As far back as he can remember, Richard Palmquist, DVM, thought like a scientist. His father was a microbiologist, and young Richard would tag along to the lab on Saturday mornings, watching with curiosity as the elder Palmquist studied infectious disease cultures. His mother, a dental educator, read biology texts to him at his request.
And by the time Palmquist was 7, he had a microscope of his own, spending hours looking at slides of tissues and organisms.
So, when Dr. Palmquist graduated from Colorado State University’s veterinary school in 1983, he gravitated to conventional medicine. And by the mid-’80s, when he heard that a former client’s pet was being treated for cancer by a so-called “alternative medicine” specialist, he was instantly skeptical.
“The guy must be a quack,” Palmquist remembers thinking. He got so worked up that he traveled from his home in California to the veterinarian’s practice in New York, planning to expose him as a fraud.
But in New York, Palmquist watched the veterinarian, Martin Goldstein, DVM, present case after case where nonconventional treatments had improved or prolonged an animal’s life: A blind cat whose sight returned after dietary therapy. A paralyzed German shepherd who was able to walk after receiving acupuncture. Another cat who was recovering from a severe oral tumor that had been treated with cryosurgery, freezing the tumor to kill it.
“I realized that not only was I wrong about this guy, but that he knew something that I didn’t. And it changed the way I thought about everything,” says Palmquist, who turns 53 this month and has been practicing integrative medicine for more than two decades.
Chief of integrative health services at Centinela Animal Hospital in Inglewood, Calif., he also serves as president and research chairman of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, where he is helping establish a $5 million foundation to support more research into alternative treatments. And he’s the first to announce that as a clinician, he’s still science-oriented.
“That’s what the whole integrative medical movement is about, bringing science to this more diffuse field of complementary and alternative medicine,” Palmquist says. His guiding principle: Help animals heal and live better lives by whatever means works.
But back in the ’80s, this was not a commonly held view. Returning to California after observing Goldstein for a week, Palmquist began reading everything he could find on alternative medicine and putting it to the test.
“I always said I wouldn’t try out anything I didn’t understand or that I couldn’t try out on myself,” Palmquist says.
In fact, the first alternative therapy that Palmquist used, nutraceutical therapy to treat arthritis, came about because he suffered from arthritis himself. He started taking the same therapeutic nutritional products he would prescribe for dogs. Within weeks, the pain and dysfunction in his affected knee disappeared, he says.
Encouraged, he started offering the nutraceutical therapy in his practice. Within about four weeks, he notes, 60 percent of the patients were more active and exhibiting less discomfort and stiffness.
Still, he says, he moved cautiously, skeptically weighing new ideas and then slowly integrating them into his conventional practice—first nutrition and weight control, then treatments like acupuncture and homotoxicology.
Typically, he would begin introducing such treatments only after he had determined that conventional medicine could do nothing more for the patient. When he was first learning a new therapy, he provided free treatments to build clients’ trust.
“And a lot of those patients would get better,” he says. “Once we knew we could help them, I felt OK about adding it to my practice and charging a fee.”
He began publishing his findings, which ultimately resulted in his writing a textbook. In 2010, Palmquist wrote a case report that won the top case study award from the International Association of Homotoxicology. He was first veterinarian to win the honor.
Dr. Palmquist poses with Bella, one of his patients.
Today, he offers a true integrated practice. His No. 1 prescription? Nutritional therapy. Then, in order, he says, it’s anti-homotoxic medication, conventional drugs and herbal therapies.
In general, Palmquist says, “We want to offer therapies that are the least invasive—but when those therapies are ineffective, we will do whatever we need to do for symptom suppression.”
It’s an approach that more conventional colleagues like California oncology specialist Mona P. Rosenberg, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM (Oncology), applaud. Rosenberg met Palmquist years ago when he began referring cases to her. She now also refers cases to him.
“For owners I have who want to pursue a true, comprehensive East-plus-West approach, I like how he does things,” Dr. Rosenberg says. “I like his bedside manner and his knowledge base is tremendous. … He gets that it has to be a combined approach.”
Palmquist believes the integrated approach is gaining more widespread acceptance, partly because younger veterinarians are receiving more training in other modalities and partly because of market demand.
“Clients are finding this stuff on the Internet and they’re going to be asking you about it,” he says.
His client Staci Steadman, for instance, found Palmquist after conventional vets could do nothing for her pug, Bella, who suffered from unexplained seizures. Skeptical, Steadman agreed to try a round of herbal supplements.
“He took a lot of time to explain to me about the concepts of Chinese medicine, how different body parts are related to different things, and the bottom line was he thought her body wasn’t processing toxins,” Steadman says. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s new to me, but he’s so open and passionate about it, let’s try it.’”
The seizures disappeared. Bella is now 15, and other than hearing loss and some arthritis, remains lively and happy, thanks to a continuing mix of conventional and alternative treatments, Steadman says.
And that, Palmquist says, is why he got on this path to begin with—not to be trendy or to make money.
“My practice still boils down to a set of brown eyes looking up at me, asking me, ‘Isn’t there something more you can do?’” he says.
“Sometimes those brown eyes belong to a dog or cat who is suffering, or sometimes to a kid, or a client who loves that animal. There is no one pill that addresses every problem. We need every tool, and to understand which tools are useful in which situations, so that as a profession we can offer the best care to our patients.”