Bucking Tradition: Holistic Vets in the Woods, on the Farm, and at Your Front Door

Story at-a-glance -

  • Alex Waroff is a third-year veterinary student at Washington State University with a passion for wildlife conservation. He is drawn to holistic medicine for its overall themes of balance and unity
  • Dr. Colleen Smith is a holistic and integrative veterinarian practicing in a “very, very conventional” area of the US. Her young practice is thriving, and she’s living her dream of providing holistic and alternative therapies to a growing list of patients
  • Dr. Armaiti May is a holistic house call veterinarian in the West Los Angeles area. She’s providing an invaluable service for older and anxious pets and other animals for whom vet visits are extremely stressful

By Dr. Becker

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

Alex Waroff

My first guest today is Alex Waroff. Alex is a third-year veterinary student at Washington State University who is interested in holistic medicine not only as a veterinary career, but also for its overall themes of balance and unity. Alex has completed studies at the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, and is currently working on his acupuncture accreditation.

Alex's initial interest in veterinary school evolved from his interest in wildlife conservation. As he puts it, "I'm dealing with the human animal and the human-environment interface." His ultimate goal is to create a non-profit and call it Waroff Global Conservation.

Alex is currently studying grizzly bears at the Washington State University Bear Center to help show the public, vividly and in detail, the ways in which we are throwing the Earth out of balance. Alex feels the underlying themes of holistic medicine can be applied to his conservation efforts.

A Love of Wildlife and Science

Alex grew up in rural Oregon, and he remembers that he and his brother used to walk around the woods and observe the wildlife they encountered. His mother, a huge animal lover, influenced his career choice, along with his own love of science. Given his background and personal passion for science, veterinary medicine seemed a natural choice.

As an undergraduate student Alex was just hanging out with friends one day when he had an "aha" moment and connected with the idea that "we're all part of a bigger system, and infinity is real."

After completing his undergraduate studies Alex was accepted into veterinary school, but he wasn't sure exactly what path to follow. He knew he wanted to be a wildlife conservationist, but he wasn't sure he needed to be a veterinarian to do that work. He sought advice from veterinarians, and ultimately received an internship as a carnivore keeper at Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon.

There he worked with the zoo's vet, and soon realized that yes, he did want to be a veterinarian. He also realized that while he enjoys treating individual patients and helping their owners, he has tremendous passion for the animals living in environments like Wildlife Safari.

WSU Offers Alex a Wonderful Support System for His Chosen Career

Like Alex, I'm also passionate about wildlife. My undergraduate degree was in Wildlife Management and International Resource Management. However, most vet schools offer no curriculum for wildlife medicine. Some schools may offer wildlife rehabilitation opportunities, because the fact is, it's nearly impossible to make a living as a veterinarian who solely treats wildlife in private practice. So what people like Alex must do is get a vet school degree and then turn their focus to, for example, wildlife population dynamics or epidemiology.

Fortunately, Alex has a great support system of professors at Washington State, including those at the Bear Center. The amazing Dr. Mustaq Memon is also mentoring him. Dr. Memon has helped Alex in the areas of both conventional and holistic veterinary medicine. Dr. Memon has also been instrumental in helping Alex learn about applying integrative medicine principles to wildlife conservation.

Alex is an inspiration because he's a young person who is interested in global environmental and wildlife issues. I have no doubt this is a young man who will leave the world a better place!

Dr. Colleen Smith

My next guest today is Dr. Colleen Smith, owner of the Chattanooga Holistic Animal Institute in Tennessee. Dr. Smith's holistic practice has been open for two and a half years. Prior to that, she was a conventional veterinarian trying to practice integrative medicine, without much success.

The other veterinarians at the practice Dr. Smith worked for were not receptive to her desire to move in the direction of integrative medicine, so she decided to start her own practice and focus on holistic and alternative modalities.

Retired Thoroughbred Delivers a Wake-up Call

Dr. Smith attended the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Brunswick Township, New Jersey, which worked well for her as an older student. But her introduction to acupuncture actually occurred 20 years before she enrolled at Ross University.

At the time, she was a technician at a veterinary school and had to attend a weekend acupuncture seminar. As she sat in the seminar, she thought, "This is baloney. I don't know what they're talking about. I don't understand the words they're using."

Part of the seminar involved performing acupuncture on a horse. By the time Dr. Smith saw the horse, he was running all over the place – very energetic. She asked the other attendees what they'd given the animal, and their response was "acupuncture." Dr. Smith didn't understand. She said, "No, no, no! I mean what drug did you give him?" The response was, "It was just acupuncture." That was her eureka moment.

