Dr. Sue Swanson, a University of Minnesota graduate and practicing veterinarian for 14 years, can testify to the overwhelming value and success of holistic therapies in treating her clients, cats who suffer from the full range of ailments that affect felines. She spoke with The EDGE in her office at the Cat Care Clinic in Mahtomedi, Minn., about her choice to offer holistic therapies and on the future of such care in veterinary medicine.
What inspired you to begin offering holistic therapies to cats?
Dr. Sue Swanson: I started using holistics on myself probably about eight to 10 years ago. Mostly herbs. I’m a gardener, so it was a natural transition to begin using them on myself.
I went to a conference about six or seven years ago where I heard several different holistic healers talking about everything from acupuncture to herbs. And then it dawned on me, “Duh, I could be using this on the animals, too!” But then it was like going back to school, because each species handles things differently. Cats don’t handle salycilates. Salycilates are found in things like willow bark. It’s what they make aspirin from. So anything with salycilates, like birch, feverfew and willow bark, cannot be given to cats.
So I had to go back and learn this. I overwhelmed myself initially, because there are so many holistic modalities, so I chose just a few things. At the time, I was taking T’ai chi, so the Chinese aspect of some of this interested me. I got into Western herbs, Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Those are the main things I use. I also do work with nutrition and flower essences now, and I’ve added Cranio-sacral therapy and Reiki, which I use on occasion.
And now my partner is a chiropractor, so I am now learning what to look for upon examination so I can make a referral.
Was there much information on holistic care when you were in vet school?
Swanson: No. When I was in vet school, Dr. Will Winters was the main holistic vet in this area. He came to talk to us for one hour during one day. And that actually turned me off to holistics for a long time, because he said you have to forget everything you learned in school and that there was no such thing as germs. That information was too radical for me then. So what actually got me back into them was by using them on myself. I knew they worked. I still do that to this day. I tend to use things on myself first before I give them to the animals. I want to make sure it is safe and does what it is supposed to do.
Are holistic trends being introduced now in vet schools?
Swanson: Yes. The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine about two or three months ago announced that it now has a Division of Integrative Medicine. So the University’s vet school is upgrading. I believe they’ve hired a doctor from China to do acupuncture and Chinese herbs.
The university is just starting to get into holistics more because people are requesting it. What I’ve tried to do in the past two years is to be available myself as a referral for other veterinarians for the holistics. So someone would still see their regular vet but would come to see me for a holistic consultation once they have a diagnosis. And then I send them back to their regular vet for their routine care, with suggestions. Sometimes I will make such recommendations as no vaccinations or special diets. More vets seem to be open to that, and I am getting more and more referrals. I’ve gotten a few cases even from the U.
Let’s talk about vaccinations. Do you believe pets overall are given too many vaccinations?
Swanson: Most veterinarians are trained to do that, and in part I think it goes back to the pharmaceutical companies and to the schools that pets need vaccinations every year. Unfortunately, if you follow the dollar, that is the bread-and-butter and mainstay for a lot of veterinarians.
By cutting back vaccinations to every three years, that would seemingly cut out a significant portion of their income, and they’re afraid to do that. I did that several years ago and it didn’t impact my bottom line at all. It’s just a matter of taking that first step and going through with it. Even the university now is starting to recommend from one to three years for vaccines, so they’re waffling on that, but they’re starting to get braver and recommend every three years based on the cat’s exposure — outdoor cats probably every year, versus indoor cats every three years.
I’ve gotten to the point, too, where if cats have bad reactions to vaccinations, I’ll not recommend that specific vaccine. Or if I see cats with chronic, inflammatory processes, such as inflammatory bowel disease, cystitis, thyroid problems, I’ll recommend that they not get vaccinations. What I’ve been finding in a lot of these cases when I ask specifically about their history is that these problems start a month or so after vaccination or they have an aggravation of the disease process within weeks after getting a vaccination.
I had a classic case yesterday. The cat has symptoms of a mild upper respiratory infection, and every time it gets vaccinated, it gets worse. I’m pretty sure that cat is a chronic carrier of an upper respiratory problem. It may have even started from the vaccine. There’s no way to prove that, but every time it gets a distemper vaccine, its symptoms get worse for a significant length of time. So in that case, I say don’t bother with the vaccine because you’re doing more harm than good.
