A History of Holistic Dog Care
A profile of Juliette de Bairacli Levy, pioneer of natural rearing methods.
[Updated February 4, 2016]
Readers of canine health books and magazines, including this one, can be forgiven for assuming that holistic or natural pet care is a recent breakthrough, something developed during the past two or three decades by a handful of revolutionary veterinarians and researchers.
Not so. Today’s holistic pet care movement began over 70 years ago when Juliette de Bairacli Levy defined “natural rearing.” Now in her 90s and living in Switzerland, Levy holds a place of honor in the history of natural pet care.
Born to a wealthy Jewish family (her father was Turkish, her mother Egyptian) and raised in England with chauffeurs, maids, cooks, and gardeners, Levy knew in childhood that she wanted to be a veterinarian. She attended two universities and was in her final year of veterinary school when she decided that conventional medicine had none of the answers she sought, and she embarked on a lifetime of travel and study with nomadic people, first in England, then around the world.
“I realized that if I wanted to learn the traditional ways of healing and caring for animals, I had to be where people still lived close to the land and close to their flocks,” she says. “From Berbers, Bedouins, nomads, peasants, and gypsies in England, Israel, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, and Austria, I learned herbal knowledge and the simple laws of health and happiness. I never tired of traveling with my Afghan Hounds, always living with and learning from those around me.”
An inexhaustible writer, Levy shared what she learned in letters, travel books, novels, poems, and books about herbs and animals. In the 1930s, she published three canine herbals. The Cure of Canine Distemper described protocols she developed for her highly successful distemper clinic in London. Puppy Rearing by Natural Methods and Medicinal Herbs: Their Use in Canine Ailments were reprinted for a wider audience in London in 1947. All three were soon translated into German and other languages.
Just over 50 years ago, in 1955, she combined these works in The Complete Herbal Book for the Dog. Now in its sixth edition and called The Complete Herbal Handbook for the Dog and Cat, this is the book that brought Levy’s natural rearing philosophy to breeders, trainers, and dog owners throughout the world.
Five Rules of Natural Rearing
Levy’s basic rules of natural rearing for dogs require:
1) a correct natural diet of raw foods;
2) abundant sunlight and fresh air;
3) at least two hours of exercise daily, including plenty of running exercise outside any kennel enclosures;
4) hygienic kenneling, with the use of earth, grass, or gravel runs, never concrete; and
5) herbs, fasting, and other natural methods in place of vaccinations and conventional symptom-suppressing drugs.
Levy’s first rule has gained acceptance over the years. Many holistic veterinarians recommend feeding a home-prepared diet of raw foods, including meat and bones. Some use the diet of wild wolves as a model. Levy and her followers feed a variety of foods, including raw meat, dairy, eggs, minced herbs, and small quantities of fruit, vegetables, powdered seaweed, and grains such as oats soaked overnight in raw goat milk or yogurt.
“I introduced seaweed to the veterinary world when a student in the early ’30s,” she says. “It was scorned then, but now it is very popular worldwide.” She credits kelp and other sea vegetables with giving dark pigment to eyes, noses, and nails, stimulating hair growth, and developing strong bones.
In addition to providing ample quantities of pure water at all times, Levy recommends one meatless day and one fasting day (no food, just water) per week for adult dogs. Where raw bones are concerned, Levy recommends feeding them after the day’s main meal, on a full stomach, so that the bone is cushioned by food, and with a small amount of soaked bran, shredded coconut, or other fiber to help sweep bone fragments from the digestive tract.
All of Levy’s dietary recommendations are accompanied by traditional herbal formulas for everything from daily health maintenance to birthing aids and weaning foods, disinfecting herbs that help protect dogs from harmful viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and herbal first-aid for dozens of conditions and illnesses.
Researchers who study the connection between natural light and the endocrine system agree with Levy’s recommendation that dogs spend as much time as possible outdoors. They blame malillumination, the lack of unfiltered natural light, for a host of chronic illnesses. Glass windows prevent the transmission of full-spectrum natural light, but open windows and doorways provide it.
Daily outdoor exercise, including running and play, does more than burn calories; it stimulates lymph circulation, strengthens bones, improves immunity, and keeps dogs happy as well as healthy.
Levy’s advice about kenneling dogs in close contact with earth or grass rather than concrete is interesting in light of research cited by cell biologist James Oschman, PhD, in his book "Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis of Bioenergy Therapies." Dr. Oschman links modern health problems to our insulation from the natural supply of free electrons that reside on the surface of the earth. Barefoot contact with the earth, he says, supplies free electrons in abundance.
As San Diego health researcher Dale Teplitz explains, “Animals know that, and when given a chance they will choose to be in contact with the earth. This barefoot contact can improve sleep, reduce inflammation that causes pain, balance hormones, enhance circulatory and neurological function, and much more.”
