“You have a lot of inflammation coming from the food at the raw ingredient level. So know your ingredients; know your sourcing.”
Dr. Teri Sue Wright DVM, Owner of Balance Veterinary Care
Have you ever observed your cat on a day that she did not seem herself, noticed your dog acting “out of character,” or watched the behavior of a rescue animal that had been neglected, abandoned, or mistreated? For a holistic practitioner of veterinary medicine, this sociobehavioral information can be as important as the fleas, a rash, a limp, or digestive problems that so clearly indicate a trip to the pet doctor is in order.
Treating pets through an holistic approach begins with observing the overall health of the animal. Holistic animal care takes into account the physical symptoms of pet ailments in addition to mental, emotional, environmental, and nutritional factors. By looking at the causes of disease, holistic vets identify the root of a pet’s suffering in order to choose the gentlest, most effective, and least invasive curative measures.
The goal of holistic care is to return an animal to a healthy state through careful selection of conventional and alternative therapies. Conventional approaches may, when necessary, include lab tests, prescription drugs, and surgery. Some of the alternative, or complementary, approaches available to animals will be familiar to pet owners who have sought out holistic or naturopathic healthcare practitioners for their own wellness needs. Holistic treatment modalities may include the use of specialized diets, herbs and nutritional supplements, acupuncture, homeopathy, aromatherapy, massage, and orthopedic manipulation.
As in the case of human health and wellness, a balanced diet is an important part of holistic pet care. This can be more complicated than it might seem. Pet food can advertise that it is “complete” or “balanced” on the packaging, but in reality, even if it has met the nutritional standards of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the food is not guaranteed to be balanced as necessary to meet your pet’s nutritional needs.
The following interview with doctor of veterinary medicine, Teri Sue Wright, sheds some light on the field of holistic veterinary practice, how she came to the practice, and what her main approach is in the care of animals.
An Interview with Teri Sue Wright, DVM: Owner of Balance Veterinary Care
Dr. Teri Sue Wright is a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) and owner of Balance Veterinary Care, in Eugene, Oregon. In addition to her career in holistic veterinary care, Dr. Wright founded a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation organization in South Carolina and participated in three-day eventing as an equestrian in her youth. A single mother of two, Dr. Wright volunteers for RideAble in her free time. She is a graduate of the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University.
[The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
How did holistic veterinary care become your calling?
I was working in a mainstream clinic and it was very difficult. I felt like I didn’t understand how wellness worked because the animals didn’t really seem to be getting well. I was always frustrated in vet school, and I didn’t realize until after the fact that I was frustrated because we didn’t really ever discuss what “well” was. We only discussed what disease was and how to treat it. So, I didn’t feel like I had a good baseline. I was always searching for that.
I began to have children after I graduated and worked in clinics for five years. My first child has special needs, and when I didn’t understand why he had special needs, I started doing research and realized that diet was key. I always knew that, but I didn’t understand nutrition enough to know exactly why. So, once I started unraveling that, it became very clear that mainstream medicine wasn’t the right path. Actually, I don’t think there was ever a moment that I was like, “Mainstream medicine is not for me, I need to do this.” It was more like, “What can I do right now to deal with my present situation?”
My special needs son, at the time I didn’t know, was crying six to ten hours a day, and I was losing childcare providers. I was working in clinics, six to eight hours a day, three days a week. I went back part-time, and I slowly had to work less and less. I knew that I had to understand what was going on with my son, but I didn’t even know how to do that.
I was taking some energy classes to learn about mobility through movement. These are physical therapy-type classes where you move the body in certain ways and there’s an unwinding that happens that can release restrictions and stop pain.
There are physical therapists in town that provide this movement, and I was working with the clinicians. I asked one of the teachers about my kid, and she said, “You need to talk to this person in the class.” So, I had an hour phone consultation with that person and she said, “You need to change his diet. You need to get him off all processed foods. You need to stop eating processed foods, and here’s the cookbook and here’s how you do it.” I was overwhelmed. It took me one year to learn how to do that, and it totally transformed my veterinary work at that time.
What are the most common ailments that you treat in animals?
It ranges from obesity to skin problems to malaise to not feeling well and not really knowing why. It includes endocrine disorders, Cushing’s, and thyroid issues. Those are my favorite; those were the ones that I saw today.
There are also generalized inflammatory conditions characterized as arthritis or periodontal disease, like plaque and tartar on the teeth, gum disease, ear infections, and skin infections. Those are allergies or dermatitis! They’re all different facets of inflammation!
So, the majority of my practice is diet. Because by feeding an anti-inflammatory diet, we start healing at the most fundamental level, which is at the gut. From there, all the inflammatory conditions become lessened significantly.
