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Saber, an animal appropriately named after a deadly weapon, glares over the edge of his cat carrier. The door and lid of the box have been removed, and Saber crouches to take advantage of his three-sided fortress. He exhales malevolently, replicating the sound of a milk steamer at a cappuccino shop.
Monique Maniet, D.V.M. and holistic practitioner, matter-of-factly approaches the seething cat. She instructs his owners, Jack U and Elaine Hui, to hold him by his lower body and the scruff of his neck while she trims the short white fur away from a lesion on his temple. “He likes you,” U tells Maniet as Saber growls—the cat usually fights harder against veterinarians.
Saber has been in Maniet’s office before, where he’s sampled holistic treatments from all-natural pills to acupuncture. He’s a troublesome patient; the acupuncture didn’t much help his allergies, which are inflamed by natural and chemical remedies alike. But U and Hui have enough confidence in homeopathy to be repeat customers. Today, Maniet spritzes the dime-size pink sore on Saber’s skull with goldenseal-and-calendula liquid, which will keep it from itching, then bandages the cat’s back foot so that he can’t scratch. U and Hui pay Saber’s tab and go to fill his prescription at Washington Homeopathic Products, a natural pharmacy for humans and pets not far from Maniet’s practice.
Maniet, a Brussels-born and -educated vet affiliated with the Takoma Park Animal Clinic, moved into the clinic’s Holistic Center this past February. She says she needed a more peaceful atmosphere, away from the woofers and tweeters of a busier veterinary practice. For the time being, she is the only vet at work in the nondescript, beige-paneled house, which sits on a side street in downtown Bethesda—far away from the granola-friendly Takoma Park neighborhood.
When Maniet uses the term “homeopathy,” though, she’s not talking herbal tea, crystals, or soothing chants. Professional practitioners of homeopathy, veterinary and otherwise, must first be licensed to practice traditional medicine (Maniet studied her specialty at the Alexandria-based National Center for Homeopathy, which offers courses for vets, M.D.s, and curious amateurs).
Homeopathic remedies are made from plants, minerals, and such animal byproducts as snake venom. These natural weapons can tame troubles from hairballs to snoring to—in the case of an otherwise polite calico cat named Cali—incontinence. Cali, says owner Chris Coché, had soiled the furniture on a number of occasions. Maniet detected a thyroid imbalance and prescribed 2.5 mg per day of Tapazole, which cleared up the problem—until Coché went away for a week and forgot to leave Cali’s daily dose. Otherwise, the treatment was a success.
By definition, homeopathy means treating “like with like”; trace quantities of a substance that causes illness are used to stimulate healing processes. To the layman, homeopathy seems to mirror the Western practice of vaccination, but Maniet is opposed to conventional vaccination—except in the case of the rabies vaccine, which is required by law. She believes that vaccination weakens the immune system and can lead to disease: “If your pet is indoors, he doesn’t need to be vaccinated every year,” she says. She points to her own two robust-looking dogs as proof—Tarzan, a black Lab, is bouncy at 11 years old, and Sophie the basset hound is 3.
Maniet’s primary complaint is that she doesn’t often see patients until they are “advanced cases…that have been to specialists, and then come to me.” She wishes that people didn’t consider holistic medicine only as a last resort. “I would like to reach younger pets before the damage is done,” she says, explaining that most dogs and cats she encounters are victims of “chronic degenerative disease” that traditional veterinarians can’t fix.
“In Europe, you go first for the alternative [homeopathy, acupuncture, or chiropracty] that will relieve you,” she says. “If something serious enough happens, then you go to a regular doctor.”
Traditional, or “allopathic,” vets tend to feel just the opposite. Dr. Susan Bright, of Friendship Hospital for Animals in D.C., echoes the beliefs of many colleagues when she says, “I would probably go for conventional medicine first, but then if that didn’t work, or if a client was interested, I might consider [holistic medicine]. I know that some people don’t feel that it works.” Bright does give nontraditional treatments some benefit of the doubt, though: “The only personal experience I’ve had was about three years ago, at a clinic in Ohio. There was a doberman with arthritis and the veterinarian treated him with acupuncture. It did seem to have an effect on the dog’s pain level.”
For all her holistic beliefs, Maniet is not averse to referring animals to surgery if necessary. On one Saturday morning, her first visitors are one Mrs. Gonzales and Rosie, her 8-year-old cocker spaniel. Gonzales thinks that Rosie has simply strained her leg, but Maniet discovers a broken ligament. “If it were just stretched, acupuncture would help,” Maniet says with regret, before jotting down the name of a surgeon. She then recommends antioxidant tablets, served in yogurt, to build Rosie’s strength before and after surgery; she also suggests fresh, even homemade food for her patient rather than grocery-store dry and canned items.
Rosie waddles out of the examination room, straining at her leash and snorting with joy after being freed of her cloth muzzle. Maniet seems disappointed that she can’t fully help the dog, and is irked that Rosie has been given a pain-killing shot of cortisone by an allopathic vet. Cortisone—like vaccinations and overprocessed food—is a peeve of Maniet’s; the drug can counteract the effects of homeopathy and of Maniet’s biggest crowd-pleaser, acupuncture.
Maniet’s clients frequently express interest in acupuncture for their pets. The treatment, an old standby of Eastern medicine but still a novelty in the West, can be effective in relieving kidney failure in cats, arthritis and chronic joint problems, allergic dermatitis, and depressed immune systems. But therapeutic application of needles can’t mend broken ligaments, like Rosie’s, or replace damaged nerves, like those of another patient, Thumper.
Thumper, a gray-and-white, 13-year-old, part-Pekingese dog, is progressively losing control of his rear legs. He’s not in pain, owner Patti DeSouza says, but he can’t stand up or walk for long. Even though she doesn’t expect a miracle, DeSouza brings Thumper for weekly acupuncture sessions—just in case.
Maniet places Thumper on a stainless-steel examining table and palpates his back with both hands; she touches his vertebrae one by one, from the back of his head down to his tail, and checks his hip position. Then she selects several acupuncture needles, each about two-and-a-half inches long, from a plastic container. With a few gentle twists, she inserts the needles on either side of Thumper’s spine, over his kidneys and spleen. “Try to relax—that’s the hardest part,” she tells the dog as DeSouza holds its head. Behind her on the wall hang two maps, muscular and skeletal, of canine acupuncture points.
Maniet continues inserting needles—six in Thumper’s back, and several more in his rear paws and forelegs. The dog fidgets, afraid of the slick examining table, but doesn’t even glance at the pins in his back or feet. The bright silver needles flop from side to side like porcupine quills until he calms down; Maniet observes that some dogs relax and fall asleep during the treatment, though this will not be the case today. For 20 minutes, while the acupuncture ostensibly “balances the flow of energy…allowing the body to heal itself,” DeSouza strokes Thumper and chats about his homemade diet of oatmeal- and rice-based dishes: “He loves it; he’s always been not quite a vegetarian, but close.”
Then Maniet begins removing the needles, and gives the dog a few injections of cherry-red liquid—vitamin B-12—in the acupuncture points of his shoulders. “We did see improvement in the beginning,” she says, “but he has plateaued.” She shakes her head at Thumper’s condition, and tells DeSouza to reconsider the acupuncture treatments if there’s no more visible improvement. DeSouza stubbornly makes another appointment, keeping the faith.