Ricki Brozman took the long, gleaming needle and stuck it right into the horse’s back.
Tango didn’t even flinch.
Instead, the gentle black Dutch twitched his ears nonchalantly and curiously looked around the barn, his eyes eventually resting on a box filled with tasty carrots.
His treat would have to wait, however. His acupuncture treatment wasn’t quite finished yet.
Being poked with needles no longer fazes Tango. It makes his back pain go away. But his peaceful demeanor during the procedure never fails to delight Brozman, a holistic veterinarian from Bucyrus.
Even though she’s performed acupuncture on every animal from dogs to cows for a decade, she never tires of that happy pang she gets in her heart every time she helps ease an animal’s pain.
It’s why she does what she does.
Her unconventional veterinary treatments, such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, have turned Brozman into a hero for her clients.
Every week, pet owners — from all over the Midwest — seek out her Prairie Village-based practice, Horizon Holistic Veterinary Care. Her natural remedies treat everything from cancer to arthritis.
Ten years ago, when Brozman told people her career, she would get a lot of blank stares and sometimes a ton of questions. These days, she’s met with excitement.
In a world increasingly becoming organic-savvy, turning to natural medicine has been a natural transition — even when it comes to those four-legged friends.
“People are more health conscious these days and they’re looking for other options for both themselves and their pets,” Brozman said. “It’s exciting to witness. Pet owners are realizing if you put a dog on steroids to ease his pain, you’re just inviting more health problems down the road. It’s about looking at the bigger picture.”
As she carefully took the needles out of Tango’s back and lovingly fed him a carrot, Brozman explained that she didn’t always work this way.
Fresh out of veterinary school, she practiced medicine like most other animal doctors, dispensing drugs as an easy fix. But when she started exploring holistic remedies for her own health problems, Brozman realized she wanted to change her approach professionally as well.
In the mid-1990s, she dabbled in Chinese herb classes, and the rest was history.
Her sentiments are echoed by her contemporaries all over Johnson County. One taste of natural medicine opened up a whole new world.
Just ask Linda Faris, another holistic vet who also practices out of Prairie Village. She immersed herself into a holistic practice full-time several years ago and hasn’t looked back.
“As a conventional vet, I was disappointed with my ability to truly change the course for my patients,” she said. “It was frustrating that the only options offered to me were surgery or drugs, and those were never enough. I feel more like a healer now than a drug pusher or knife wielder. Knowing that I’m actually helping these animals makes me want to keep getting up in the morning.”
Her clients couldn’t be more thrilled.
“What she’s doing is thousands of years old, but it looks like 22nd-century solutions,” said Ryan Kesley, a client of Faris. “People are discovering that Western medicine is not always successful. It’s scary to leap into the unknown, but I think more people should take the chance.”
Kesley, of Kansas City, decided to give holistic veterinary treatment a try when he found out his West Highland terrier’s worsening illness was going to require permanent medication.
Faris transitioned his dog off the drugs and put him on a Chinese herb and supplement diet. Five years later, both pet and owner couldn’t be happier.
“These days, I don’t even bother going to a traditional vet — I go straight to Dr. Faris,” Kesley said. “I would also like to get myself to that point one day, where I can stop going to a traditional doctor and just take natural herbs.”
His success story and others like it are the reason the interest in Eastern veterinary medicine has skyrocketed lately, Faris said. Word of mouth helps her clientele base grow.
After all, people are scared of what they don’t know. But once they hear from a neighbor or co-worker about how something seemingly bizarre really did work, it encourages them to give it a shot. Especially if there are no other options.
Faris jokingly calls holistic vets the “doctors of the last resort.”
“Most of the time, people have to be forced outside the box,” she said. “A lot of people make appointments with me when conventional medicine has failed. They’re desperate for other options.”
In a lot of cases, her remedies will help ailing pets live longer, more comfortable lives, much to the gratitude of the owner. But, like any medical procedure, it’s not always a panacea.
“There will always be a case I can’t manage perfectly and I’ll always be seeking the answers,” she said. “There are literally an infinite number of sick dogs and cats, and I’ll never be able to help them all.”
She would like to see the public use holistic medicine as a viable option, not just when the pet is dying.
The interest in holistic veterinary medicine, especially acupuncture, has grown significantly over the past decade.
Simon Flynn, executive director of the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture, told The Washington Post last year that in 2012, the nonprofit group had a membership of 800 veterinary acupuncturists. Ten years before, the group had about 200.
The growing interest in holistic veterinary medicine has increased so much in such a short period that the American Veterinary Medical Association finds itself addressing the issue over and over. Recent vet association conventions have included lectures on acupuncture.
“Veterinary acupuncture and acutherapy are now considered an integral part of veterinary medicine,” the vet association declared — back in 1996.
In 2001, the vet association published its Guidelines for Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine. “Recommendations for effective and safe care should be based on available scientific knowledge,” the guidelines say. “Veterinarians should ensure that they have the requisite skills and knowledge for any treatment modality they may consider using.”
But while holistic veterinary medicine is in full force in the real world, it is still a subject that makes veterinary professors shy.
Representatives for the vet schools at Kansas State University and the University of Missouri declined requests from The Star to discuss holistic veterinary medicine.
Even Ronette Gehring — the adviser for the Kansas State University American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and associate professor in the college of veterinary medicine — said she would not be a suitable person to discuss the topic. When asked if any other professor would be willing to interviewed for the story, she said, “Not at K-State. You may need to look at other universities.”