As one would expect, Levy has no use for pesticides, weed killers, or other lawn chemicals, and she recommends feeding dogs organically raised and pasture-fed ingredients.
Levy considers vaccinations unnecessary and inappropriate, both because natural methods treat illnesses successfully and because vaccines disrupt the body’s immune system.
“You cannot discount the hundreds of canine distemper cures that Juliette and her students achieved,” says Marina Zacharias, who has studied natural rearing for over 20 years. “And I have witnessed her parvovirus treatments first-hand with great success. When you know that these ailments can be successfully treated with natural methods, it removes the fear that has been instilled in us. I know that in my case she definitely empowered me to take an active and preventive role in my animals’ health care. Our society does not teach you that.
“Juliette encourages you to think for yourself and not blindly follow established methods just because you are told to. Her attitude is rare, especially today. She has witnessed almost an entire century, and through all the technological breakthroughs of modern science, she still advocates natural rearing methods, as they continue to prove themselves effective.”
Fasting for Healing
To most of us, fasting – depriving a dog of food – seems unnatural. Surely the right thing to do is to encourage a dog to eat at every mealtime. But fasting is Levy’s choice of treatment for all animals, including humans, who are ill.
Well-known author and trainer Wendy Volhard learned about fasting and natural rearing 39 years ago when these methods saved her dog’s life and started her on a fascinating new career.
In 1967, Volhard traveled from New York to Germany, where she met 17- and 18-year-old Landseer Newfoundlands. It’s also where she acquired Heidi, an exceptionally healthy young female, as the foundation of her breeding kennel.
“I was in my early 20s then,” says Volhard, “and I wanted to do everything in the most scientific manner. I talked and worked with veterinarians at every opportunity, so I knew the importance of vaccinating every dog for everything and, of course, feeding the finest quality commercial dog food. That was the only way to go.”
But instead of thriving, Heidi declined, and at age five, she was given a month to live. “She had total deterioration,” says Volhard. “Her kidneys, liver, and heart were failing, and she had skeletal problems. Her whole body was falling apart.”
In desperation, Volhard returned to Germany and asked for help. She learned that Heidi’s long-lived, healthy relatives were fed raw, natural foods, nothing out of a box or can, and none were vaccinated. The English breeders she visited on her way home used the same methods, and they gave her as a parting gift Levy’s Complete Herbal Handbook for the Dog.
Volhard read the book on her return flight to New York and laughed heartily at Levy’s advice to fast sick animals and build them up with herbs and natural foods. But at home with her dying dog, she thought, “What else can I do?” The finest veterinary medicine wasn’t helping.
Over the strong objections of her husband, who thought Heidi should enjoy a steak every day for whatever time she had left, Volhard fasted the dog for three weeks, feeding her only fluids, honey, and herbs. “I followed Juliette’s guidelines absolutely,” she says. “I had nowhere else to go. And every day that my dog didn’t eat, she got better. At the end of three weeks, we started her on a natural diet, and she regained her strength, recovered completely, got her Utility title, and lived an active, happy life until she died seven years later at age 12.”
At the time, Volhard was a Wall Street Journal reporter, with one foot in the scientific “prove it” community. She decided to compare Levy’s natural rearing diet, with its a-little-of-this-and-a-little-of-that approach, to the National Science Foundation’s nutritional guidelines for dog food, the only scientifically tested pet food standard at the time.
“It took me 12 years and many interviews with experts,” she says. “Then my veterinarian helped with final adjustments, which we made as the result of hundreds of blood tests.”
In 1984 Volhard published her diet, and the book that resulted, Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog, is now in its second edition.
Several years later, she met Levy at a seminar. “I thought, Oh my, if I were in her shoes and met a woman who had taken my work and fiddled with it and then published it, how would I feel? With trepidation, I finally met her, and she said, ‘I’ve been waiting to meet you for years. You’ve done a fabulous job. Thank you for taking my work and carrying on.’ She was incredibly gracious.”
Volhard adjusted the ratio of calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus in Levy’s diet, but she calls the natural rearing philosophy as important and effective today as it was when Levy first proposed it. “Juliette did the very best she could with the knowledge available at the time,” says Volhard. “She did a magnificent job. She is truly the grandmother of the entire holistic animal care movement. She’s like Adele Davis in the human health food movement. She started it up.”
Traditional herbal medicine had all but disappeared in the United States when, in the 1960s, a new generation began turning away from conventional therapies and looking for alternatives. Rosemary Gladstar, now one of America’s leading herbalists, was part of that movement.
“Juliette has done amazing things for dogs, cats, and farm animals, but she has also done wonderful things for people,” says Gladstar. “Her early books had an extraordinary influence on herbalists everywhere. She single-handedly rescued a body of knowledge that would otherwise have been lost or ignored, and she put it directly into the hands of her readers.”
