Talk to the animals

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.

"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.

"Good lord, I spent $25,000 just on signs," Ralston says, shaking his head in exasperation. "I'd like to think people have got the message by now."

Most do get the message. In fact, by the time most people reach Ralston's clinic, they have heard of him through word of mouth. Ralston says many of his clients are already sold on certain aspects of natural healing for humans, so applying the same principles to animals is no great stretch. Even two years after the veterinary board ordered him to post his signs and obtain signed consent forms from pet owners, Ralston still boils with resentment. Such bureaucratic nonsense, he thinks, only serves to stilt his relationship with his clients--who almost without exception have already heard of his unconventional treatments and have come specifically for that purpose.

"Doesn't the government already control us enough?" he says. "They just want more and more control."

Laura M. Gentry, Norman Ralston's maternal grandmother, is never far from his mind or his practice. She looks down from a framed sepia-toned portrait hanging on a clinic wall. In the photograph, she stands beside her husband and is dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and her Sunday best. "Miss Gentry," as Ralston refers to her, raised 11 daughters and two sons on a family farm in the Red River country north of Dallas. She lived to be 89, and that woman knew something about animals.

"She could pull those animals on the farm through anything. I've never seen anything like it," Ralston says. Miss Gentry was widowed long before Ralston was born, but for years she kept the livestock healthy and the farm running on her own. Through the course of a typical day at the clinic, Ralston invokes his grandmother's name two or three times. He will tell a client about a particular poultice she made that drew infection from a wound like a magnet. Or the time she put an extension agent in his place for trying to sell her on chemical pesticides for her crops.

"She told him not to come near her with that stuff," he says. "Long before there were any studies to prove it, Miss Gentry knew all those pesticides and preservatives couldn't be a good thing."

Ralston says his grandmother always stressed the importance of questioning authority and the power of seeking knowledge. "She always encouraged me to listen to others' ideas politely, but not to take what they tell me at face value. She wanted me to seek answers for myself, and to keep learning throughout my life."

Ralston graduated from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine in 1945 and opened his first practice in Mount Pleasant, treating both large and small animals. Ten years later he moved to Dallas, opened another clinic, and started working only on small animals.

Well-schooled in conventional veterinary science, Ralston knew little of alternative medicine until the late '60s. In 1965, his 13-year-old daughter was diagnosed with curvature of the spine--scoliosis. He says he immediately took to researching everything written on the condition during the last two centuries, hoping to find an alternative to the conventional treatment--the surgical implantation of a 14-inch steel rod in his daughter's back.

"Unfortunately, I didn't find anything acceptable back then, and we went ahead with the surgery," Ralston says, his eyes welling with tears. "It still hurts me to talk about it. She came through the surgery all right, but I was never satisfied with our decision. If I had known then what I know now, I could have cured her in three weeks for about $20 with acupuncture."

Ralston leaped zealously into everything alternative--chiropractic care, vitamin and herbal therapies, acupuncture, homeopathy--and he has remained a believer ever since. A regular student and speaker at New Agey institutes throughout the country, Ralston says he wakes each morning at 3:30 and studies until 5. "There's just so much to learn," he says, eyes wide behind big square glasses. He eats lunch each day from a brown bag in his tiny office, usually nibbling a sandwich between patients.

His reputation is well known among the handful of veterinarians who incorporate holistic therapy into their conventional practices. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association counts 15 such vets in the state of Texas, with six of them practicing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"I run into people all the time who know of Dr. Ralston. He's just been at it for so long," says Dr. Shawn Messonnier, a Plano vet who says he devotes about 25 percent of his practice to holistic methods such as acupuncture and nutritional therapy. And though he still uses conventional medicine on most of his patients, Messonnier is not hesitant to criticize the members of his profession who ply animals with drugs and expensive medications when they might be able to treat a condition with a more natural approach.

Cortisone and other steroids, for instance--the great evil in Ralston's mind--are too often "an easy way out for vets," Messonnier says. "It's often given automatically, without really getting a good diagnosis first."

