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My Journey to Becoming a Holistic Veterinarian

Story at-a-glance -

  • This is the story of how I became a holistic veterinarian, wildlife rehabilitator, author and teacher
  • It all began when I was a toddler and thought some worms needed rescuing
  • Throughout my journey, it was often the animals I met who taught me what I needed to know to make them whole again

By Dr. Becker

At Age 3, I Saved My First Creature (Worms!)

My earliest memory of wanting to help another creature was (according to my mom) when I was about 3. We were living in Columbus, Ohio, while my dad was in graduate school. I was looking out the window during a very heavy rain, and I noticed worms all over the sidewalk. I felt an overwhelming need to save them, and I started to cry.

My mom, a beautiful soul, said "Okay, let's go get them." We found a bucket, stepped out into the pouring rain and collected every worm we could find on the sidewalk. We brought them inside and took care of them until the sun came out and we were able to put them back out in the grass.

To this day, I'm always on the lookout for wildlife needing to be saved. I'm forever grateful my mom and dad recognized where all this was headed while I was still very young. They insured I received the opportunities, experiences and education I needed to become not only a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, but ultimately a veterinarian as well.

I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for allowing me to bring virtually every animal imaginable through their front door. Of course, it had to fit through the front door, so no horses or cows, but virtually every other type of wounded creature came home with me. I would "doctor it up" to the best of my ability, and then set it free.

10 Years Later, I Was Volunteering at a Local Animal Shelter

When I was 13, I started volunteering at the Black Hawk Humane Society, now called the Cedar Bend Humane Society, in Waterloo, Iowa.

Dr Becker as Volunteer

My wonderful boss, Tom Colvin, took me under his wing and provided many learning opportunities that helped shaped who I am today. Tom took me on many animal cruelty cases he was investigating, and what I saw and learned on those visits prompted me to become a vegetarian.

He also enrolled me in the Iowa State veterinary school's euthanasia technician program, where I learned to perform humane euthanasia. This experience opened my eyes to the profound animal overpopulation problem we have in this country, and had a very deep impact on me. In June 2017, I made a visit back to where it all started:

Dr Becker

When I was 14, I began apprenticing for my Iowa state wildlife rehabilitation license with Linda Nebbe, Ph.D. By age 16, I was a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and to this day, wildlife rehabilitation is one of my great passions.

Around this time, I decided to become a wildlife biologist. My local conservation officer, Mike Bonser, suggested I attend the largest college of natural resources in the country, the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, where I did four years of undergrad work. During those four years, I had great experiences at the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo in Pueblo, Colorado, as well as a fantastic internship at the Berlin Zoo that afforded me the opportunity to understand just how critical environmental enrichment is.

Putting All My Passions Into Action

In vet school, I knew I wanted to practice integrative veterinary medicine, so I became a licensed animal acupuncturist in 1996 through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS). I graduated vet school in 1997, and took the professional course in veterinary homeopathy in1998.

I opened Natural Pet Animal Hospital in the Chicago area in 1999, which was the first veterinary practice in the midwest to offer proactive veterinary services. I wrote my first pet food cookbook in 2000 when I realized there were very few resources available for pet parents looking to create nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate dog and cat food recipes at home.

In 2002, I opened Covenant Wildlife Rehabilitation, which is a nonprofit rehabilitation center to treat endangered species in Illinois. Shortly thereafter, I opened Feathers Bird Clinic, which is an exotic animal practice designed to provide integrative care for species other than dogs and cats.

In 2011, I opened TheraPaw Rehabilitation and Pain Management Clinic because those services were also needed in my area. At that time, I also opened a hospice unit for dogs and cats.

What Sooty the Schnoodle Taught Me

My first memory of family pets when I was 2 or 3 years old was our dog, a deaf Dalmatian named Pepper. But the dog I grew up with was Sooty the Schnoodle, a Schnauzer-Poodle mix. We named him Sooty because his coat was the color of fireplace soot.

Dr Becker with Pet Dog
Dr Becker with Sooty

Sooty was a beautiful, fuzzy little bouncing ball who lived to be almost 19. He had a tremendous impact on my life for many reasons, but one of the most important lessons he taught me is that environment matters and food isn't everything. Sooty was fed Gravy Train for most of his life. Looking back, I ask myself how a dog with such a terrible diet lived to be 19.

