Rural: Nature's way with animals

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How do you apply homeopathic remedies to a cow with toothache? Or a gerbil that's off its nuts?

Sally Williams meets a vet with a mission

People say unpleasant things about the country vet Chris Day: that he is a witch doctor, a bone shaker, a crank. They pick fights with him in veterinary journals. Some even demand that he resign from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

But then Chris Day - mid-fifties, grey, boyishly floppy hair, tweed jacket, comfy cords and peculiar, Muttley-style laugh - is a homeopathic vet. Domestic cats, dogs, gerbils; farm cows, horses, pigs; even zoo elephants, rhinos and wild animals found sick or injured are all treated from his Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre in Oxfordshire. "There is no animal," he says defiantly, "that can't be treated with alternative medicine."

But how, exactly? There's more to homeopathic medicine than little pills with long names (Caulophyllum thalictroides, Gelsemium sempervirens); it's about getting to know the whole person as an individual - assessing personality, behaviour, job satisfaction, fingernails. How on earth do you return mind, body and spirit to a balanced state when your patient refuses to be examined (Chris never knocks them out with tranquillisers), let alone discuss its social background and psychological state?

"No, you can't ask the animal questions," agrees Chris, "or even discuss what sort of pain it's in. Does it ache or throb, or is it a shooting pain? But animals have a brain. They feel things. They have emotions." They also get eaten for dinner, but Chris doesn't see this as a reason not to treat them as "energetic wholes" before doing so. "We have a duty to animals, especially if we are exploiting them."

Can you tell whether a dog is happy or sad? "Of course," he replies. "A wet nose, a waggy tail and a nice shiny coat make a picture of health. So anything short of that starts to become important." But isn't that a healthy dog, rather than a happy one? "Happiness and health are integrated. Mind and body are integrated. That's the fundamental thing." What about cows? "One is happy to chew the cud; another will try to break out. Same situation, different animal. I wouldn't treat mastitis in one the way I would in the other."

Hedgehogs, then? "Wild animals are more of a challenge, but just because you don't know how a hedgehog feels, doesn't mean you can't observe its behaviour and reactions."

A conventional consultation lasts around five minutes. Chris's run to three-quarters of an hour, and that's after Caroline, his PA, has booked them in. It's not just a case of name and address. "You get the whole spiel," she explains. "A blow-by-blow account of the animal's history, like it or not."

Chris spends two days in the surgery and three on the road. He treats referrals only, and as most clients live some distance away, Chris will see them once and then deal with them by phone or letter. Animals are treated with the same homeopathic medicine as humans. Likewise acupuncture treatment, which is used on domestic animals - dogs, cats, horses, even goats and cattle. "Acupuncture treats the animal as an energetic whole," Chris comments.

So how does he set about assessing his patients? Take Smoky the cat, a former stray who has the feline form of Aids. The traditional vet advises that he should be put down. Chris has other thoughts. "Does Smoky like to be warm or cool?" he asks, "Warm. He spends his whole time near the radiator," says his owner, Charlotte. "Good appetite?" "I'll say. Just look at him." "Stool or waterworks?" "Haven't a clue. He does it outside." "Does he have any fears? "He jumps when I make a bang or move suddenly." "What sort of bowl does he drink from?" "Best Wedgwood china, of course." Charlotte knows that plastic bowls are full of nasty toxins. "What do you feed him?" "Felix and fresh fish." Whoops! Fish from the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Mediterranean and fish farms are subject to worrying levels of toxins. Farmed fish suffer the additional disadvantage of being stressed. And really, Chris reminds her, what about the recommended organic chicken regime? But she's tried that. The cat didn't like it. And it's expensive.

Chris, of course, would never be so half-hearted. He is a total believer in 100 per cent Soil Association-approved feeding, and utterly convinced that he is always right. He lives and works with uninterrupted energy from home, a beautiful Norman barn with Queen Anne extensions, grows medicinal herbs in his walled organic vegetable garden, from which he steams carrots and finely grates herbs for his dog (or so he says in his snappily entitled booklet, Feeding Dogs the Natural Way) and is so convinced of the evils of conventional medicine that he even refuses to give his baby daughter "immune-system-disturbing" inoculations.

And one little inconsistency that did not quite compute - eating meat - has now been sorted out. Not that Chris had a problem with eating meat as such. "It's part of life." It's just that one day he couldn't pull the trigger. He used to kill the beast himself, you see, rather than buying it pre-packed from Tesco. And then one day he couldn't. Nor could his wife, and he wasn't going to pay someone else to do it, if he couldn't. So now he feels much more comfortable with himself. "You have to be consistent," he explains, "otherwise there is a stress."

Or rather, more stress. Making money the natural way is not easy. It costs Chris pounds 700 a day to run the surgery (car, six staff) and, as Caroline points out, "we do not sell products, as conventional vets do. The cost of medicine is nothing. It's the time. And people are never keen to pay for time."

But enough of them do. Chris first set up the practice in 1987 and regularly starts at 4am to catch up on cases. Both his parents were vets and Chris decided, aged five, that he wanted to be one too. He was introduced to homeopathy in his teens by relations who were homeopathic doctors. He trained as a conventional vet (as all homeopathic vets have to) joined his parents' practice in 1973 and started using homeopathy. It all "snowballed" from there.

He is now secretary of the British Association of Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeons - core qualified membership 19 (and one of those works in South Africa). There are 250 qualified homeopathic doctors. But this could change. There is talk of introducing accredited courses at Bristol University and Glasgow University.

In the meantime there is just one course in Oxford, and the students who will graduate this summer. If they pass a further exam, the numbers of qualified homeopathic vets, Caroline predicts, could be up by at least two.

Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre, Stanford-in-the-Vale, Faringdon, Oxfordshire SN7 8NQ (01367-710475)

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