Talk to the animals

Veterinarian Norman Ralston favors acupuncture, herbs, and homeopathy instead of traditional animal medicine. He says pets speak to him through a channeler, and he lets them prescribe their own treatment. It's no wonder state regulators are keeping a clos

Prince Jake never met a stranger. That much is apparent watching the three-legged dog work the waiting room of a Balch Springs veterinary clinic, nuzzling everyone in sight. A black cocker spaniel--a stuffed toy compared to the 90-pound Jake--cowers beneath a chair, fearful of becoming an appetizer. No chance. Even at age 12 (84 in human years, if you recall the math), Jake is a true, devil-may-care golden retriever just looking for fun.

Trouble is, Jake's good times are fading fast. He can barely chase down a ball anymore, or even climb stairs. Jake often drags his hind legs. He sleeps a lot. It has nothing to do with the missing front leg, which was amputated 10 years ago after Jake was hit by a car. "He's never even known his leg is gone," says owner Shirley Hutson.

Jake is simply getting old. Hutson has been dropping nine medications a day down her dog's throat for the past few years, trying to ease the pain in his back and hind quarters. Jake took prednisone, a steroid often prescribed for arthritis in humans and animals. He also took pills to regulate his thyroid. A vet told Hutson her dog would need the pills for the rest of his life.

"Then, the last time I had him to the vet, I was told it was time for me to consider putting him to sleep," Hutson says, as she strokes Jake's thick copper coat with a custom-ordered dog brush. "I can't do that. I won't. He has too much life left in him to do that."

So Hutson recently found herself in the waiting room of Dr. Norman Ralston's LBJ Animal Clinic. Jake waited to see the doctor alongside Chrissy, a fat 9-year-old black cockapoo with red toenail polish and a bad thyroid, and Puff, a 20-year-old spotted longhair cat with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), a cat version of AIDS.

These are the types of cases brought to Ralston's clinic six days a week--deaf, incontinent dogs with cataracts. Dogs with parasites or seemingly incurable skin rashes. Cats with AIDS. Cats with snakebite. A lop-eared rabbit with a bum liver.

For many, the trip to Ralston's modest, flat-roofed clinic southeast of downtown Dallas is nothing less than a pilgrimage to Lourdes. They cling to a faith that the kindly 78-year-old vet with the full head of wavy silver hair will somehow make their lame dogs walk and their blind cats see.

Ralston is the longest practicing holistic veterinarian in these parts, relying almost entirely on natural therapies like acupuncture, herbs, and homeopathy to coax animals back to health.

Some of his practices border on the incredible. He uses a "surrogate" to channel for animals so they can tell him what is wrong with them. He believes that--if you know how to listen--a dog or cat will tell you what natural medicines it needs, even what doses it should take.

Texas A&M, the school Ralston graduated from in 1945, stakes no claim to the medicine now practiced by its wayward former student. Traditional vets scoff at his ways, and state regulators have been keeping a close eye on him for several years now.

But Ralston set off down the holistic path more than 25 years ago and isn't about to apologize for it now. "They come here so full of drugs and poisons," Ralston says of the animals he sees. "This profession can be very wrong-headed."

To the multitudes who have brought their pets to Ralston over the years, the man could spin gold from cat hair. His regular clients--the two-legged kind--speak his name in hushed tones, a kind of reverence creeping into their voices as they describe the way Ralston "reads" their animals. They cannot fathom how anyone could find fault with his methods--and certainly not with his results.

But a state investigation into a handful of complaints against Ralston now has the vet doing battle with his more traditional peers on the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

The board, which licenses vets in Texas, may not agree with Ralston's unorthodox methods, but they are most concerned that Ralston's clients know he does not practice conventional animal medicine.

On June 12, the regulatory panel of six vets and three lay members decided that Ralston had violated rules of professional conduct under the Texas Veterinary Licensing Act. By failing to get two former clients to sign consent forms for treatment in 1994--a charge that Ralston does not deny--the vet has been ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, and his license soon will be suspended for 30 days .

"A kangaroo court," Ralston muttered the day the veterinary board met in Austin and ruled on his fate. Some days later, while working in his clinic, Ralston scowled as he recounted his numerous donnybrooks with the board and other conventional vets who have little use for his theories.

"They've been trying to catch me doing something wrong since 1976," he says. "But I have been honest with the board from the first time we tried acupuncture 20 years ago. It's the same now as it was back then--they're just trying to keep anything new out.

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