At MU, spokesman Nathan Hurst said none of the professors was available or able to comment. Many don’t feel qualified enough to discuss holistic medicine, he said.
It is an attitude spread across the country, according to Narda Robinson, who heads Colorado State University Integrative Pain Medicine Natural Healing. She brought holistic medicine to the school’s veterinary program in the late 1990s.
In 2007, she published an article on the school’s website, titled “Should Vet Schools Teach Complementary Medicine?”
In it, she emphasized that whether they love it or hate it, vets need to be educated on holistic medicine because of its prevalent use. Vet schools, she continued, need to prepare students for real-world situations, such as discussing holistic animal care with patients.
Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. medical schools are now including content related to complementary and alternative medicine as part of required courses, while their veterinary counterparts fall far short, Robinson wrote.
If vets aren’t trained, or even knowledgeable, about holistic practices, pet owners could turn to non-veterinarians who are eager and waiting to take their place, she wrote.
Getting certified in acupuncture and other holistic therapies doesn’t come easy.
Certification classes in subjects from acupuncture to Chinese herbal medicine are not offered in the Kansas City area. Most vets, like Brozman and Faris, have to travel to places like California to take courses or wait until they’re offered at holistic veterinary medicine conferences.
Nonprofit organizations, like the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation, are trying to increase that accessibility. The foundation raises money for integrative medicine education. It offers scholarships to vet students who choose that field, raises money for research and promotes holistic education in veterinary schools.
For Cathy King at Mariposa Veterinary Wellness Center in Lenexa, holistic medicine is more than just fixing a problem. It’s about seeing each animal as a whole.
King loves that as a holistic vet, she gets to know each of her furry patients on a more personal basis. She spends a lot of time with them during each appointment, evaluating their diet and habits and lifestyle.
“There’s more of a customized healing process,” she said. “I’m not just putting needles in these animals and leaving.”
And while her days as a conventional vet ended a long time ago when she changed gears to holistic treatments, King doesn’t believe conventional veterinary medicine should ever go away.
She often works side-by-side with the conventional vets at Mariposa, referring her clients to them for certain issues and vice-versa.
After all, she said, Eastern medicine doesn’t solve everything, just as Western medicine doesn’t heal everything.
Her viewpoint is shared by conventional and holistic vets alike.
More Johnson County veterinary clinics are putting conventional medicine and holistic services under one roof.
Vern Otte, a conventional veterinarian who owns the State Line Animal Hospital in Leawood, is a firm believer in integrating the two worlds.
“These holistic approaches work — the results are evident,” he said. “Personally, I think the future of veterinary medicine is balancing Eastern and Western medicine as a combination.”
Otte, who has been in the veterinary field for nearly 40 years, also pointed out that vets need to grow with the trend and to be ahead of the curve.
“It’s necessary as a vet to be open-minded and embrace new ideas,” he said. “Our job is a never-ending learning experience. If you don’t keep up with the changes, you’re going to be stuck in the dark ages.”
One of the vets in Otte’s clinic is training to become certified in acupuncture.
State Line Animal Hospital also hosts an independent animal massage therapist.
Liz Jeans, who operates A Healing Touch, works a couple times per week at the clinic, offering canine massage.
Although she has been a human massage therapist since 1997, it wasn’t until two years ago that she realized how beneficial the service was to animals as well.
The hands-on deep tissue techniques increase circulation, reduce muscle spasms and relieve tension, ultimately promoting healing, she said.
She most often works with dogs who have been injured, suffer from hip displacement or have arthritis. Since State Line Animal Hospital serves as Leawood’s animal shelter, she also massages frightened animals brought in to relieve their stress or anxiety.
When she first took on canine massage, Jeans wasn’t sure how the response would be. But she’s developed a devoted clientele base in a short amount of time.
One of those clients is Sharon Hunzeker of Prairie Village, who stopped by the clinic recently for her dog Rosie’s massage appointment.
The 70-pound border collie mix squirmed on the massage table while Jeans dug her hands into its fluffy black fur.
Hunzeker said that when Otte, her vet, suggested Rosie receive a massage for her hip displacement and arthritis, she wasn’t surprised by the idea.
“It made sense,” she said. “I want her to be as comfortable as possible. It’s hard to know she’s in pain.”
Plus, the results are evident after each appointment, she added.
“After a massage, Rosie will feel so better, she’ll jump on the couch or sit in the windowsill,” Hunzeker said. “She just seems happier.”
Jeans isn’t surprised holistic veterinary methods are becoming increasingly popular in today’s digital age.
“Pets have taken on a greater role in people’s lives in the past few years it seems,” she said. “Ten years ago, doggy daycare and dog parks were practically unheard of, and now we see them everywhere. I think our culture is so over-stimulated with technology now that we lean on animals’ unconditional love because it calms us down.”
Even holistic practices that seem less mainstream are growing in interest.
Camille Pukay used to raise eyebrows when she told people her profession is animal reiki. But now, she’s contacted by people from Johnson County to Great Britain.
The Kansas City native helps animals tap into their divine energy, which can be deeply relaxing, self-healing and establish balance, she said.
It can help reduce anxiety, relieve inflammation and speed up the healing process after surgery, Pukay said.
She’s pleased that people in the Midwest are starting to embrace alternative practices instead of shunning them.
After all, in the end, pet owners, conventional vets and holistic healers all have the same goal. They all want to improve the quality of life for animals.
“There is nothing to fear about holistic medicine,” Pukay said. “It’s about making sure that mind and body are balanced. We just have the power to decide if we want to use it.”