Alternative pet treatments sense growth

When Lisa Maguire's pony, Ruby, was sick and the vet couldn't find the cause, an animal communicator was called in. Ruby "told" her owner, via the psychic, that she did, indeed, have Lyme disease. (Ruby's all better.) CLEM MURRAY / Staff
When Lisa Maguire's pony, Ruby, was sick and the vet couldn't find the cause, an animal communicator was called in. Ruby "told" her owner, via the psychic, that she did, indeed, have Lyme disease. (Ruby's all better.) CLEM MURRAY / Staff
Posted: June 14, 2012

For six weeks, Lisa Maguire's chestnut-colored pony refused to walk and was barely able to hold her own weight.

"If a horse can't stand," said Maguire, "it can't live."

The veterinarian said the 6-year-old horse was suffering from diabetes. But medications proved ineffective, and a Lyme disease test was negative.

Worried, Maguire turned to Jennifer Dickman, an animal communicator.

Performing Reiki, a Japanese healing practice, on Ruby on Christmas morning 2009, Dickman communed with the horse at Maguire's seven-acre farm in Fort Washington. Through Dickman, Ruby "told" her owner — or so Maguire believes — that she did, indeed, have Lyme disease.

"And Ruby said that if the Lyme disease went undiagnosed, she would worsen, but that it was OK if she was put down," said Maguire, 52, who runs a nonprofit organization advocating raw foods. "That just broke my heart."

A third Lyme disease test proved positive. Ruby was properly treated and, a few days later, turned a corner.

It was such a fortuitous rebound for the pony that Maguire has since sought help from Dickman for her passel of other animals.

"I turned to Jennifer as a last resort," said Maguire of Dickman, who steps in when a vet is stumped. "I can't explain it, but she helped me."

Added to the billion-dollar pet industry now are a bevy of alternative services offered to pet owners — not just pet communicators, of which there are thought to be more than 300 across North America, but veterinary acupuncturists, chiropractors, and raw-pet-food manufacturers. And despite a floundering economy, demand seems unstoppable.

Five years ago, when Dickman, a married mother of two sons, first started her business, she read, sometimes, two clients a month. Currently, she counsels three or four weekly. Business is also brisk for Liesl Woelfel, an Ambler-based animal communicator, who has held readings for hundreds of pet owners, including doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and the daughter of a famous author. Her clients live across the United States, and as far away as Canada, England, and South Korea. She confers with a couple of animals a day, up from the two or three a month when she first started 22 years ago.

Case in point: In one evening, Woelfel, 57, who is also a real estate broker, counseled a grieving dog in Massachusetts, pinpointed a dog's arthritis in New Jersey, and probed the psyche of a show horse at the Devon Horse Show.

Pet communicators say pets experience many of the same emotions as their owners: They prefer certain foods, feel jealousies, and have yearnings. By discovering these traits and quirks — while paying $20 to $35 for a 15-minute session, and up to $100 for an hour — a pet's human can relieve the animal of any health problems or emotional traumas it may suffer.

Such was the case with Neva Rayne's cat Asher, when he had an incident of nonstop vomiting in March at Rayne's Philmont Heights home. Initially, the vet was mystified. Rayne, 66, called Dickman.

Asher telepathically told Dickman at her home in Westfield, N.J. — some psychics needn't be present to commune with an animal — that he had been eating plastic.

Rupert Sheldrake, a fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, Calif., has examined animal communication and is the author of the book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.

Sheldrake, who also studied biology at Cambridge University and philosophy at Harvard University, contends that some owners have morphic bonds, or a paranormal influence, with their pets.

"But some animal communicators do, indeed, seem to be able to pick up other animals' feelings and health problems," he said. "And some seem able to locate lost animals, and this is an impressive achievement.?…"

The skeptics say the so-called psychics have a knack for feeding on the gullibility of pet owners — much as fortune tellers do.

A professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine for 18 years and the director of Penn's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society (CIAS), James Serpell said that, to believe that an animal could actually discern its illness, or discuss its likes and dislikes, is absurd.

