National Pet Wellness Month – Expert Interview & Advocacy Guide

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When you see a small dog sporting a sweater to ward off the chill on its evening walk, how do you react? Do you say, “Awww” and give the pup a rub on the head? Or maybe you laugh good-naturedly and tell the owner what a good knitter they are. Or maybe you’re that guy. The eye roller.

Regardless of your reaction to pet wear, with the advent of pet grooming clinics, gourmet pet food, and even Halloween costumes, it has become clear that pets have risen to VIP status in American households. In fact, pets have been considered part of the family in the United States for over a century.

Considering how deeply bonded we are to our pets in this country, it’s surprising that the first wellness program for pets wasn’t launched until more recently, in 2002, when the National Research Council of the National Academies sponsored PetFit at Purdue University. A key feature of the program was weight management focusing on nutrition and exercise counseling. But what else is important to know about pet wellness?

In honor of National Pet Wellness Month this October, Dr. Rose DiLeva, VMD, graciously spoke with us on how to best care for our pets so that they live long and healthy lives.

Meet the Expert: Dr. Rose DiLeva, VMD, MS, CVCP, CVA

Rose DiLeva

Dr. Rose DiLeva is a holistic veterinarian and owner of the Animal Wellness Center in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and in addition to conventional medical treatment, Dr. DiLeva offers wellness visits and a variety of holistic treatment options for patients, including acupuncture, ozone therapy, traditional Chinese medicine, veterinary orthopedic manipulation (VOM), vitamin C infusions, holistic pain management, and laser therapy.

Dr. DiLeva also crafts all of the herbal tinctures used at the Animal Wellness Center herself and makes homemade pet food and treats as well. She has been practicing holistic veterinary medicine for over twenty-five years.

Holistic vs. Conventional Veterinary Care

One of the main differences between a holistic, or integrative, approach to animal care and a conventional one is that the former looks at the entire picture of an animal’s health profile. “We’re not only looking at a symptom—my dog or my cat has a cough. We’re looking at the environment around that animal. We’re looking at their diet. We’re looking at their emotional state, their mental state. Everything is involved, and that’s what makes it different,” Dr. DiLeva said.

That isn’t to say that an integrative veterinarian does not use or recommend a conventional treatment option when necessary. Rather, a holistic approach takes the path of least resistance, considering all of the aspects of an animal’s health, and of the available treatments that will have the greatest impact with the least harm.

Dr. DiLeva illustrated this by sharing a story of a canine patient that was brought in by its owner in a wagon because the dog was paralyzed from herniated discs. Other dachshunds, who are known to suffer from this condition, are often taken into surgery immediately if they come to a vet in such shape. She treated the dog with a combination of dry acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, and an herbal tincture for inflammation. Four months later, the owner sent her a video of the dachshund running up and down the beach.

Dr. DiLeva was quick to point out, however, that there are times when a conventional approach is without a doubt the correct course of action. For example, if a patient came in with a dog that had just been hit by a car, “My job would be to stabilize that patient and then get them to an orthopedic surgeon,” she said.

No matter the kind of veterinary medicine practiced, it’s vitally important to know your level of competence or, as Dr. DiLeva put it, incompetence. What this means is that a veterinary professional needs to be able to say, “I can’t help you any longer, but there may be somebody out there that can,” she said. And that goes for integrative and conventional vets alike. “It doesn’t mean you have to know what those things are,” she added.

But it takes a level of humility and a true dedication to the profession to embrace this mindset: “To me, it’s your job as a veterinarian. If you’re truly in it for the right reasons of helping and healing, then you should be open-minded to these other things. At least investigate a little bit to say, ‘You know what. I can’t help you with what I know, but maybe somebody else can.’”

How to Keep Your Pet Well

Wellness Exams

Similar to their human counterparts, pets should have a yearly physical exam. During this exam, the animal’s medical history will be reviewed, including past medical conditions and current issues, and bloodwork taken: blood count, super chemistry, thyroid level, and urinalysis.

For pets beyond seven years of age, Dr. DiLeva recommends wellness exams twice a year. “You want people to be proactive, rather than wait and see,” she said. Coming in more often can make a big difference in your pet’s quality of life and longevity.

Vaccinations

Dr. DiLeva also talks to pet owners about vaccinations, emphasizing the detriment that overvaccination can pose for pets, which is common due to the practice of yearly vaccinating animals across the board.

Offering blood titer testing is a way to ensure that your pet isn’t vaccinated unnecessarily. What this does is check to see if the animal still has titer, or antibodies, for the disease in question, which in the case of dogs would be distemper virus, adenovirus, and parvovirus. If antibodies are present, the pet still has protection and vaccination is not needed. Dr. DiLeva has had patients whose titer test showed antibodies for up to seven years.

Rabies, on the other hand, is, by law, a requirement, and absolutely necessary. But be sure to find a vet that offers a thimerosal-free rabies vaccination. Thimerosal is a heavy metal comprised of mostly mercury and a neurotoxin. “What amazed me years ago, when I realized that this vaccination even existed when it first came out, was the company that made it without the thimerosal also made the vaccine with the thimerosal. I was like, really?” Dr. DiLeva said. “Why would I give that to my dog if I have the option of not giving that to my dog?”

