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Restoring quality of life to pets in need, new Costa Mesa facility beckons animal lovers

Lourdes Biancardi, co-owner of Animal Wellness Center of OC, supports Tessa with Dr. Rod Block.
Lourdes Biancardi, co-owner of Animal Wellness Center of OC, supports Tessa during aquapractic treatment with Dr. Rod Block, a dog and horse chiropractor.
(Susan Hoffman)
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Tessa, 11 years old and some pounds overweight, lumbered up the ramp toward the indoor swimming pool with determination and in clear anticipation of her weekly swim.

Her aquatic workout came about after Jennifer Herzer of Newport Beach sought some help for her black Labrador. Tessa was suffering from arthritis pain in all four leg joints, making exercise on land impossible.

After an internet search for alternative therapies for dogs with arthritis, she discovered Animal Wellness Center of OC, located in Costa Mesa.

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“I just love this place, there’s nothing like it for miles,” said Herzer, who originally brought Tessa in for the introductory swim.

“I’ve added other services to the swim therapy such as, chiropractic, acupuncture and cold laser. We are still keeping our vet,” she said, “just enhancing the quality of life of our dog.”

It was actually because of their own dogs’ health issues that the owners of the facility discovered the world of holistic health therapies for animals.

Erin Hale blow dries Tessa while Jennifer Herzer holds her leash.
Erin Hale, a volunteer with Animal Wellness Center of OC, blow dries Tessa while Jennifer Herzer holds her leash.
(Susan Hoffman)

Co-owner Barb West’s chocolate Labrador, Kona, was diagnosed with a form of blindness, sudden acquired retinal degeneration and after receiving chiropractic and acupuncture, lived another five years.

“A lot of things can be done to help animals outside the typical Western medicine realm,” said West.

West’s partner, Lourdes Biancardi, whose dog Stella had bone cancer, drove two hours from Huntington Beach to a rehab facility in Santa Monica, asking herself, “How does this not exist in Orange County?”

With individual backgrounds in client services and similar goals of improving and restoring quality of life to four-legged family members, the two friends partnered to open Animal Wellness Center of OC last August.

“We didn’t plan on opening during the pandemic, but after a 5½-year journey, the wheels were in the works,” said Biancardi. “We were opening no matter what, nothing was going to stop us at this point.”

Barb West, right, explains about the use of CBD oil to help calm a pet’s anxiety.
Barb West, right, co-owner of Animal Wellness Center of OC, explains about the use of CBD oil to help calm a pet’s anxiety to Elizabeth Peckenpaugh. Sniffing at the bottle is Peckenpaugh’s pet, Creature.
(Barb West explains about the use of CBD oil to help calm a pet’s anxiety to Elizabeth Peckenpaugh while “Creature” sniffs the bottle.)

For the two animal lovers who just wanted a wellness center, they had their share of obstacles to navigate. Besides construction permits, there was a conditional use permit required in an area not zoned for dogs, adding to a yearlong approval process from the city.

The biggest delay, however, was finding a building. That search took three long years. They wanted a specific area and size, a place with high ceilings and roll-up doors for pool ventilation. Swim therapy and its benefits in treating arthritis, weight control, recovery from surgery and calming anxiety in pets were program priorities.

Discovering the facility by following Barb West on Facebook, Newport beach resident Elizabeth Peckenpaugh became one of the first clients to bring her out-of-control rescue dog.

“Creature was such a wild thing we couldn’t let him in the house or get on a leash,” explained Peckenpaugh. “His leash biting and pulling behavior was concerning to me.”

She thought Creature’s behavior stemmed from anxiety and that exercise would help calm him down, similar to the effect it has on humans.

Sure enough, once he started swimming he slept better and eventually could be leashed to accompany Peckenpaugh on walks.

“Since we started him swimming last summer, I’ve seen a transformation in him from wild animal to family pet, and he’s crazy excited to get there,” said Peckenpaugh. “Creature, who is a senior 12-year-old pit bull, is a lot of dog for me to take on and is still a work in progress, but thanks to swim he’s a lot more manageable. I felt like that was the place that made it all happen for me.”

The new business that was once a vision in the minds of West and Biancardi has come to life and is growing in spite of the pandemic. Volunteer animal lovers are coming out of the woodwork for the opportunity to do something good for animals.

Biancardi and West have created an environment where compassion, understanding and empathy spreads to the pet parents as well as animals.

“My heart just swells and I want to help them,” said Biancardi. “All these wonderful, amazing human beings who love and care for their animals, of which are resilient and happy even though they are paralyzed. It’s awesome to see.”

Veterinarian T-Na Tran applies acupuncture to Scitzy at the Animal Wellness Center of OC.
(Susan Hoffman)

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