Dr. Barbara Royal consults at every Chicago zoo, has administered acupuncture to elephants and zebras, scrubbed oil from otters and tagged wild owl nests. She's treated arthritic camels, tarantulas with torn skin, and a starving spider monkey.
But while her soon-to-be-released book, "The Royal Treatment: A Natural Approach to Wildly Healthy Pets," is peppered with plenty of crazy tales of all the exotic animals she's encountered, the premise for owners of more pedestrian pets is simple: Let your pet's innate evolutionary roots dictate his care.
Royal's 20 years in veterinary medicine have provided her a steady supply of amusing anecdotes for cocktail parties. But more important, she said, they have formed the basis for a philosophy that bridges traditional Western veterinary medicine and alternative strategies, and it's one she thinks more pet owners need to hear.
"My clients ask me all the time, 'Why isn't this (information) more readily available?'" said Royal, 51, who lives in Wilmette with her husband and two children and has a practice on Chicago's North Side. "It's taken me 20 years to get to this point and I don't want it to disappear when I stop working."
Instead of treating the host of ailments that plague an increasing number of pets — arthritis, allergies, diabetes, obesity, cancer — with yet another pill, pet owners and vets need to first consider the underlying issues affecting the pet's health, she said.
"All vets care about their patients," Royal said. "But what happens in medicine is that we have focused on the medicine aspect, and not enough on the healing aspect. Animals have an ability to heal that is innate. What's more important is to find the thing that's stopping them from healing."
A majority of pets' illnesses can be cured by simply changing what's in their food bowl, Royal said. Often, looking at an animal's evolutionary history will give you the clues as to what he should be eating, and nearly all commercial dry dog foods don't fit the bill, she said.
Royal said dogs shouldn't be eating grains and corn, and many of the additives and ingredients aren't going to keep an animal healthy long-term. Instead, she said, owners should consider a raw food diet that more closely resembles what that dog's ancestors would have eaten in the wild.
In "The Royal Treatment," Royal uses the story of a 1-year-old German shepherd named Moonshine as an example of an unnecessarily sick dog who was brought to her as a last resort. Moonshine's owners were considering euthanasia after spending thousands of dollars treating Moonshine's mange, MRSA, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, calcified lumps, urine and fecal incontinence, and a viral papilloma that left growths on her gums, tongue and feet. The dog was on 14 different medications and supplements but still had so many growths she couldn't walk, a bone infection on her leg, patchy hair and abscessed growths all over her body.
"I knew the goal was to do less, much less, and let Moonshine's natural immune system do more," Royal writes. "I just had to uncover her immune system."
Royal started Moonshine on a raw food diet, discontinued the medications that suppressed her immune system, treated her severely low thryoid function, and added acupuncture and supplements.
She writes that within a week, Moonshine was a changed dog and in six weeks, "glowed with health."
"Moonshine had been on the brink of death, and the aggressive state-of-the-art interventions of Western medicine not only couldn't save her, but they hastened her decline," she writes. "In her case, it was time to step back to activate and support her body's own healing capacity."
Some clients are initially skeptical about her diet recommendations, the acupuncture treatments, the underwater treadmill for physical therapy or the herbal supplements. But the strategies she's added to her more traditional treatments have led to a thriving practice, Royal Treatment Veterinary Center, 4130 N. Rockwell St. in Chicago, stints on "Oprah" and the Smithsonian Channel, and consulting to zoos worldwide. She said she's never had to advertise because word-of-mouth has been enough.
After graduating from college, Royal, who grew up in Evanston, took her first job at an advertising agency on Michigan Avenue. Always an animal and science lover, she was intrigued by a part-time job at Lincoln Park Zoo, but knew others would think she was crazy to leave her job for one that paid one-eighth her salary. But after a meeting in which 45 minutes were spent discussing which way the umbrellas in an ad should face, she collected her things and quit that same day.
Eventually, that zoo job led to veterinary school and a first job. But she felt limited on ways to heal animals, and decided to take acupuncture training in Canada. As a new vet with a young family, those years were a whirlwind. She practiced as a vet, while studying alternative medicines and physical therapy on the side. Every vacation or free week was spent on trips and courses to learn about different animals.
"It was insane … all of my time was spent working, studying and spending time with my son," she said.
Lloyd Shaw, a Woodstock veterinarian for 42 years, hired Royal when she first graduated from veterinary school. It was only supposed to be a temporary job because she had a fellowship at a Chicago zoo. But the fellowship involved microscopes in dark rooms, and Royal longed to return to people and patients. Even then, she was beginning her focus on acupuncture and nutrition, Shaw said.
Royal eventually left Woodstock to return to the city, but the two still refer patients to one another and their families get together for cookouts at Shaw's Woodstock farm.
Tasha Lilly, a vet in California, said she was inspired by Royal's approach when she shadowed her in 2008 while she lived in Chicago, and now incorporates alternative medicine into her own practice. Her message may not be one that traditional vets want to hear, Lilly said, but she's seen the strategies work.
"She would really get owner compliance to her ideas," said Lilly, the wife of former Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly. "That's just the way she is. She's captivating and intelligent and you want to listen."
Royal's book is due out in September and includes many of her animal tales along with specific recommendations about how to deal with diet, aging pets, pets with cancer, and vaccines.
"People say, 'When things get bad, call her,'" Royal said. "I love being the detective and solving the story."