OK so here was last week's Miami Herald column. In case you're wondering how I field questions for this column you should know that some of them come from my own clients. This one is about my very own patient, Mr. Beebop.

Q. My dog Beebop has been diagnosed with a rare tumor in his neck called a thymoma. It’s so big the specialists don’t want to remove it surgically. Instead, we’re going to try radiation therapy to see if we can shrink it. I’m a biologist and happen to know of a plant called Pettiveria which has been used to treat cancer in people. My vets don’t know whether this is a safe, appropriate adjunct to Beebop’s treatment. Can you help?

A. I contacted Dr. Robert Ferran of Ludlam-Dixie Animal Clinic on Beebop’s behalf. He’s a licensed veterinarian, certified acupuncturist and holistic care provider (this includes herbal medicine). He explains that the plant you refer to is used to treat the pain associated with cancer—but does not reportedly shrink tumors. So in this case, your specialists’ traditional treatment recommendations seem appropriate to him.

Although Pettiveria may be beneficial before and after radiation, he warns strictly against using herbal remedies during either radiation or chemotherapy. There are other treatments, however, that may help boost his immune system and deal with any symptoms during this time. These would have to be tailored specifically to his individual needs.

The general issue you raise is an interesting one. At what point do traditionally trained veterinarians consider the use of so-called “alternative” medicine? How can pet owners like you take advantage of complementary methods when so much of veterinary medicine seems so strictly scripted by our country’s standard vet school education?

It’s certainly a conundrum for those of us in the profession who believe other approaches to pet medicine can be appropriate but for whom most non-traditional medicine seems alien. It’s definitely not what we studied in vet school alongside the pharmacology, surgery and internal medicine curricula. But that doesn’t mean alternative therapeutic modalities don’t have merit.

In fact, when presented with particularly difficult cases where traditional medicine has failed (or where pain is a significant component), even the most conventional vets among us often look to acupuncture, massage, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy and other modalities as potential solutions. We just want to see your pet get better—whatever it takes.

That’s when vets like Dr. Ferran become indispensable to general practitioners like myself. Either through consultation or referral, an expert is always the way to go when your regular vet is stumped.

I wish you and Beebop the best of luck. I happen to know your specialists are the best. You’re in great hands—and that’s half the battle. The rest is up to him.


PS: After this was published last Sunday, Beebop was set for radiation treatment. After being re-evaluated on Monday, it was clear that the tumor had shrunk considerably. So far we're at a loss to explain this change. Was it the Pettiveria? Maybe. Either way, it now looks like Beebop wil be having surgery after all. And that's excellent news.