CIAS was established in 1997 as a research center promoting human-animal interactions. He argues that in the case of canines, for example, dogs can be trained to receive communication from humans based on a set of signals. But to suggest that animals are capable of some clairvoyance is highly unlikely.

"I do think some communicators believe that they can communicate with animals," said Serpell. "But I think it's mostly a con."

Dickman, 40, professes to channel an animal's feelings through a telepathic-like frequency. It began when she was 4, after being mobbed by sheep at a zoo.

"Children are more open to these thoughts," she said. "I didn't know it at the time, but I think the sheep were trying to communicate with me."

As early as age 6, Woelfel said, she knew that she had a gift. As an adult, she talked to animals as a hobby. She started consulting professionally after she counseled a friend's dog to stop drinking the pond water that was making him sick.

"I think of myself as a translator," said Woelfel.

Like many of Woelfel's clients, pet owner Adriana Chalson, 57, touches base with Woelfel about twice a year, sometimes for behavioral reinforcements.

"Through Liesl, my cat said to make more chicken soup, his favorite," said Chalson of Wallingford.

Gigi Glendinning became a believer when her adopted cat Slidell, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, was lost for two days. The feline frequently roamed the 10 acres behind Glendinning's Montgomery County home.

"When he missed his meals," said Glendinning, 45, "I knew something was wrong."

Glendinning called Woelfel, who saw Slidell in pain and bound by his breakaway collar. Woelfel coaxed Slidell to break the collar, and go home. Within 20 minutes, Slidell appeared, dragging a dislocated hip, and without the collar.

"Liesl is amazing," said Glendinning. "And I'm somebody who doesn't believe in God."

Probably more people are apt to cast doubt on animal psychics than on other alternative remedies, such as acupuncture or the raw-food diets, said veterinarian Francie Rubin, of Rockledge, Montgomery County, who has referred clients to psychics and for acupuncture and chiropractic therapies.

Especially as more owners embrace these methods themselves, she said, they are more likely to indulge their pets.

Biweekly, 15-year-old American pit bull Gabrielle has quill-like needles slid into her hindquarters during 30-minute acupuncture sessions for the arthritis immobilizing her.

"The treatments stabilize her pain and keep her agile," said Kathy Genuardi, 54, of Elkins Park, Gabrielle's owner, who has also employed chiropractic methods.

Membership in the nonprofit American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture has been mounting, with 820 veterinary acupuncturists, compared with 200 a decade ago, according to executive director Simon Flynn.

"More interest by vets to do acupuncture is being driven by client requests," said Flynn.

Acupuncturist Debra Collazo, formally trained as a traditional veterinarian, said the key to inserting needles into the many horses she has treated over nine years is to speak softly and kindly to them. Two years ago, Collazo began administering acupuncture to smaller animals, and she was lucky to have three patients a month. Now, she averages 22 pets weekly at her office in Newtown, costing $120 a session.

"It's a luxury for some, but it can really improve an animal's life," said Collazo, who sees more unorthodox treatments like rehabilitative water therapies mushrooming in the industry.

Raw-food diets for pets are also being sought, especially since the 2007 processed-pet-foods recall, when a rash of illnesses and deaths were caused by tainted ingredients. Advocates contend that the diets — which emphasize raw meats, bones, fruits, and vegetables — have long been eaten by Alaskan sled dogs and racing dogs, and provide animals with cleaner teeth, shinier coats, and higher energy levels.

Matt Capucini, 48, has fed his three dogs raw vegetables for five years.

"They eat iceberg lettuce daily," said Capucini of Glenside. "I give them carrots and green beans, too. They love it, and it keeps their weight down."

Sales of Nature's Variety raw foods, which are shipped and stored frozen to maintain freshness, climbed 35 percent in the last year, said Jill Gainer, a spokeswoman for the pet-foods company in St. Louis. Gainer said that a high-pressure process was used to kill bacteria and that nutrients were added to the foods, measures critics cite as vital.

"Feeding raw pet food is a new concept for many people, but dogs and cats are meat eaters by nature," said Gainer. "It's similar to a time when dogs were given the scraps off the dinner table."

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