What I realized is that other factors in the environment also help prolong life. For example, Sooty wasn't neutered till he was 13, so he had the benefit of sex hormones until he was a senior dog.

Sooty also didn't receive annual vaccinations because my parents didn't have the money. At the time we felt guilty because the veterinarian would call to remind us, and my mother would say, "I'm sorry, not this year." Maybe every five or six years, Sooty got a round of vaccines, but not every year.

It was the same with heartworm preventives. My parents could afford them some summers, but not every summer, so Sooty's chemical exposure was minimal. My parents also couldn't afford to make their lawn beautiful using chemical pesticides and herbicides, so Sooty wasn't exposed to environmental toxins.

Sooty also got tons of exercise. My mother is an avid walker and she would walk that dog 10 miles a day. So I know it was certainly not his diet that got Sooty to 19. But he lived a wholesome, active, natural life otherwise, and he helped me understand how all the different aspects of a pet's lifestyle impact longevity.

When Sooty was at the end of his life, we took him to our local veterinarian to be put to sleep. Tragically, the vet performed the worst euthanasia I have ever seen. Being in that room watching our beloved pet die the way he did had a profound impact on me.

I made a commitment in that moment to insure every single euthanasia I performed was a beautiful, calm, peaceful and pain-free experience. So the second momentous lesson Sooty taught me was the importance of helping pets die well. Most of the animals I've crossed paths with have taught me life lessons, and one of them was certainly my beloved Sooty.

My Personal Pets

I, like most veterinarians, tend to bring home every one-eyed, three-legged dog that gets dumped at my clinic. Throughout my career I've had as many as 28 pets at one time, but right now I'm down to the fewest number I've ever had. There's Lenny, a 5-year-old Dachshund. We think he's 5 because we found him at the Bourbonnais State Park.

Initially, we tried desperately to find his parents, but we soon realized he was probably dumped due to a behavioral issue. We called him Lenny Loincloth because he peed on everything, so he often had to wear a bellyband. He had no potty manners. He's really cute and really fun, but he certainly wasn't the most well-trained dog when we first brought him home!

I also have Ada, a 13-year-old Pit Bull who is very precious to me and is still going strong for a senior lady. And then there's Crosno, a 14-year-old-kitty who crossed my path and needed a home. Crosno came to me as a tiny, runny-nosed kitten with multiple upper respiratory infections.

And you know how the story goes. I fixed him up, fully intending to adopt him out once he was healthy. Of course, he ended up another of my foster failures, finding his forever home with me because I bonded with him and couldn't bear the thought of saying good-bye.

What I Learned From My Heart Dog, Gemini

Interestingly, my most memorable patient was actually my own dog. I was in my freshman year of vet school, still working at the humane society, and a Rottweiler came in. She had belonged to a gang member, and her neck had been fractured with a baseball bat in a gang fight.

She was left on the street and came into the shelter on one of those control rods animal control officers use. She was placed on the stray side of the shelter for seven days and then was scheduled to be euthanized (which would have been my job).

Something just clicked between that dog and I, and even when I think about her now, it's magical. I brought her home and named her Gemini. She's my all-time favorite patient because I had to treat her before I became a veterinarian (which is illegal, you cannot treat animals without a license, but I was broke, so I did).

In veterinary school, the major food companies give away free dog food in an attempt to buy you, to be honest, into selling their food when you graduate. Being a broke student, I fed my dog the cheap, rendered, very poor-quality "veterinary diet" that I got for free.

Sadly, it made Gemini very sick. She went into liver failure from ethoxyquin toxicosis. She was very near death, and people at the vet school were telling me to put her to sleep. Instead, I wanted to try to save my dog's life, and that's how Gemini taught me the power of fresh food. Of course, as a vegetarian, the thought of feeding her an all-meat diet was initially appalling. But we were headed into the weekend and I was desperate.

A veterinary internist at the school told me that if Gemini was going to eat anything at all (she was anorexic), being a carnivore, it would probably be raw meat. She suggested I try to find raw meat the dog would eat, and to plan to have her euthanized on Monday.

