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The Independent Culture
CATS AND DOGS come from all over Japan to the Kuroki Veterinary Hospital in Kagoshima, in southern Japan. They are drawn - or their owners are drawn - by several attractions. Dr Nobuyosi Kuroki, the proprietor, has a superb reputation as a vet. He is admired for his skill at analysing and correcting dietary deficiencies. Above all, though, he is admired for the skill with which he buries his clients in volcanic sand.

The sand is warmed to 45 deg C by the nearby active volcano of Shiromaya, and pets remain buried in it for five minutes. As always in Japan, ritual is important. White-robed assistants dress the animals for their ordeals: dogs in cotton pyjamas, or yakuta; cats in thick terry towels. "Cats tend to fall asleep under the sand," Dr Kuroki says. Dogs are not so quiescent, often struggling and yowling under the reasonable misapprehension that they are about to be cooked. None the less, insists Dr Kuroki, "They seem to enjoy it very much. We have treated more than 17,000 dogs and cats and none of them disliked it." At least, none said so.

According to Dr Kuroki, the hot sand immersion is beneficial for all sorts of conditions. "It is quite effective on chronic stomach and intestine disorders," he says. "But also for rheumatism, stress disorders, obesity, and for rehabilitation after slipped discs and traffic accident injuries. Recently a kitten was brought to us which had fallen from the third floor of a building. Its spine was broken. But after a week of treatment in the hot sands it could walk."

Alternative health treatments for animals are increasingly popular in Japan. Many of Dr Kuroki's clients are referred by the celebrated Idol Pet Hotel, a luxury health spa in nearby Fukuoka. This is run by Dr Junki Uyama, an animal behaviourist who claims to be a pioneer of the science of "dogology", and offers (in addition to the predictable pounds 100-a-night rooms and gourmet menus) a range of health and beauty treatments that would be the envy of Champneys or Chewton Glen. As in human health farms, the ailments of many guests are more imaginary than real, which makes the efficacy of treatments harder to dispute.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, Shigenori Masuda teaches yoga for cats. "Many cats are kept entirely indoors these days," he says, "and consequently some of them suffer from stress and others put on too much weight. Yoga reduces their stress levels. In some cases it has reduced weight, and it improves blood circulation, which in turn strengthens internal organs."

"Master" Masuda admits that the 10 yoga positions that he teaches cannot be achieved without a helping hand. "I help them to pose," he says. "But all cats enjoy yoga." It is important that the cat regulates its breathing into the same rhythm as its human helper's, he explains: once this is achieved, and the animal is relaxed, it can be gently stretched into an elegantly contorted position such as the yogic figure known as "The Tree" (above). How far can you stretch a cat? "That I cannot say," Mr Masuda concedes.

It is difficult to imagine such experiments in pet care catching on in Britain - not least because only registered vets are allowed to treat animals here. Yet British experts are not entirely dismissive of the Japanese work. "It's something that I have often wondered about myself," says Dr Robin Monro of the Cambridge-based Yoga Biomedical Trust, which specialises in using yoga to treat conditions such as asthma and back pain. "Of course, it would be quite different working with animals, but really this does not surprise me at all."

Andrew Prentice, Director of the Beaumont Animal Hospital, part of the Royal Veterinary College in London, also has an open mind. "I spent three years doing osteopathy on animals," he recalled, "which is not far off this kind of thing. In post-surgical and post-trauma cases we were using cranial osteopathy and getting some very good recoveries. It is a field with a great deal of potential."

James Herriot must be turning in his grave. !