The operators of the storefront Holistic Animal Clinic in North Hollywood were busy with routine visits from their four-footed clientele on a recent morning. But the methods used by John Ottaviano and his partner, veterinarian John E. Craige, were anything but routine.
After scanning a chart and an X-ray, Ottaviano quickly poked nine pinlike acupuncture needles into the back and stomach of a small, black poodle. Raindrop, afflicted with congestive heart failure and a probable chest tumor, barely flinched.
Craige examined an orange-striped cat named Ozzie, whose owner thought he had an eye infection. The veterinarian’s left hand roved over the animal, pausing at a joint and along his back, while his right hand gripped an antennalike metal wand called a dowsing rod. Wand waves indicate illness, at least to Craige.
For Ozzie, he prescribed vitamin C and a “homeopathic” eyewash made from euphrasia, a common plant.
Welcome to holistic pet care, where unconventional doctors use unconventional medicine in an effort to keep animals healthy.
It’s a trend that is mostly viewed with skepticism within the veterinary profession but has gained acceptance with some pet owners, especially those who have grown suspicious of traditional Western medicine’s reliance on powerful drugs.
Holistic healing means prompting the body to mend itself, often with natural means. The approach has flourished among human as well as animal practitioners in recent years due to New Age ideas and a fascination with Oriental healing arts that blossomed after former President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.
Holistic medicine for animals can include acupuncture, now fairly widely accepted in the medical community, nutritional counseling and herb therapy. Some of the herbal supplements are similar to those available in health food stores. Other treatments can include such controversial techniques as homeopathy, the use of very dilute solutions made from substances ranging from snake venom to plants. Most conventional veterinarians dismiss homeopathy as ineffective but harmless.
While preventing ailments may be their aim, just as often Ottaviano and Craige end up doctors of last resort treating what they call “garbage can cases.”
They are sought out by desperate pet owners who have exhausted the conventional methods prescribed by their family vet and are looking elsewhere for a glimmer of hope to save their animals.
Paula Maxwell’s cat, Salmineo, is a typical client. The 8-year-old tabby was diagnosed by another vet as having leukemia and infectious peritonitis. The prognosis was guarded and the recommended prescription was a powerful steroid that has side effects.
“I wanted to try something else,” Maxwell, a Silver Lake artist, said after a recent visit to the clinic. The fee for a standard office call is $35.
After two separate visits, during which Salmineo received vitamin C shots and acupuncture, Maxwell saw results. “I honestly have to say both times he had an increase in energy and he’s acted better. It could be a coincidence.
“I’m not expecting miracles,” she added. “But there are some mysteries that aren’t part of science.”
Advocates of holistic medicine for animals concede that the methods of treating conditions that range from arthritis to gastrointestinal trouble to circulatory problems seem a bit mystical.
Acupuncture works on the principle that a life energy, ch’i , flows through the body in channels called meridians. The meridians are near the surface at places called acupuncture points, which correspond to organs and glands that generate energy.
By stimulating acupuncture points--generally by thin needles--the body’s energy levels can be adjusted and equilibrium re-established so that healing proceeds.
“Acupuncture stimulates another circulatory system in the body that needs to be rediscovered and it’s based on an electrical force,” said Ottaviano, 43, who is a certified human acupuncturist, but has been permitted by state regulators to practice on animals under a vet’s supervision.
Other holistic veterinarians in the area include Sheldon Altman in Burbank and John Limehouse, also of North Hollywood, who was previously in practice with Ottaviano.
Acupuncture, as well as other holistic practices, are considered “unconventional” therapies by the American Veterinary Medical Assn., the Illinois-based governing group for 49,875 veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada. There are 4,500 veterinarians in California.
“I think it has merit because I’ve seen things happen that I don’t understand,” said Dr. Richard Fink, a Whittier veterinarian and a past president of the AVMA.
“A lot of the profession accepts acupuncture, but the other methodologies are rejected,” said Dr. Richard S. Glassberg, a Fullerton veterinarian who has been practicing acupuncture since 1972. “The majority of vets think it’s hogwash.”