As valuable as Levy’s recipes and instructions were to her and other herbalists, Gladstar recalls that it was Levy’s ability to inspire her readers that changed their lives. “There is no doubt about it,” she says. “She sparked and awakened something in me, just as she did in hundreds of others, far more than any other herbalist at the time. I think it was because she was so connected to the earth and to plants, and she was able to transmit and pass on that feeling of connection. Juliette made herbal medicine fully accessible to everyone.”
Gladstar has followed Levy’s nutritional recommendations for all of her dogs, including Deva, a Bernese Mountain Dog.
“Deva came to me with all kinds of problems,” she says. “She had major personality disorders, which I think stemmed in part from her body being so uncomfortable from mange and hot spots. Her coat was in terrible shape, with huge bald areas and weeping eczema. She looked really awful, and she was so unhappy. Deva is now over nine years old, which for a Berner is elderly, and for years her health problems have been about 99 percent gone. She has a wonderful personality and a wonderful life, thanks to natural rearing.”
Gladstar began a correspondence with Levy in the 1970s after reading A Gypsy in New York and Traveler’s Joy. “Though these were not really herb books,” she says, “I loved them and wrote to the author in care of her publisher. To my surprise, she wrote back, and we became pen pals.”
In the 1980s, Gladstar organized an herbal tour that visited Levy in Greece, where she lived on a small island. “I decided then and there that I wanted to bring her to the United States so that people who used medicinal plants and raised their animals with the help of her books would have a chance to meet her.”
Gladstar listed Levy as the keynote speaker at the first International Herb Symposium, which was held in 1988 in Framingham, Massachusetts. “The response was overwhelming,” she says. “We had a huge audience. It was especially exciting for Juliette because this was the first time in her elder years that she was able to see and meet people whose lives had been affected by her books. She started spending more time in the U.S. and in fact lived here for long stretches of time, and her books began to sell again.”
One of Levy’s West Coast disciples was Marina Zacharias, who imported her NR (Natural Rearing) brand of herbal supplements from England and sold her books. By the late 1980s, Levy’s London publisher, Faber & Faber, had run out of The Complete Herbal Handbook for the Dog and Cat but planned not to reprint the book until a sufficient number of orders arrived. The delay could be lengthy, so Zacharias ordered 2,000 copies and kept the book in print.
Like Gladstar, Zacharias organized a large seminar featuring Juliette de Bairacli Levy, this one in Seattle. “People flew in from all over the country,” she says. “They came not only to hear her speak but to actually meet her in person and hear her stories. I think every one of us that day walked away knowing that we had touched history and that we had been very fortunate to meet such a master herbalist and animal advocate.”
Zacharias first read Levy’s book in the mid-1980s when she was preparing to bring home her first show-quality Basset Hound puppy. At the time, she had two mixed-breed toy dogs who seemed to have every possible canine disorder.
“When I read Juliette’s book,” she says, ”it was as though someone hit me over the head with a brick. With great certainty I knew this was what I needed to do for my dogs. Her logic regarding natural rearing combined with her clinical experience was impressive. I immediately switched my dogs from Purina chow to raw food and never looked back.”
Zacharias values Levy’s advice because it has stood the test of time. “She will tell you that these methods are not ‘her’ diet and herbal inventions but rather foods and medicinal plants as they have been used for generations and centuries,” she says. “Juliette is an herbal historian.”
When we asked Levy what she would most like to be remembered for, she replied, “My Turkuman Afghan Hounds became famous for their vitality and speed, and I still prize the Time magazine photograph of one of my hounds after he won Best in Show at Westminster, with the simple caption ‘Best hound in all of America.’ I would like to go to my grave or fly to heaven breeding Afghans.
“Another thing I would like to be remembered for is curing canine distemper, which became my specialty. Indeed, the veterinarians of the King of England sent me their important cases to cure during World War II at my distemper clinic in London.
“I would also like to be remembered for curing 3,000 condemned sheep by herbal methods in England in 1947, clearing their diarrhea and other symptoms with green plants and molasses while vast numbers of sheep in neighboring fields received conventional care and died. Saving the sheep remains one of my proudest moments.”
To her fans and friends in the United States and around the world, and especially to their dogs, she sends appreciation and best wishes.
Levy, who lives with her daughter in Switzerland, is still a traveler. As this article went to press Levy was in Germany visiting her remaining Afghan Hound, Malika (Shirini Shades of Velvet), who lives on a friend’s farm. She welcomes e-mail messages, which can be sent to her at email@example.com, but regrets that she will not be able to send individual replies.
Also With This Article
-A long-time contributor to WDJ and author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, Natural Remedies for Dogs & Cats, and other books, CJ Puotinen lives in New York with her husband, a Lab, and a tabby cat.