But drug therapy and surgery are drummed into students from the moment they enter school, says Messonnier, who graduated from Texas A&M's program in 1987. He got no training in holistic care when he attended school there. Ten years later, A&M shows no sign of adding even the slightest hint of alternative education to its curriculum.

"Currently we have no plans of addressing holistic medicine in our curriculum," says Dr. Bruce Simpson, rather sharply. The professor of veterinary medicine at A&M is chairman of the college's curriculum committee. "I suppose the closest thing would be course work in animal behavior and nutrition." Simpson is not familiar with Ralston, nor his struggle for greater acceptance by the state's veterinary community. The profession's main concern, he says, is always that a vet do an animal no harm.

On March 3, 1992, Elaine Foster took Tippy, her 5-year-old cockapoo, to Ralston's clinic. Although the dog had been recently spayed, Foster thought Tippy might be pregnant, according to a complaint affidavit she later filed with the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

Ralston, according to the affidavit, diagnosed Tippy's condition as "pseudocyesis"--false pregnancy--and prescribed a homeopathic herbal remedy called bryonia. Board records do not disclose Tippy's fate, and Foster could not be reached for comment. But Foster's complaint stated that Ralston did not tell her he was prescribing herbal treatment for the dog. Foster told the board's investigator she thought Ralston was dispensing conventional medicine. Ralston was subsequently reprimanded by the board on January 20, 1994, for violations of the Texas Veterinary Licensing Act and the Rules of Professional Conduct.

The vet entered into a settlement with the board, agreeing to post several signs notifying clients of his alternative methods. He also agreed to explain his methods to each client and to obtain signed consent forms before undertaking any alternative treatments.

But three years later, Ralston was before the board again. Two complaints were filed against him in 1994--both charging that Ralston did not obtain specific written consent before treating animals with homeopathic remedies. On March 26, 1994, Lisa Huckaby brought Scooter, her female cat, to Ralston along with Scooter's kittens, who had crusty eyes and were sneezing. Ralston and an assistant performed their "contact reflexology" exam on the kittens, according to the licensing board's records. The vet dispensed an herbal remedy, chamomilla, for the kittens' eyes. Huckaby later told an investigator she was not informed that Ralston practiced alternative medicine, nor did she sign off on the treatment he prescribed.

One month later, Joy Cisco took her 13-year-old cat, Daisy, to the LBJ Animal Clinic. Ralston diagnosed the cat with borderline diabetes, and gave Cisco several natural remedies, including iris flower essence and cell salts.

Cisco, who could not be reached for comment, told a veterinary board investigator that Ralston did not inform her that he practiced alternative medicine and was treating her cat with herbal remedies. She says she did not sign a consent form.

It is Cisco's case that agitates Ralston, even today. "I told her the cat was developing diabetes and that most vets would prescribe insulin. And I told her how miserable that would make both her and the cat. I said, 'You will have to catch that cat every day and give her a shot. Pretty soon, she'll hate you, and you'll hate her because of it.' "

Ralston says he told Cisco they could avoid that trouble by trying a holistic approach--that the homeopathic route might keep the diabetes at bay. Cisco, Ralston says, agreed to the treatment, but gave up before it had a chance to work and took Daisy to another vet, who prescribed insulin.

"I asked that little lady to sign a statement, but she refused to sign it," Ralston says, adding that she agreed verbally to the treatment. "I've been in this business for 52 years, and this whole flap is over that one little consent form. All this over one little kitty. I mean, God almighty."

Nevertheless, Ralston, by his own admission, did break the conditions of his earlier negotiated settlement with the board. He has been ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and will have his license suspended for 30 days. But that is not necessarily the end of the case. Ralston can challenge the board in civil court, but hasn't decided if he will. The dates for Ralston's suspension have not been set.

"Every time I do anything on this, a lawyer wants $200," Ralston says. "I finally started representing myself, but it takes too much time. I don't know what I'll do next."