Glassberg and Ottaviano helped veterinary acupuncture gain a foothold in California by undertaking three years of research beginning in 1974 at the request of the California Veterinary Medical Assn. and UCLA’s Acupuncture Pain Clinic.
While their findings didn’t get a lot of attention within the profession, holistic veterinary medicine has taken hold anyhow.
Professional groups have been established, such as the Maryland-based American Holistic Veterinary Medical Assn., with 425 members, as well as the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in Pennsylvania, which has 250 members in 16 foreign countries and the U.S.
Both organizations are working to establish professional training standards that they hope will eventually be sanctioned by the mainstream AVMA.
Michael W. Lemmon, a Renton, Wash., veterinarian and officer of the Maryland-based group, said: “We feel acupuncture will be the first to be accepted. Homeopathy is a long way off.”
Even so, William T. Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, warns consumers to be wary of the trend.
The Loma Linda University medical professor characterizes holistic medical terms as “words that have their most meaning for marketing.”
He said acupuncture and chiropractic manipulation, also considered a holistic therapy, have merit, but that homeopathy “is clear-cut nonsense.”
Moreover, Jarvis said, “herbs aren’t synonymous with safe.” About 25% of traditional drugs, including cocaine and opium, are derived from herbs. Herbal prescriptions can be nothing less than raw sources of drugs, he said.
As for Craige’s use of dowsing to help him diagnose cases, Jarvis conceded that it sometimes seems to work, but only outside controlled clinical trials, which he has conducted. Dowsing works on the same principle as a “water witch” that is said to sense water underground when a forked stick becomes animated.
“Believers say it’s a way of plugging into intuition,” Jarvis said. “They put a great deal of trust in intuition and distrust logic and reason. That’s the big dividing line.”
To illustrate the difference, Jarvis said a dowser would turn to a rain dancer for precipitation while a scientist would want iodine crystals.
Craige, 6 feet tall, ruddy-faced and white-haired at 75, has been a gadfly to his profession for 40 years.
“He’s not afraid to try things the regular medical profession thinks is quackery,” said Limehouse, the North Hollywood veterinarian. “At times, Ottaviano doesn’t like him for that because he’s so outspoken.” Friction was the reason an earlier partnership between Craige and Ottaviano dissolved.
Besides using a dowsing rod, Craige also prescribes other unusual therapies such as Laetrile, the cancer drug made from apricot pits that the U.S. medical establishment has dismissed as quackery. He says dowsing helps him diagnose an animal’s ills by sensing changes in the animal’s energy flows, the same energy an acupuncturist taps.
Craige, in practice 53 years, said he disavowed orthodox animal medicine in 1975 after using Laetrile successfully on his own dog. Around the same time, Craige, also trained as a bacteriologist, learned about dowsing from the owner of a dog dying of lung cancer. “I too thought it was hocus-pocus,” said Craige, who says he is writing a book on the subject.
Craige learned acupuncture from Ottaviano in the 1970s. They teamed up a second time in 1988 when Craige wanted to return to work after a brief retirement following heart surgery.
Their narrow clinic is an unusually serene environment. Dogs and cats can be examined in the same room. Craige, who is part showman and part mystic, chatters about metaphysical issues, such as how auras work, while he makes his diagnosis.
Occasionally pet owners reject Craige’s advice because of his unusual approach. Kirsten Palmquist refused to purchase the prescriptions Craige advised for her cat, Ozzie.
“The diagnosis made me skeptical. It wasn’t explained,” said Palmquist, of Hollywood, who sought out the clinic because it was nearby, not because it was holistic.
In contrast to Craige’s style, Ottaviano is all business. He turns from examining tables to scribbling on charts with no-nonsense precision.
“The patients we see are already interested in holistic care and suspicious of misuse of steroids and antibiotics,” Ottaviano said. “This is the way they treat themselves, so this is the way they want to treat their dogs.”