For most individuals, I recommend an initial series of just two; a lot of vets give three. I give a series of two shots initially, a month apart. They get a booster in a year and then every three years after that. Rabies is the only exception to that. The first one lasts for a year, after that it’s every three years. And even then, for cats over 12 to 15 years of age, especially if they have significant health problems like kidney disease that are associated with old age, we don’t stress them with vaccines after a certain age.
So I have been getting more and more conservative with vaccines, just because I find they stay healthier. And that leads me to believe that we’re doing a lot more harm than good with some of these vaccines.
Why should someone consider holistic care for his or her pet? What are the benefits of it?
Swanson: Holistic care looks at the whole animal, and it looks at healing the body, not just suppressing symptoms. We look at the whole animal: the emotional state, the physical state, the environment that it is in and the diet. We tend to look at the whole picture.
Western medicine doesn’t think some of these things have anything to do with the problem. Look at lawn chemicals. Even the University acknowledged in a study it did many years ago that such chemicals can cause lymphoma and other types of cancers in dogs, as well as in humans through exposure to those chemicals. So they’re starting to recognize it to some degree, but it’s not at the forefront of their thinking. It’s kind of a last second, “Well, maybe it was significant.”
I think holistics looks at a bigger picture for one thing, but I also think it is involved in helping the body to heal itself. It’s a gentler medicine, not intended to just suppress symptoms. Sometimes there is a need to do both Western medicine and alternative therapies. For example, with cats with tumors I’ve been helping them with cesium, but a lot of time before the tumor gets smaller, it gets bigger, so I have to give them Prednisone. These tumors were in areas that were pressing on the Central Nervous System, causing headache and disorientation and those types of symptoms, so in that case the Prednisone did help, and it also helped significantly with appetite. So that’s a case where I feel I can use the best of both worlds in integrating the two.
There are times in which Western medicines are beneficial, but I use them much more conservatively now than before I started using the holistics. So I still use antibiotics, but it’s usually with acidophilus and things to help detox the system. So I think I can work with both systems together.
I have personal experience of your recent trials using cesium, a trace mineral, to reduce the pH in a cat’s body to make it difficult if not impossible for pre-cancerous or cancer cells to flourish. Are there any other new trends you have been looking at?
Swanson: It’s not so much new trends but old trends being rediscovered. I’ve been doing some study of holistic cancer therapies, and much of this research that I’m reading about was done back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The problem is, people who presented these ideas have been persecuted by the government, the Food and Drug Administration and other organizations, like the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association. That information has been suppressed and not disseminated due to fear of persecution by governmental agencies. That’s been the case in all of them that I’ve looked at, such as Essiac, an herbal formula that has been used since the 1920s and has helped thousands of people. A nurse in Canada, Rene Caisse, started using it, and she became too hunted in Canada so she even came down to the United States for a while.
There’s countless other examples — Laetrile, cesium, hydrazine sulfate — that have proved helpful. Hydrazine sulfate is a Western drug that is very good with restoring appetite. Cancer patients oftentimes don’t eat and lose a lot of weight. Hydrazine sulfate helps maintain the appetite, and it has a side-effect of tumor suppression in some cases. There again, this is a Western drug, but the FDA does not approve of it for that use.
I’m just starting to look into a lot of this information that hasn’t been released. It’s kind of a calling of mine right now to work more with cancer and some of the more grave cases that Western medicine cannot deal with.
Do you find that diseases you see in cats mirror what you see in people?
Swanson: It’s interesting because very often I’ll be examining an animal and say, “I think he has this problem…we’ll know when we get the blood tests,” and the owner will say, “Well, I’ve got the same problem.”
Animals are little mirrors that reflect a lot of what the owner has with issues, health wise or emotionally. I think it’s on many levels. Spiritually, I think these little guys are sent to us as teachers, and they reflect the lessons that we need to learn. And energetically, animals who live with owners who have a particular problem, such as a heart problem, will sit on the owner’s chest and pick up on that energy. As a consequence, sometimes I think they develop the same pathology by picking it up spiritually and energetically from the owner. I find that to be a pretty frequent occurrence. It’s too frequent to be a coincidence.
