Wake-Up Calls That Turned Conventional Veterinarians into Holistic Healers

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Victoria Farthing is a holistic veterinarian practicing in Stafford, Virginia. Her wake-up call was her sciatica condition, which ultimately showed her that her own body, and her animal patients, are her teachers
  • Dr. Marlice Vonck, originally from the Netherlands, realized early in her veterinary career that Western medicine didn’t give her all the tools she needed to heal her patients
  • Dr. Jodie Gruenstern practiced conventional veterinary medicine for the first 10 years of her career, but 15 years ago a little dog with liver failure was her wake-up call, and she has been adding tools to her holistic healing toolbox ever since

By Dr. Becker

I’m at the AHVMA conference today, chatting with holistic veterinarians as part of my Highlighting the Healer interview series.

Dr. Victoria Farthing

My first guest today is Dr. Victoria Farthing. Dr. Farthing is from Stafford, Virginia and has been a veterinarian since 1977. She graduated from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine and practiced strictly conventional medicine until the late 1990s, when she developed debilitating episodes of sciatica. The sciatica was one of Dr. Farthing’s wake-up calls, from which she learned that her own body and her animal patients are here to teach her.

Dr. Farthing first explored chiropractic, received the necessary training, and began using it with her patients. They responded so well that she decided to learn acupuncture, and then herbal medicine, and she continues to add to her veterinary toolbox even today. As she puts it, “I got over the fact that I would never be an expert”… because all of us who practice holistic and integrative medicine are lifelong learners.

This is a fundamental difference between holistic and traditional veterinarians. In conventional medicine, most practitioners reach a certain point in their careers when they think, “Okay, I’m now officially an expert in [fill in the blank].”

The beauty of integrative veterinary medicine is those of us who practice it are perpetual students, which means we’re perpetually improving. It’s wonderful, but it’s a perspective that can take some getting used to. It’s a very different approach to practicing medicine compared to the traditional approach. And as Dr. Farthing points out, there are so many masters to learn from – so many pioneers in the various fields of complementary and alternative medicine.

When she began practicing holistic techniques, Dr. Farthing made a conscious effort to bring her spiritual life into her practice, because she felt her connection to her animal patients was a spiritual experience. Gradually, as she watched the interaction between animals and their owners, she saw opportunities to work with whole families.

Many People Learn About Holistic Medicine by Searching Out Treatments for Their Pets

Fortunately, when Dr. Farthing began branching out beyond conventional veterinary medicine, she was already running her own small practice on her family’s farm in the suburbs of Virginia. So while she didn’t have practice colleagues looking at her curiously as she began delving into alternative modalities, many of her clients noticed the changes she was making and wondered what she was doing.

Everything worked out, however, because “The coolest part was that the right cases and the right animals kept showing up, needing what I had just learned,” according to Dr. Farthing. Those patients were there to teach her how to do what she needed to do, and soon, her clients’ minds began to open to the possibilities.

Dr. Farthing tells the story of a wonderful yellow Labrador Retriever with cancer of the paw. His owners had searched high and low for answers and had agreed to every procedure conventional medicine could offer. Then they heard about acupuncture and how it might help their dog, so Dr. Farthing did acupuncture on the Lab once a week for quite some time. She also put him on some herbal remedies.

The Lab’s owners were complete newcomers to holistic techniques, but their desire to improve their dog’s health was the driving force for them. After the dog passed, Dr. Farthing happened to run into his owners at a human acupuncturist! The situation sort of came full circle.

Gradually, people are becoming more aware of the healing ability of alternative modalities, both for specific health issues and for a general improved feeling of well-being. It’s all about healthy pets, healthy people, and a healthy planet.

Attending an AHVMA Conference Means ‘You’re Going to Learn Something Just by Walking Down the Hallway’

Dr. Farthing enjoys coming to the AHVMA conferences each year because she loves being in the company of so many like-minded folks. As she puts it, “You’re going to learn something just by walking down the hallway.”

She was especially excited to attend this year’s lectures by Jeffrey Yuen, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) master. She’s very interested in his approach to aromatherapy and using plants as a way to heal in that form. She says Yuen “takes it to a new level.”

Dr. Farthing currently uses essential oils in her practice, but as with all things, she’s hoping to achieve a higher level of knowledge about them here at the conference, and incorporate them into her use of acupuncture as well.

I was also very inspired by Jeffrey Yuen’s lectures, and like Dr. Farthing, I’m heading home to continue learning, and to try out some things I learned here. The AHVMA conferences are a way to meet new teachers and learn new information in this sort of constant unfolding of knowledge.

Dr. Farthing also mentioned that in a nutrition lecture we both attended on raw and species-appropriate diets, the questions from the audience were impressive. As she points out, “People are really learning what questions to ask of nutrition companies,” which is extremely exciting and encouraging.

Dr. Marlice Vonck

My second guest today is Dr. Marlice Vonck, who is originally from the Netherlands. Dr. Vonck says she came to the US “to pursue my holistic veterinary dream,” although she didn’t quite realize it at the time.

Dr. Vonck studied veterinary medicine first in the Netherlands, and then went on to do an internship in conventional large animal medicine at a Virginia university. It wasn’t long before she realized she wasn’t completely comfortable with her work treating animals. She felt as if she and her colleagues weren’t really healing them.

