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

"This stinks to high heaven."

The expression on Shirley Hutson's face is equal parts awe and confusion as she watches Dr. Norman Ralston examine Prince Jake through a process known as "contact reflexology." To do the exam, Ralston relies on his 37-year-old veterinary technician, Felner Trespeses, to act as a "surrogate" for the dog. Trespeses lays one hand on the dog's back. Ralston then touches various points on Trespeses' body, and names specific organs--"spleen, pancreas, liver, thyroid"--and so on.

As Ralston touches him, Trespeses stands tall, eyes closed. The theory is that each time Ralston names a body part, the dog will know if that organ is the cause of his trouble. But since the dog can't talk, Trespeses acts as a channel. When Ralston hits a "hot spot," Trespeses lets out what can best be described as a pained grunt. "I'm using Felner's body to check his," Ralston explains. "We're asking the dog's body what it needs to get rid of, and what it needs to get better."

In about five minutes, Ralston has his diagnosis. Jake is suffering from gout--a painful inflammation of several of his joints. His thyroid is out of kilter as well, which partly explains his recent weight gain. Ralston tells Hutson that both maladies are treatable with what he calls "designed nutrition"--a mixture of powerful natural vitamins, herbs, and other plant extracts. Acupuncture might also help, although Jake--communicating through Trespeses--says he doesn't need acupuncture just yet.

But before the nutrition plan can start, Jake's body must be "detoxified." Ralston suspected that Jake was overflowing with toxins as soon as he saw the big brown bag filled with medicine that Hutson carried into the examining room.

One by one, Hutson dutifully pulled each bottle from the sack and described the purpose of every medication. The great evil among these potions, Ralston believes, is the prednisone Jake took as an anti-inflammatory. "It's a quick fix for the dog," Ralston says. "It'll work in the short term, but we get animals like this one who have been on steroids for way too long. Their bodies are poisoned."

To detoxify Jake, Hutson will administer a series of "clearing remedies" twice each day for two weeks. This is the homeopathic approach to making Jake well. Homeopathic medicine dates back to Hippocrates, the father of medicine. Samuel Christian Hahnemann, a German physician in the mid-1800s, is credited with developing the homeopathic system used today.

True believers in homeopathy hold to the system's underlying philosophy: "similia similibus curentur" or "like cures like." It goes like this: A large dose of a toxic substance in the body can be fatal. But when a homeopathic, highly diluted, minute dose of the same substance is given, it can save the poisoned human or animal. Homeopathic remedies, usually liquid, are made from natural substances and do not mask or suppress symptoms, but treat the deepest constitutional causes of an illness. According to the American Holisitic Veterinary Medical Association, a Maryland-based group of 450 veterinarians, "homeopathic remedies contain vibrational energy essences that match the patterns present in the diseased state within the ailing patient."

Freshly armed with a new bag of medications--each of them completely natural--Hutson will take Jake home and begin the holistic cleansing regime. She has watched Ralston and Trespeses intently during the session. She is, she says, somewhat doubtful. But she is also desperate, which could explain why she doesn't balk at the cost of the treatment: $320. Ralston assures her that if the price is too steep, he can scale back on the remedies by treating only the most serious problems first.

"No, no, let's do it," Hutson says. "I'm putting him in your hands. I don't know what else to do."

In return for her confidence, Ralston makes Hutson a vow. "I can promise you two things. One, we will never knowingly hurt your dog," he says. "And second, you will see a change in him in two weeks. I can't promise he'll be completely well, because we have a lot of work to do. But you will see a change."

Before accepting the treatment, though, Hutson must sign a form that summarizes Ralston's unconventional methods, including the possible risks and side effects of the treatments. The consent form is one of the burdens Ralston must bear because of his ongoing battles with the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. In 1992, a patient complained to the board that Ralston didn't tell her he was prescribing homeopathic cures for her pet.

Two years later, Ralston and the board entered into a "negotiated settlement," under which the vet received an official reprimand. The conditions of the settlement require Ralston to advise all clients of his methods before treating their animals. He also agreed to put up prominent signs both inside and outside his clinic informing the public that he uses acupuncture and homeopathic remedies.

Today, a towering signpost outside the clinic--visible from Interstate 635--features a large sign referring to "alternative treatment." In the waiting room, an electronic message board sits atop a display shelf, flashing helpful hints about pet care and a constantly repeating message that Ralston uses alternative therapies. A smaller sign with the same message hangs behind the receptionist's desk. And each examination room features a sign on the wall as well.

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