Matters of the Heart…and Bugs

While she does recommend that cats and dogs take a heartworm preventative, Dr. DiLeva is adamant about avoiding a class of flea and tick products called isoxazolines. Also neurotoxins, they can cause side effects like muscle tremors, ataxia (walking off balance), and seizures.

Dr. DiLeva pointed out a conflict of interest here as these products are sold by conventional veterinarians: “And then, some dog has a seizure…[and] most of the time they’ll say no, it was a coincidence. Well, let me tell you something. I’ve seen that coincidence, many, many, many, many, many times. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think it’s very real.” She has written an article on the topic, “Fleas and Ticks: Watch Out What You Buy,” and a blog post on natural options for repelling fleas and ticks, describing safe products and a simple home remedy made from steeping lemons in water.

Food is Medicine for Your Pet, Too

The most often overlooked key to your pet’s wellness, according to Dr. DiLeva? Diet.

At every initial visit, she speaks to her patients’ owners about their food. “Diet is extremely important,” she said. “It’s one of the most important things you can do for your pet. Food is medicine.”

As this is a challenge for many, if not most of us—eating according to what nourishes the body, rather than what the body craves—it can be equally challenging for pet owners to properly tend to their pet’s diets. Issues of time and money are legitimate concerns. But also, knowledge and information are significantly lacking in this area and a misunderstanding of what is normal. Dr. DiLeva explained:

These chronic conditions that some of these animals get, the arthritic, the degenerative joint disease, the chronic ear infections, the chronic indigestion or the intestinal problems, the vomiting, diarrhea. That all shouldn’t be happening. That is not normal…your cat shouldn’t vomit once a week. Just because it’s a hairball. No, it might be something else.

And that something else could very well be caused by the commercial pet food your pet is eating. These products are abundant with fillers (e.g., cornmeal, feathers, etc.) and carbohydrates. Cats, in particular, have no carbohydrate requirement in their diet but are often fed kibble as their main source of nourishment.

Kibble is not a good idea for our canine friends either. “You’re providing nourishment, [but] not with the best ingredients,” Dr. DiLeva explained. “Kibble is heated up three or four times to almost 400 degrees. So anything that had nutritional value…is destroyed or denatured.”

So what to do? If you are the owner of a 120-pound Great Dane, you may have a difficult time preparing home-cooked food for your pet. However, if time and resources allow—and you are not the owner of a massive Great Dane—try it! And if kibble can’t be avoided, supplement it with fresh foods.

But most importantly, become informed. Find out what you need to do. Dr. DiLeva recommends the book The Forever Dog for wonderful suggestions about diet and food:

It breaks down what you’re able to do, like, are you able to go 100 percent to a raw diet? Or do you have to give some kibble or some canned food, but you can add some broccoli, turkey, beef, asparagus, or spinach to your dog’s pet food? That will help as well because they’re getting fresh vitamins, minerals, and enzymes from the real food.

With regard to neglecting our pet’s nutritional needs, Dr. DiLeva leaves us with this, “You have an animal that will survive, but it will not thrive. And you will find over time that as that animal grows up and ages, it will get chronic conditions,” Dr. DiLeva explained. “So I would absolutely say diet is the most important thing.”

Resources for Pet Wellness

The Forever Dog: This NYT bestseller was written by Rodney Habib, founder of the nonprofit Paws for Change, and doctor of veterinary medicine Karen Shaw Becker. The Forever Dog presents new science on how to delay aging in dogs and allow them to live longer healthier lives. The book includes a prescription plan focused on diet and nutrition, movement, environmental exposures, and stress reduction.

American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA): Check out this page on the AVMA website devoted to pet care essentials. Dozens of articles can be found on topics including responsible pet ownership, preventive care, pet medications and prescriptions, and keeping your pet healthy and safe during holiday times and year-round, including when traveling (with or without your pet), and end-of-life care.

American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA): The organization for holistic veterinary professionals and allies, the AHVMA is committed to “elevating the veterinary profession through innovation, education, and advocacy of integrative medicine.”

The first meeting was held in 1982 and grew from a membership of 35 to close to 1,5000 today. In addition to holding an annual conference, the AHVMA publishes the Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, and its sister organization, the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation (AHVMF), funds research and education initiatives in complementary veterinary treatments for horses and livestock in addition to cats and dogs.

VetFinder – Find a Holistic Veterinarian: Looking for a holistic vet in your community? Look no further! The AHVMA has a user-friendly database with contact information and services of hundreds of vets across the country, organized by state.

Cevia Yellin (Writer)

Cevia Yellin is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon. She studied English and French literature as an undergraduate. After serving two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, she earned her master of arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cevia's travels and experiences working with students of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have contributed to her interest in the forces that shape identity. She grew up on the edge of Philadelphia, where her mom still lives in her childhood home.