Evanston native Dr. Barbara Royal has performed acupuncture on meerkats, built an underwater treadmill for an elephant and operated on a giant grouper as a consultant for Chicago's Lincoln Park and Brookfield Zoos and the Shedd Aquarium, but she also treats common pets like dogs, cats and rabbits at her Royal Treatment Veterinary Center in Chicago.
The wide variety of patients has taught her a universal truth about animal care: for an animal to be healthy, it has to eat and do what comes naturally.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t have a dog in a high rise apartment in Chicago," Royal said. "It just means that you have to take them out and give them the food they need.”
That philosophy is behind her book, The Royal Treatment: A Natural Approach to Wildly Healthy Pets, which was published by Simon & Schuster in September. It combines stories from Royal's career with tips on animal care.
"The reviews have been terrific," Royal said. "That was probably the most nerve-wracking thing. My point was to make sure that it was entertaining and fun to read, but at the same time provided a lot of good information for pet owners.”
'You're our last chance'
Royal's practice combines Western and Eastern medicine, mixing acupuncture, herbal supplements and massage therapy with more common veterinary procedures. She's gotten a reputation for being the veterinarian of last resort, treating animals after seemingly everything else has failed.
"I’m sitting in my exam room at my clinic, and the owner is looking around in dismay for the source of the smell and I have to say 'That’s me. That’s camel spit.'"
“I hear that a lot from patients who come in," Royal said. "The owner bursts into tears. They say 'You’re our last chance. You’re our last hope.' It used to daunt me but now I feel it’s OK. I don’t feel overwhelmed by a cancer case that has diabetes and is overweight and is a cat that hides all the time. We’re used to very radical turnarounds.”
Royal, a New Trier graduate, said the key to her success has been taking a holistic approach to treatment. She often recommends pet owners switch from processed pet foods to raw diets that better reflect what the animal might eat in the wild.
“I don’t look so much at diseases as I try to find out what is stopping the animal from being healthy," she said.
The alternative approach isn't just appealing to people with very ill pets. Royal serves on the board of directors of PAWS Chicago and about four years ago she conducted the exit exam for a puppy that Oprah Winfrey was adopting. Royal suggested that the talk show host feed her new pet a raw diet and wound up going shopping with her for food and treats. Royal has served as Oprah's vet ever since.
'That course changed my life'
The Wilmette resident had been fascinated with acupuncture since she saw a television show about it as a child. She flew from Chicago to Canada for five days a month for six months to take a veterinary acupuncture classes, billing the flights to her credit card because she couldn't afford them.
“I was frustrated with animals that were too sensitive for medication and I felt like I didn’t have enough answers,” she said. "“It couldn’t have been a better decision. That course changed my life.”
That experience led to Royal being the first veterinarian to perform acupuncture on a zebra.
“I had to really work so hard to just gain her trust and get the needles in without scaring her," she said. "Their first instinct is to kick and kill and run.”
Other patients are less dangerous, but still problematic. A camel she treated during a lunch break spit on her repeatedly and, despite her best efforts, she couldn't get the foul smell out before she had to go back to her office to see a patient.
"I’m sitting in my exam room at my clinic, and the owner is looking around in dismay for the source of the smell and I have to say 'That’s me. That’s camel spit.'”
Royal's interactions with wildlife aren't limited to the consulting work she does for zoos and aquariums. She loves observing the animals that live close to home, like foxes and coyotes, and last July performed an impromptu exam in front of a crowd of onlookers after a Cooper's hawk flew into a window at Kamakura while her family was out to dinner at Gilson's.
"As the bird flopped under a car, up walks the wildlife family," Royal said. "I’m like, 'Hi, I’m Dr. Royal. We can take care of this.'”
You can meet Dr. Royal and pick up a copy of The Royal Treatment at a book signing on Thursday Jan. 10 from 6-8 at the Ruff Haus Pets in Chicago and on Sunday Jan. 13 from 1-3 p.m. at Madame Zuzu's in Highland Park.