The horse was a 25-year-old retired thoroughbred with horrible ringbone, which is osteoarthritis of the pastern joint (in the foot) that causes swelling and lameness. The horse had been unable to do anything but stand for six months, and here he was running around the paddock. In that moment, Dr. Smith became convinced that acupuncture worked. She saw it with her own eyes – no placebo effect, no harsh chemicals onboard. So right out of veterinary school, she started practicing integrative medicine.

Dr. Smith received her acupuncture training immediately after graduating from veterinary school. She worked side-by-side with an acupuncturist, then trained at the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS).

Practicing Holistic Medicine in Conventional Chattanooga

Dr. Smith loves her new practice. She says, "I'm happy to go to work every day." She practices in a location she describes as very, very conventional. As a result, she still offers conventional veterinary treatments such as vaccines, surgeries, and x-rays. But she is also following her dream by performing acupuncture, chiropractic, some homeopathy, Chinese herbs, laser therapy, and stem cell treatments. She does some farm calls, but she's getting so busy with small animals that the farm calls are starting to drop off.

Dr. Smith attended an essential oils for pets lecture here at the AHVMA conference, and she absolutely loved it. She also attended a leech therapy seminar and is thinking she may be able to apply what she learned to oral hematomas in her practice because she sees a lot of them.

I'm excited for Dr. Smith and her new and growing practice. She's serving an area that has been exposed only to traditional veterinary medicine, and she's having great success!

Dr. Armaiti May

My final guest today is Dr. Armaiti May. Dr. May is a small animal veterinarian in Los Angeles who has a house call practice that provides exams, blood work, urinalysis, acupuncture, and several other treatments. She also has access to a veterinary clinic in the West Los Angeles area where she can do x-rays and surgeries as necessary. Dr. May incorporates Chinese herbs and some Western veterinary medications in an integrative approach to treating her patients.

Dr. May attended the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated in 2005. She knew from a young age she wanted to be a veterinarian because she loves animals. "I know that they're defenseless and I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless," she says.

Dr. May has been a practicing vegan for 15 years because her respect for animals doesn't allow her to eat them, and because of the mistreatment they endure in factory farming operations. She also believes veganism is a healthier and environmentally friendly way to live.

Training in Holistic Therapies While Building a Practice

Dr. May had an interest in holistic medicine early in life. As a veterinary student, the only courses offered at UC Davis were introductory courses on holistic medicine. She took them, but they only provided a brief snapshot into a variety of modalities, and certainly didn't provide the kind of training that would give new vets the confidence to practice it out in the real world.

After she'd been practicing for about two years at a 24-hour veterinary hospital, Dr. May decided to explore holistic therapies. She took the Chi Institute veterinary acupuncture course. She also had her own health issues that were helped by acupuncture and herbs after allopathic treatments failed her, which provided additional inspiration.

Once she started using holistic therapies in her practice, she found them to be an excellent adjunct and very helpful in cases in which Western medications either didn't work or had adverse side effects.

When Dr. May started up her house call service over seven years ago, she did quite a bit of relief veterinary work to pay the bills as she built up her practice. During that period, she didn't get to perform acupuncture as much as she would have liked. But occasionally she was also able to shadow more experienced acupuncturists, and in addition, she performed acupuncture during certain house calls when clients were open to it.

Fortunately, some of her relief work also took her to a rehab facility for dogs that offered a variety of modalities, including acupuncture, so she was able to practice it there as well.

Holistic House Calls Are an Invaluable Resource for Pet Guardians

Dr. May is providing an invaluable service doing house calls. Many pets, especially cats, are very stressed by visits to the vet. So are older and anxious animals. House calls can prove invaluable for these pets.

Dr. May says it's a great feeling to be able to offer individualized care to her patients without the pressure to adhere to 15-minute appointment slots or other confining schedules. She's able to structure her own day and provide a much more peaceful experience for the pet and his or her guardian.

Dr. May practices within about a 10- to 15-mile radius around West Los Angeles, including Venice, Marina Del Ray, Mar Vista, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and Malibu.

I think West Los Angeles is lucky to have Dr. May as a house call integrative veterinarian. What an awesome resource!

Many Thanks to Today's Inspirational Healers!

I want to sincerely thank Alex Waroff, Dr. Colleen Smith, and Dr. Armaiti May for chatting with me today about their passion for animals and the Earth, and their dedication to bringing holistic and integrative veterinary medicine to their patients.