Donna Kelleher, DVM is the latest Game Changer nominee whose work has branched into many often-neglected areas of the animal world. I interviewed Donna to discuss her approach to medicine and not only the importance of caring for the animals we love, but for ourselves as caregivers.
Donna focuses on holistic medicine and adds that herbal medicine is a big part of her practice. After graduating from veterinary school in 1994 and putting in 26 years as a practitioner, she got involved in rescuing horses and Liberty horse training, which emphasizes positive horse and human interaction. One of the most important aspects of her career, though, is that of an author.
Her first book, “The Last Chance Dog,” was published in 2003 and “The Proof Is in the Poodle” came out in 2012. Donna calls her latest book a “roadmap” that explores how to change the veterinary profession to be healthier for animal caretakers and how that will ultimately benefit patients and clients.
The challenges faced by people with a passion to help animals have become a bigger issue than many people realize, and Donna has examined why so many of us end up being some of the most broken professionals in the world. In our interview, she explained:
“I see a progression toward problems and we see some of the manifestations with our suicide rates … I thought I would write a book that kind of encompassed all of that …
Because I’ve been doing this for a while, I’ve been friends with people who have either tried to commit suicide … (and) have known people who have, and then also just the burnout rate. Almost all my friends are either burnt out or (have) ‘compassion fatigue’ or whatever you want to call it.”
Why Animal Caregivers Experience ‘Compassion Fatigue’
One of Donna’s observations was that veterinarians often have a certain personality; they’re very accomplished and goal-oriented, but without total control over their patients’ outcomes — that’s only partially in our control. Another thing, she says, is that there may be some ego involved.
She says animal caregivers can’t divide their professional lives from their personal lives, but if they can “take away” themselves and their emotional states and detach their egos, that’s a way to bring a stronger person back into their professional world.
“There’s a lot of spiritual elements to it and it’s quite involved … Sometimes we get clouded by our own egos and our own attachments and controlling and all that. If we could just see the work, the animals, how their vital force heals and how we can help it along the way. If we could be clear about that, then it would be nothing but a joyful profession — as it maybe once was for many of us.”
Donna’s observations are certainly compelling and very much needed, and I appreciate her being moved to write that very difficult book on top of everything else she’s doing.
Like most of us who are dedicated animal caregivers, Donna also underwent conventional training, which of course we’re thankful for. But it doesn’t necessarily serve us well; at least it didn’t serve me well in terms of preventing lifestyle-related diseases or dealing with the massive chronic degenerative diseases we face, at least in small animal medicine.
I asked how she combines integrative medicine with her solid background of conventional training, and she mentioned her training in Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique, aka NAET.
For people who don’t know anything about NAET, I’d say that if more veterinarians knew the potential of this allergy desensitization protocol, they would think about it more seriously.
Allergy Elimination 101
Donna said her interest in NAET started with her own deteriorating health and some really severe problems, including asthma, allergies, bronchitis and lots of “immune-mediated type stuff.” She went through multiple specialists, allergy shots, acupuncture and other treatments that didn’t work very well — although the “weird tea” a Chinese doctor gave her helped. In the end, she got NAET treatments, which ultimately cured her asthma. She continued:
“Now I live on this horse farm and I’m constantly inundated with allergens that would have been detrimental 20 years ago. I went and took the NAET training myself, and I think it’s really important to understand the allergy part of our work. And it’s probably the least understood in the holistic medicine. But yeah, it was my own health …
I was lucky enough to learn from Dr. Nambudripad herself in the late ‘90s, and I took all the human training because there isn’t really, in my opinion, that great of (an) animal program. At this point, there’s probably none because right now all the NAET training is online.”
There’s an entire section explaining NAET on Donna’s website at Northwest Holistic Pet Care,1 but basically, it’s a diagnostic, allergy desensitization protocol using small amounts of different substances such as amino acids, especially synthesized ones, because there are a lot of amino acid problems with animals. In fact, Donna said:
“That’s what got me into your book and raw feeding and cooked diets and stuff because I was like, ‘Oh, there’s all of these problems with proteins. All of these problems with amino acids.’ And then we have other problems, too, with different minerals and vitamins, so those can be triggers into immune-mediated disease.
The most important thing I can do is figure out what those triggers are and with NAET or systems like it, you can figure that out in about five minutes with the client. It’s very fast and it’s very effective. So you can tell them, ‘Hey, your lupus is going to get worse if the dog eats chicken and beef and fish and grains.’
Those are common ones, but … it could be vitamin C or selenium. It can be any trigger, just where the immune system has gotten confused at what to react to.”
Learning More About Modalities
NAET is probably one of the few simple, yet so profoundly effective, modalities at identifying triggers and removing them so the inflammatory reaction doesn’t occur. To learn more, you can read about it on Donna’s website, nwholisticpetcare.com.2 She also mentioned a book called “The Epigenetic Revolution,” by Nessa Carey:
“That explains how holistic medicine and lifestyle changes can basically regain wellness and sometimes cure autoimmune diseases that would not be curable otherwise, (as well as) itching, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and the maraud of this epidemic of immune-mediated disease … It’s growing and growing and growing and dogs are getting younger and younger.”
Donna said people wonder what can be done, but the answer is: a lot. She mentioned how cool it is that botanicals fit in with NAET and acupuncture, and that the diet is probably the most important piece, which may start with getting them off kibble. However, she added:
“Veterinary training has basically stayed the same, in my opinion, as far as for chronic disease. It’s just changed so little in the 40 years or something that I’ve been around.
Even just if you wrote a letter that said, ‘Please bring into your curriculum some basic botanical medicine, some basic bodywork skills for these new veterinarians so that they’re not always relying on a ‘pill’ way of dealing with pain, which doesn’t work as well as some simple bodywork’ … We need our skills to be toned up to what the public is demanding … Just sit down, write that letter.”
What a wonderful, inspiring suggestion. I think that’s one thing that if everyone listening or reading actually did, what a shift that would make for the opportunities available to pet parents to have other options for healing.
With all these different modalities as a veterinarian, Donna says she serves as a sort of bridge, holding the hands of her clients as well as those of her patients. That’s a beautiful way to think about the important role animal caregivers have in improving quality of life for both of those beautiful souls at either end of our handholding.