Dr. Vonck also had some intense experiences attempting to help her ill parents. She had an innate need to find natural cures for them, and that’s when she became very interested in natural remedies. Her first introduction to holistic modalities was with Tuina, which is the massage branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

She was using Tuina for her own stress-related health issues, and it occurred to her that she wanted to start using it with her animal patients. She discovered she’d have to learn acupuncture first, which she didn’t even know existed at that time. But she began studying acupuncture, and then moved on to herbal medicine, homeopathy, energy work, and other holistic modalities.

Healing Through Intention

Dr. Vonck was working for a university, but she ultimately decided to leave that job to start practicing holistic veterinary medicine, and she hasn’t looked back. “It just has been the most amazing thing ever,” she says. “I just feel like this is truly me. I can truly do what I’m passionate about. It does not feel like work!”

Dr. Vonck gives her patients lots of time and intention, because she feels much of what she does is based on intention. She realizes she’s very new in her practice of holistic medicine and is still learning different modalities, but “by giving true intention and trying to promote healing from the inside,” she gets the best results she could ever hope for.

Like Dr. Farthing, Dr. Vonck is extremely passionate about healing the owner as well as the animal. She’s actually studying a model that will allow her to treat both. She received a Health Coach certification and has begun working with people as well as animals. As she explains it, “A health coach is someone who helps you to be healthier and happier.” She feels she’s a health coach for animals, as well.

Like many holistic practitioners, Dr. Vonck has noticed that many people will pull out all the stops to provide holistic care for their pets, but they ignore their own health. Pets, especially dogs, take on the energy of their owners, including their illnesses. She says often she can determine an owner’s health issues by examining their dog. She tries to help the owner see the light at the same time she’s treating the pet.

Empowering Pet Guardians to Take Charge

Dr. Vonck’s ultimate goal is to return responsibility for both the owner’s and the animal’s health to the owner, rather than remain in the position of “health authority” for them. She wants to empower pet owners to take charge of their own health and the health of their animals so they can make informed decisions.

That’s where her coaching comes in. She provides them with resources and also refers them to other healthcare providers as needed, because she feels we and our pets are all better served by a having team of healthcare providers, for example, a doctor, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and a health coach.

Dr. Vonck feels that practicing holistic medicine isn’t just about doing acupuncture or dispensing herbs, it’s about treating the inner environment of the animal and the person, as well as the outer environment. “We’re all living in this big energy soup; you can’t separate that,” she says.

Dr. Jodie Gruenstern

My final guest today is Dr. Jodie Gruenstern, a holistic veterinarian who practices in tiny Muskego, Wisconsin. Dr. Gruenstern, like many holistic vets, practiced conventional medicine for the first 10 years or so of her career. Then she read a book by Dr. Richard Pitcairn, and cried all the way through it, empathizing with him about the cases he wished he could go back and handle differently.

She realized that as holistic practitioners, we have so many more tools in our veterinary toolboxes than conventional medicine offers. And the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know. “Every year, I come here [to the AHVMA conference] and I get really overwhelmed, almost to the point of tears, because I can’t learn the new things fast enough and retain them as well as I would like,” says Dr. Gruenstern.

A Little Dog with Liver Failure Delivers a Wake-up Call

One of Dr. Gruenstern’s wake-up calls came by way of the owner of a dog with liver failure. The little dog was jaundiced and didn’t have enough energy to even stand. Dr. Gruenstern told the dog’s owner that at a minimum her pet needed to be hospitalized and given intravenous (IV) fluid therapy, but that probably the most humane thing to do would be to perform euthanasia.

The client refused and took her dog home. Dr. Gruenstern was appalled because she felt the animal was doomed to die a miserable death. But a year later, in came the client with her dog for his annual wellness exam. That’s when Dr. Gruenstern says she learned the value of home-prepared meals, lots of TLC, and goldenseal. That was about 15 years ago.

At the time, Dr. Gruenstern was working in a conventional veterinary clinic, but soon after she set up her own solo integrative practice. She attended a Western herbal seminar by master herbalist Greg Tilford, author of Herbs for Pets: The Natural Way to Enhance Your Pet’s Life. She also traveled to Massachusetts to learn from Dr. Susan Wynn and Dr. Steve Marsden, who introduced her to Chinese herbs.

Next, around 2008, she received her acupuncture certification at the Chi Institute from Dr. Xie, who introduced her to the concept of damp heat. There she learned that antibiotics clear the heat, but not the damp, and it was an “Aha moment” for her, because she realized that’s why urinary tract infections always seem to recur.

Dr. Gruenstern also attended one of my seminars on raw diets for pets. She recalled that I gave her a picture of the inside of a cat’s mouth to emphasize the fact that cats are designed by nature to be carnivores. She’s now passionate about raw feeding.

Dr. Gruenstern feels that her clients have evolved with her at her practice in Muskego, which is a very small and conservative community. In fact, she received the 2013 Muskego Business of the Year award! She says she applauds her clients for grasping the whole concept of integrative veterinary care. She thinks it’s rather amazing for such a small town to embrace holistic techniques.

Many Thanks to Today’s Inspirational Healers!

I want to sincerely thank to Dr. Victoria Farthing, Dr. Marlice Vonck, and Dr. Jodie Gruenstern for chatting with me today about their passion for holistic and integrative veterinary medicine and their dedication to animal wellness.