A Walk on the Wild Side

Barb Royal

Dr. Barbara Royal (right) with Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) founder Dr. Laurie Marker and one of CCF’s protected cheetahs. PHOTO: Jayne Bazos

Dr. Barbara Royal uses her experience with exotic animals to make 
our pets wildly healthy

By Eve Becker

Veterinarian Barbara Royal likes to live life on the wild side. She has studied endangered spotted owls in Oregon and manatees in Florida. She is the first vet to ever perform acupuncture on a zebra. She has even performed underwater surgery on a 400-pound grouper.

“As exotic as these wildlife experiences have been, they’re easily transferable to our pets,” says Royal, who uses lessons she’s learned in the wild to care for dogs and cats in her Chicago veterinary practice. She details these lessons in her new book, The Royal Treatment: A Natural Approach to Wildly Healthy Pets (Simon & Schuster), due out September 18.

With years of zoo experience, Royal takes a more natural approach to healing animals. In zoos and in the wild, she focuses on how changing an animal’s environment and diet improves their health—instead of focusing on what medication to give the animal, or what surgery to conduct.

“You look at medicine very differently when you look at zoo animals,” Royal says. “You’re always thinking about the environment and what you can do to help improve what’s going on around the animal or what’s going into the animal. You try very hard not to introduce anything unnatural or inject any medicines that might cause adverse reactions.”
“When I started practicing medicine for dogs and cats, I found myself constantly ignoring nutrition, ignoring the environment, and reaching for drugs first,” she says. “We never would ask a client, ‘What happens at home? Is there any extra stress going on in your house? What exactly are you feeding her?’”

Looking for an alternative approach, Royal began studying acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine as a way to help Greyhounds, who are notoriously hypersensitive to medications. Over the past 15 years, she has developed an integrative practice where she uses a combination of acupuncture, herbal treatments, Western medication, physical therapy, massage, and chiropractic to care for animals.

“The way that I practice medicine is entirely based on the fact that I’ve done so much work with wildlife and zoo animals, figuring out what’s more natural for them and what are the ways we help heal them. It’s completely changed how I handle pets,” she says.

“In the wild, they’re not going to have medications, or unnatural chemicals in their lives. They have to rely on their own instincts to feel better. A lot of healing occurs from doing very natural things [such as] eating, resting, and lowering stress. You can do that with the pets in our world.”

Royal approaches animals from an evolutionary standpoint, finding the right diet for the animal based on the animal’s species. “For every animal, once you know their basic history and evolution, you can [more easily] deal with their diet and health, and alleviate stress,” she says. “I helped hand-raise a Sumatran tiger, so when I’m dealing with cats I’m always thinking about that.”

Cats are carnivores who need meat and protein in their diets; yet, cats’ stomachs are extremely sensitive. “Inflammation is something that will happen very quickly when you feed them the wrong food,” Royal explains. “It causes their gastrointestinal tract to become a poor barrier, so it will allow in all different kinds of toxins or allergens. Problems with allergies, urinary tract infections, bladder stones—a lot of it can go right back to diet and stress. I know how even tiny changes in that little tiger cub’s diet made significant health differences. Having seen that with wild cats, I know our pet cats can be really sensitive.”

Dogs’ GI tracts are very similar to those of their ancestor, the wolf, so they should be fed a scavenger-carnivore diet with raw meat, she says. It’s important to avoid fillers like corn, wheat, and soy, which can cause an inflammatory response in dogs and cats. However, this does not mean you should run out and feed your dog raw chicken from the butcher—making the switch to a raw food diet is something you need to speak with your vet about. A lot of research goes into the prepared, frozen, raw food products you see at the pet store, and they are specially designed to provide balanced nutrition for dogs.

“If you’re choosing from commercially pre-prepared foods—and that’s what most people want—my preference would be raw, then canned. If you’re going to do a kibble, choose one that’s not high-heat-processed and that is low in carbohydrates,” she says. “There isn’t one perfect food for every pet, but we should base our nutrition choices on biologically correct information.” Royal’s book, which is part memoir and part pet handbook, is loaded with useful and easy-to-understand tips for pet health.

“After so much experience with zoo animals and wildlife, I have a lot of stories. I realized those stories are not just stories of what I did in my life, but they’re a framework for a way of practicing medicine,” says Royal, who frequently teaches other vets and interns about her natural approach. “I didn’t want to write a book of just stories of things I did. I wanted to make a difference for pets and for veterinary medicine.”

For more information: RoyalTreatmentVeterinaryCenter.com

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