It’s so interesting, the parallels to human wellness.
Right?! Yes, absolutely.
What does holistic treatment for animals with such ailments entail? You said starting with healing the gut, and then working with nutritional therapies, or just the basic diet, the whole foods?
The diet. The whole food diet. We do a lot of raw or cooked/raw diets. I don’t recommend kibble or canned. But a lot of owners have restraints on finances or time. People are in different places to accept my recommendations, so we just start where they feel most comfortable and work from there.
We can incorporate all kinds of different things into the diet. We can use concentrated nutrients or nutritional supplements on top of the food to focus on specific disease conditions that then provide more of a balance.
I was reading about this possible connection between grain-free pet food and heart disease in dogs. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that “grain-free” has become the new catch-phrase, that everybody wants to create a grain-free food now. So every single company that makes dog food needs to make a grain-free food. They just kind of wing it, and it’s hard because you’re still getting inflammatory ingredients, even with grain-free food.
The quality of the raw ingredients going into the food is everything. Most companies use AAFCO feeding guidelines, and they can buy quantities of supplements that you add to base ingredients that you can source from anywhere. They’re anything from parts of animals that contain sawdust, beaks, and feathers—all kinds of things—all the way to prime rib. Human grade meat sometimes isn’t even any better. If you think of centralized animal feeding operations, they have mass-produced meats, and they’re not necessarily more nutritious than grain.
You have a lot of inflammation coming from the food at the raw ingredient level. So know your ingredients; know your sourcing.
It’s a little bit even beyond label-reading, knowing where those ingredients are coming from.
Right. I give it a once-over [and examine] what the company stands for. What is their quality? What is their bottom-line? I would say that for 95 percent of the companies, their bottom line is the most important—how much money can they make. But, there are a lot of companies out there that work really hard to source higher quality ingredients and make a better quality food. But you’re not going to find those in the big box stores.
Where do you find those brands?
A higher-end, smaller pet store, for sure. The big box stores are where you’re going to get the mass-produced, grain-free products that are probably going to be more problematic.
Is there a label for pet food that can indicate a quality or safety standard? Similar to USDA organic or non-GMO?
I wouldn’t say that there’s a label to indicate that it’s “safe” because everybody wants that label. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make you believe that that food is the best, the safest, and the most balanced. And take organic food. There is plenty of organic corn and soy. Is that really what you want? You can mass-produce organic.
I prefer local and farm-raised, or I just talk to the company and say, “Where are you sourcing from and why?” That’s why I don’t really go with kibble-based foods or canned foods because they can put anything into it and they can sell it.
So is your recommendation for pet-owners to prepare their own raw or cooked foods?
That’s possible. It’s hard to do and then you have to balance it. I do have a lot of owners who will add to a balanced diet. I typically go with the commercial raw diets. There’s one in particular that I’m super fond of because at the fundamental level, they produce the highest quality food from the highest quality raw ingredients that go into it. The animals are raised humanely on small, family farms, and then the food is processed in a way that doesn’t pasteurize it or create any heat or freezing byproducts that denature proteins. Actually, their processing method enhances the nutrients of the food.
What advice do you have for pet owners regarding preventive medicine and maintenance of the overall health of their animals?
Well, it’s food-driven. Be smart how much preventative medicine you want to give your pet that will ensure that they stay healthy. I know that a dog fed properly will have a natural, healthy immune system that is resistant to fleas and disease, relatively speaking.
Diet really is the key, and finding a vet that you can work with that you trust, that knows a lot more than just what they were taught in vet school.
What resources would you recommend for people interested in learning more about holistic veterinary medicine?
I feel like it’s all in the heart, and we all find our path based on where we are. I feel like if every person works to make themselves a better person nutritionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally, then they just sort of find their own path, and they meet all of the people that they need to meet—whether it’s a Western medicine vet or a holistic vet. We’re all on our own path. Stick to your path. It’s not really a one size fits all kind of thing.
Is there any advice you would give someone thinking about entering this field?
I think that you have to find the thing that resonates with you. If what someone is saying makes sense to you, then go with it. Ask lots of questions, and don’t take someone’s word. I hear all the time, “It is this way. You have to use this product, otherwise you’re going to have this problem.” That’s fear-based. I shy away from that approach and I go towards everything that’s proactive and supportive of life. I feel like ultimately life can handle itself and we’re given everything we need; it’s just a matter of supporting that.
I would recommend to someone going into the field to try to find a mentor and do a lot of research. I think that leads you down different roads to meet the right people and to go down a particular path that’s interesting to you. I’d say follow your heart! That’s my motto: follow your heart.
When you follow your heart and you’re true to yourself, the resources, the people, and the opportunities come into your field.
That’s right. Everything kind of lines up that way.