That was how I started down the path of saving my dog's life before I even had a veterinary degree. I put Gemini on a fresh, living, species-appropriate diet. I went to the library and researched how to treat acute liver disease, and I put her on curcumin and milk thistle. 

At that point she still had an IV port in, so I also gave her IV vitamin C. I spent the weekend desperately trying to save my dog's life and when Monday came, she was little bit better. She was still yellow from the liver failure but she was a little better.

Tuesday, she was a little bit better than Monday. In working diligently to save my dog's life, I proved to myself just how powerful food is. I also learned what type of veterinarian I wanted to become because I was forced to practice a different type of medicine than I was used to.

Gemini was and still is, even in death, an amazing teacher to me. She completely recovered from her liver failure and went on to live to the age of 13. She's the reason I've never sold prescription diets in my practice. I'm still learning valuable lessons from a dog who's no longer here, but who is forever in my heart.

Dr Becker with Pets
Me with Gemini and my cockatoo, Bella

How I Met and Began Working With Dr. Mercola

I'd been subscribing to Dr. Mercola's newsletter for years. In fact, I think I might've been one of the very first original subscribers back in 1998, so I had been reading his information for years.

It was 2008, and I was in the middle of an exam at Natural Pet. My staff knew not to interrupt me during an exam unless the building was on fire, or another patient was in real trouble. There was a knock on the exam room door, and expecting the worst, I excused myself and I stepped out.

My receptionist said, "Listen, I am so sorry but there's an attorney who just called from 'Larsen and Rye' and he says you need to call him right away." I thought, "Oh my gosh, I've never been contacted by an attorney. Am I being sued? What's going on?" I went back into the exam room and apologized to my client. I said, "I can't even complete the exam, I'm so nervous. I have to go make a quick phone call!" My client was beautiful and said, "No problem!"

I called the number back and the man on the other end started laughing and said, "Hey, my name is Jim Larsen. I'm really not an attorney but I've tried every possible means of contacting you, with no luck. So I faked being an attorney! I'm actually vice president of Steve Rye is the CEO."

Jim continued to explain. "Dr. Joe Mercola has searched for the last two years to find an integrative veterinarian whose views line up philosophically with what he promotes and believes in. We've looked far and wide and everybody says we have to contact you. You are impossible to get a hold of, so I pretended to be from a law firm!"

After we had a good laugh together, Jim said, "Please come up. Dr. Mercola would like to meet you." So I went and met Dr. Mercola. We had a beautiful day. We talked about diet, nutrition, vaccines and environmental stressors. We talked about the epidemic of disease occurring in pets, such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, organ degeneration, arthritis — all the same degenerative diseases that are occurring in humans.

In 2009, I started making videos and writing articles for Mercola's Healthy Pets, and developing human-grade, excellent-quality nutraceuticals and supplements for dogs and cats. I've been happily partnered with ever since. By 2013, we were the largest pet wellness website in the world.

Just recently I learned I'm the most followed veterinarian in the world. That's incredibly gratifying to me. It tells me integrative medicine and a commonsense approach to intentionally creating vitality and wellness in animals is no longer exclusively an "alternative" approach, but is going mainstream.

My Life Today

In 2013, I made the decision to lighten my clinic workload. I had been practicing full-time, which was anywhere from 65 to 80 hours a week, for many years. I saw between eight and 15 patients a day. But around 2010, I developed a burning desire to touch not just eight to 15 patients a day, but potentially 80,000 to 150,000 patients.

Dr. Mercola said to me, "As we build this platform for you on the largest stage on earth, the internet, we'd like you to be able to do more writing, speaking and product development." So I went from full-time to part-time clinic work, which opened up my schedule.

I began formulating organic, human-grade pet foods, and increased my lecture and writing schedule. These days, my favorite part of the day is all day, every day. I'm still in the exam room part-time, which I love. I love the one-on-one interaction with my clients; I love healing and saving animals.

On days when I am rehabilitating a wild animal, which is still a deep passion of mine, I have the honor of being in the presence of a wild creature that will hopefully get a second chance at life.

I love the days I arrive at a lecture hall with a thousand people waiting to hear how they can become empowered to make better decisions for the pets in their care. I love coming home to my precious fur babies, and I love waking up the next day to do it all over again. Every day of my life is something fun, exciting and fantastic, but most importantly, impactful. I have a great job!