Dr. James Gomez, a Brownsville veterinarian and president of the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, did not return telephone calls from the Dallas Observer.

But Gomez appeared to have little patience with Ralston during the June 12 board meeting in Austin at which Ralston was sanctioned. After the board's vote, Ralston asked Gomez if he might enter into the record a newspaper clipping and letters of support from clients.

Staring down at Ralston from the head of the board's conference table, Gomez said simply, "the board has spoken."

Felner Trespeses simply cannot believe what people feed their dogs and cats. Table scraps, fat-laden treats, over-processed canned meat. The mere thought of the American dog's diet sends a shudder straight through him.

Trespeses came to Philadelphia from his native Philippines several years ago. He married a Filipino-American woman and eventually found his way to Texas, where he now works as a veterinary technician for Dr. Norman Ralston. He is the surrogate, the channeler. He speaks for the animals.

"In my house, we had eight dogs," he says through heavily accented English. "My father, he made a huge pot of rice every day and fed our dogs. That is what they ate. And they were healthy."

Trespeses has a lovable mutt dog and a cat. "They eat what we eat. Rice, vegetables, some meat."

The animals that come to Ralston are "so fragile," Trespeses says. "They can't climb, they can't jump, they're very overweight. I think it's all in the nutrition. We have to fix their diet."

Try telling that idea to Stevie and Eileen McCarty, two elderly sisters who share a home with two dogs in Oak Cliff. Shelley is the alpha dog, the dominatrix who decides who gets to eat first and how much, and Toby her diminutive male companion.

The McCarty sisters visit Ralston's clinic as much for themselves as for their pets. In the waiting room, they socialize and chirp about how they try to keep Shelley on a diet, but the dog just seems to be hungry all the time.

Stevie McCarty has known Ralston for 30 years. He calls her "sweetie." She calls him "miracle worker."

"He doesn't get credit for all the good he does," Stevie says. She is sitting in the examination room, dressed in shell-pink pants and knit top, her hair tucked neatly under a matching turban. Shelley, the plump Collie mix, is hiding beneath the chair. "Other vets need to hear him," Stevie says. "They need to learn from him."

Ralston tells the sisters that Shelley "has a little too much weight on her. I'd like to see some of that come off. But when the thyroid gland begins to function, some of this weight will burn right off."

Down the hall, Richard Adams and Richard Gooding have brought one of their seven dogs in for a routine exam. Adams proudly introduces Gretel, a 16-year-old German shepherd, stone deaf with only two front teeth left. Gretel has a skin condition. She takes vitamins and other nutrients. She is living a fine old life on Gooding's 40-acre ranch in Hutchins, along with a rag-tag pack of dogs the two men have rescued over the years from animal shelters and the sides of highways.

They have Pyro, a Dalmatian they brought to Ralston last year for a violent seizure disorder. Adams swears that through homeopathic clearing of his system, Pyro has not suffered a seizure since January. "And when he did have a seizure, Dr. Ralston taught me just to press on his belly button. I don't know why, but that made it stop."

They have Gypsy Rose Leaper, a German shepherd who frequently jumps the fence. There are two Siberian huskies and a beagle mix. All have been under Ralston's care. They take vitamins and other natural remedies every day.

Gooding, a retired gunsmith, describes how he makes each dog a meatball every morning, hiding the pill inside. He blends their liquid medicines into bowls of chicken broth. And just to keep the huskies healthy, Gooding pressure-cooks and cuts up two chickens each night for the dogs.

"Do we seem crazy?" asks Adams rhetorically as he leans forward on his chair to comfort a whining Gretel. "We must be." Pointing to Gooding, Adams says "he's the only person I know who takes a bag of food and fresh water in the car in case he finds a dog." Both men laugh wildly.

They say Ralston is the only vet they know who truly understands their animals. "He listens to them," says Adams, a lanky middle-aged man in a Mr. Goodwrench cap and tattered flannel shirt. "You can call them dumb animals, but they know what they need. And they tell Dr. Ralston.


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