After watching the CNN documentary Escape Fire, The Fight to Rescue Healthcare, about our failing health care system, I have to admit I was both relieved and dismayed. Relieved that someone is actually shining a light on our dysfunctional health system. Dismayed that we continue to ask the wrong questions about health and disease in this country. We are a nation that is becoming more unhealthy every year, and as a veterinarian, I have seen how we have given this unhappy birthright to our pets as well.
With these uncertain financial times, are all worry that we may not be able to maintain our health insurance in the future. People wonder if they will be able to afford the "quality" of health care that we have in the U.S. in the face of unemployment or retiring from work. But maybe we should be asking: Do we really want this kind of health care? In our zeal to manage our increasing health problems, we didn't notice that many health problems we are working to "manage" shouldn't even be there in the first place. I have seen this trend in veterinary care as well.
Sadly, as we look for medications and procedures to "manage" into each new epidemic of preventable, non-communicable diseases, we never consider looking for the causes of health. We have stopped expecting any true health in our faux health world.
When we think about health care, we think about hi-tech science and a quick fix. Rarely are the basic building blocks of health (nutrition, exercise, lifestyle) part of our medical equation. Natural diets, and lifestyle changes are too complicated. Many people say it is ridiculous to try to resolve heart disease, cancer, or other life-threatening conditions with food. But in my veterinary practice, I have seen it. It's not ridiculous in my book.
In fact, I wrote my book The Royal Treatment, A Natural Approach to Wildly Healthy Pets because I wanted to offer real stories of the animals I have seen recover using less instead of more. To provide more information about how to tap into health rather than manage diseases.
A monkey on the verge of death, recovering completely with good diet and exercise, cancer patients living years beyond their prognosis. A zebra overcoming seizures and arthritis with acupuncture. A puppy weaning off 15 medications by using diet as the real prescription for health. I see opportunities for health in the basics, where others are still looking for a new drug.
Doctors know a lot about medicines and surgeries but not enough about the causes of health. We are not trained to recognize the impediments to health that we ourselves have constructed, much less to remove them. Doctors that spend the time to find and promote health take more time in the exam room, and it doesn't make financial sense. Doctors aren't rewarded for the health of their patients; they are rewarded when their patients are sick and they need testing and medical intervention. And even the most idealistic and dedicated doctors arrive in the profession with large student loans to pay. Volume of patients, not vitality of patients will pay the bills.
I often wonder if we could start a system where the patient pays the doctor a monthly fee when they are healthy. If they get ill, they stop paying the doctor. It would then be in the interest of the doctor to work hard to return them to health. There are clearly flaws to this idea as well, but we do need a solution. We need to find a sustainable health care model for humans and animals.
None of us were born to be unhealthy, to be medicated, hospitalized, surgically-repaired. The body arrives with internal healing mechanisms. The body's system of health is supported by things like proper diet, circulation, musculature, and a responsive immune system. Disease happens when these systems are thwarted somehow. Poor diet, toxins, carcinogens, inadequate exercise, over-vaccination, over-medication, excessive surgical procedures can thwart the body's own ability to heal.
Yet we still believe our own advertisements. We believe that our drugs and surgeries are so incredibly high-tech and effective, they should be used all the time. If a little is good in emergency situations, a lot of it is better. It certainly pays better. But is that really what we want?
In medicine, we are asking the wrong questions. We need to ask why we are a nation of diseases spiraling out of control. Why is there a new epidemic of diseases every month? Cancers, arthritis, thyroid disease, allergies, diabetes, seizures, behavior problems and autoimmune conditions are all too common. Could we be missing something more basic?
Doctors and veterinarians are not trained in nutrition because it will not help them financially. There is much more money in surgery and drugs. We learn our medicine in programs and teaching hospitals that are typically funded by those who have the most to gain financially: the drug companies.
Common sense nutrition takes too much time to learn about and to teach. Vets and doctors have no financial incentive to improve health using what the pet owner or patient will buy somewhere else. And although veterinarians don't tend to be a mercenary bunch, we can only practice what we are taught. And we can only practice if we don't go out of business for lack of funds.
Nutrition can be a complicated subject. I know, because I typically spend about 30 minutes with new clients discussing nutrition. I do it because it makes all the difference. When was the last time your own doctor inquired about diet? Many doctors and veterinarians are afraid to mention that their patient is overweight for fear of insulting a client. Even though we do know that weight and health are related.
We'd all rather take a pill or even have a surgery if it meant we could avoid having to make a hard lifestyle change like eating differently or exercising for our health. In today's world it is much more difficult to find a truly healthy diet for your family -- man and beast -- than to find one that will inevitably cause illness.
My zoo and wildlife patients were typically on the right track. As I describe in my book, the attendant health issues from zebras eating bagels, gorillas eating donuts, and camels not getting enough salts in zoos had been examined, and these practices have generally stopped. Zoo and wildlife professionals know how important diet is to health. Animals that live in the wild and don't interact with humans seem to choose their food well and stay healthy. Owls eat what they should and rabbits know "what's up, doc."
But are dogs and cats being fed carcinogens, toxins and fillers? Are we unknowingly buying foods that are not healthy for them? Does a bear eat berries in the woods? The pet food industry is full of poor diet choices for your pet. Even though they are marketed as veterinary-approved and healthy. High heat processing of dry kibbled foods creates two potent carcinogens. Many pet food cans are lined with BPA. Many dry foods marketed for our carnivores still contain more than 60 percent carbohydrates. Substances like powdered cellulose (a sawdust-like filler) are common in pet foods. I could go on.
I tell my clients, "The most important health decision you can make for your pets is what you choose to put in their food bowls." So many pet owners are thrilled by the health improvements they see by simply feeding a species-appropriate diet -- plenty of meat protein and fat, a small amount of carbs, and no grains, purchased from companies that have excellent sourcing. I spend time talking about husbandry, logistics, exercise, stress. Only then do I discuss medications or surgery.
Like most of us, our pets can survive for a while with inappropriate foods and poor lifestyles, but they won't thrive. To thrive, we have to give the body the tools it needs to stay healthy.
We can still reverse the heartbreaking trends in our health care system, for ourselves and for our pets. We just need to start asking the right questions about true health and recognize that the answers are more obvious than we expect.
Dr. Royal's new book, The Royal Treatment: A Natural Approach to Wildly Healthy Pets (Simon and Schuster) is available at:
For more by Barbara E. Royal, D.V.M., click here.
For more on pet health, click here.