must remember that our pets are animals first and they come hardwired with predispositions, traits, and behaviors. Ignoring these can be dangerous and put the health of your animal at risk.
Prospective bunny owners: take it slow, speak gently, firmly support his back and legs when picking him up, nibble a couple of carrots together, then get cuddly.
Determining what is essential for health and what is optional is a large part of wildlife and zoo medicine. It is also integral to my practice. There are absolute rules and there are optional considerations that do not necessarily have to become part of your pet’s daily life. Life with a pet should be fun, allow for playful impulses, and encourage healthy randomness.
Nature balances disparate forces. It may be that the struggle itself is what the earth has to offer us—our survival needs and our health may be inextricably entwined.
So, what does wild health look like? You will know it when you see it. A wildly healthy animal looks bright-eyed, bushy-tailed with a lustrous coat, sleek, and vibrant. The mark of well-being is unmistakable. A wildly healthy animal truly does exude vitality.
I have been visited by a fox several times at my home. It is impossible not to notice his sovereign confidence and vigor when he hangs out in my front yard. Certainly, there is no mistaking him for a tame animal. He had no set mealtimes or fleece-lined bed. Even my five-year-old daughter knew he wasn’t a dog. The fluid stride and purposeful gait set him apart. He was unfettered, free, full of life, and wildly healthy.
Bobbi the zebra has since passed away, but I know she benefited from the Royal Treatment. After the fourth acupuncture treatment, I read in the zookeeper’s log: “No seizures for over a month.”