And in terms of diet, there is a lot of junk food out there for pets, just as there is for people.
Swanson: A big thing with holistic medicine, and one in which my views seem to be changing, is raw food diet. I used to be against them, because they can be dangerous when they’re not done in a correct manner. I can now help educate owners so they are doing it correctly, getting enough vitamins, minerals and nutrients with their diet. Also, using organic eggs helps to minimize the chance of getting something like salmonella, diseases they may pick up from unprocessed and uncooked foods.
But as far as dry food and processed kibble goes, unfortunately it’s a necessary evil in most cases, because most people don’t cook for themselves, much less cook for their animals. So what I try to do is direct people to the more natural foods without artificial preservatives and artificial ingredients, and don’t contain lower-quality ingredients like by-products. So I try to steer them in the right direction when it comes to diet.
I’m also finding that a lot of animals — cats and dogs — don’t digest and absorb the foods due to disease processes or older age. I use a lot of certain nutrients — vitamin C, vitamin E, lysine, and certain amino acids — to help different disease processes.
What would an owner look for in the case of a nutritional deficiency?
Swanson: They’re pretty subtle. Subtle changes in coat quality, in behavior, being less active, licking unusual things like the ground, your skin, metal objects. Licking or chewing unusual objects can be a sign of pica, which is mineral or vitamin deficiency. As a Western person, I might say, “Oh, that’s just a weird habit.” But in looking at some of these individuals, they have dry hair coats, or greasy hair coats, which can be a zinc deficiency. That’s where a general vitamin or mineral supplement really does help.
I really find a lot of differences between owners. A lot of them can give me a real detailed history, noticing that this has changed or the quality of that has changed or a subtle behavior change. It’s often not a gross disease process like vomiting or diarrhea. It can be that down the line, but what I’m hoping to do is pick it up at an earlier stage where it’s manifesting as subtle behavior changes or coat changes.
What have you noticed in terms of pet owners and the awareness they have of their pets?
Swanson: Since I graduated from school, two things have really stood out for me in terms of change. The pet has been elevated to a family member status, as opposed to just being a pet. That was starting to happen 15 years ago and it has continued. More and more people see their pet as a kid almost.
The other thing is the trend toward holistics. Granted, I tend to be drawing in those types of people, but in talking to colleagues they are getting more questions about holistics, whether it’s an herb or nutritional supplement or that type of thing. Overall, I have received more inquiries and there seems to be more awareness and understanding. When I say we should use this, this or this, people don’t flinch. They often say, “That’s great.” So I notice that the use and request for holistics has become more accepted by my clients — and by other veterinarians. When I first started, other veterinarians looked at me like, “She’s gone off the deep end.” Now, some of them are expressing a genuine interest, but they just don’t have the time or confidence to explore and get more knowledge about it.
What do you recommend for pet owners who want to explore holistic therapies? That they try things with their pets or just consult with you?
Swanson: Both. My knowledge is limited too and there’s always new information coming out. That’s why I have all these books on my shelves as a library and a reference for people to use, as well as for my own use. I do encourage people to read or to surf the net, which can be a good and bad source.
Is there anything we haven’t spoken about that you’d like to share about our pets and our care for them?
Swanson: Animals are not only little mirrors of us, but they’re sentinels, too. They will come down with diseases and problems with environment toxicities much earlier than we will. I’ve had several cases that stand out, whether it was bad water or it was a chemical or something in the environment that was a toxin that could be damaging to people, too, especially if there are kids involved.
I think it’s important for each of us to look at the big picture of the environment and the impact of some of the things we are doing to ourselves and the environment, with all the multiple chemicals, the paints, everything from the floor sealants to the furniture that outgases formaldehyde — and carpeting. We’re surrounded by toxic chemicals. The key is to become more aware of that, and to help make pet owners more aware of that. Animals are much more sensitive.
Dr. Sue Swanson can be reached at the Cat Care Clinic, 126 Hickory St., Mahtomedi, Minn. by calling (651) 429-4153.