Betsy Lukens of Mt. Airy and her Golden Retriever, Casey, are happy to have Dr. Kassell make a house call.

Betsy Lukens of Mt. Airy and her Golden Retriever, Casey, are happy to have Dr. Kassell make a house call.

by Louise E. Wright

“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Advice like this would never cross Dr. Natasha Kassell’s lips. Instead of conventional meds, she’d sooner prescribe vitamins and herbal supplements. Nor would she hesitate to make a house call — provided the patient is having a ruff day. If one of your canines was getting loose, you might need to call a dentist. But if it was a much bigger canine, you might call Dr. Kassell.

A resident of Mt. Airy, the tail-ented Dr. Kassell, 45, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1994. She quickly realized her dream, that of working in a small animal conventional practice, only to become disillusioned. “I hated it,” she recalled. “I was really, really, really unhappy professionally. Nothing about the job matched what I’d hoped for.

“I am a slow and very methodical person. I like to take a lot of time with clients and patients.” Instead, she found herself allotted 15 minutes, the length of a typical office visit, to obtain information, make a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment. Convinced there was a better way of serving patients as well as herself (becoming unleashed, you might say), Kassell started her own practice, one that relies entirely on house calls, in 1997.

She made the right decision. “I love what I do,” she enthuses. “I love observing patients in their natural setting.” Doing so enables her to pick up on things she might miss in a brief office visit, for example, a cat who urinates in unacceptable places. In the home, Dr. Kassell can observe kitty in relation to children, dogs or other cats — all possible sources of stress.

While getting rid of the stressors might not be desirable or even possible, she can suggest ways of re-organizing the house so as to reduce or eliminate their impact. “What I’m really good at,” she insists, “is helping people solve problems.”

An initial consultation in the home lasts approximately 90 minutes. Most subsequent “visits” take place over the phone in the form of quick check-ins, but Kassell is always available for repeat house calls. While clients pay more for her time than they would a traditional office visit, they save on medication. Unlike other vets, she does not sell drugs.

Kassell’s patients consist almost entirely of dogs and cats. She definitely feels fur her patients, especially if they are accused of littering. Recently, however, she provided her services to a puppy yet-to-be-born. In addition to reassurance, she offered the little yellow lab’s human parents-to-be advice on such things as nutrition, vaccinations and crate training. “So much of my work as a vet involves education, preventive health care and consultation,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Kassell’s practice is a holistic one. In the mid-’90s, she began exploring alternative health care, studying nutrition and seeing a naturopath. Eager to take a similar approach with her patients but uncertain how to proceed, she came across “Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats.”

Dr. Kassell stops at the house of Charmagne Collick in Chestnut Hill to check on her adorable litter of foster kittens.

Dr. Kassell stops at the house of Charmagne Collick in Chestnut Hill to check on her adorable litter of foster kittens.

“This is the real deal,” she said to herself. “This resonates with what I believe.” She participated in a program in homeopathy for animals, which Dr. Pitcairn offered to veterinarians, and she keeps up-to-date with the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy’s continuing education classes.

In treating her patients, Dr. Kassell focuses on what she refers to as “holistic modalities” such as “homeopathy, nutrition and reiki.” She also prescribes nutraceuticals: herbs, fatty acids, nutritional supplements and so on. While she occasionally uses antibiotics and steroids, she tends to leave inoculations to the conventional vets whom most of her patients see in addition to herself.

She likens their respective roles to those of general practitioners and naturopaths.

Kassell knew from a very early age, long before she could read the James Herriot stories she cites as inspiration, that she was destined to become a veterinarian. It was the logical career choice for the daughter of parents in the medical profession — her father, a neurosurgeon; her mother, a nurse — and growing up surrounded by animals.

“My parents let me get any pet I could catch,” she recalled. The menagerie included frogs, toads, salamanders and turtles; at one point, the guinea pig population numbered 14. The family always had dogs, and Kassell describes her mother as “a great horsewoman” who gained notoriety for keeping a donkey in their Wynnewood backyard. Hitching it to a cart, she’d offer local children rides around the neighborhood.

Dr. Kassell met husband Tom Osborne at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and upon graduation, the two hopped into a Honda Civic and headed west, interviewing along the way. Not until they’d reached Gig Harbor, Washington, did they find what they were looking for: two jobs for two newly minted vets in the same town. The Pacific Northwest proved an ideal location to indulge their appreciation of nature and their love of hiking, camping and backpacking, activities they continued to enjoy even after the birth of their daughter, Zoe, in 1998.

What was possible with one child, however, became difficult with two when, four years later, son Finn arrived. Taking stock of their situation, the couple asked themselves, “What are we doing here miles away from our families?” and decided to move “back home.” The presence of a Waldorf school lured them to Mt. Airy, and Kassell confesses she “fell in love with the neighborhood.” And in 2002 Tom, who was also a graduate of Germantown Friends School and had traveled solo around the world in 1984, got a job at Mt. Airy Animal Hospital.

A friend, David Tilley of Powelton Village, and Natasha’s son, Finn Osborne, make sure Dr. Kassell’s own dog, Dosewallips, gets more than his fair share of petting. (Photos by April Ziegler)

A friend, David Tilley of Powelton Village, and Natasha’s son, Finn Osborne, make sure Dr. Kassell’s own dog, Dosewallips, gets more than his fair share of petting. (Photos by April Ziegler)

Like James Herriot, Natasha is also a writer. She turned to writing as a means of preserving her sanity while coping with a sick husband and two small children. In 2004, Dr. Osborne was diagnosed with a brain tumor; he died at home on Aug. 27, 2005, at the age of 40.

“I was out of my mind,” she admits. “You think you’ve got it all figured out — the perfect husband, the perfect kids, the perfect job, the perfect neighborhood — and then the bottom falls out.”

Dr. Kassell writes non-fiction exclusively. Her work includes memoirs that focus on relationships and parenting as well as essays offering advice on feeding pets. in 2007 she wrote a piece called “Finn’s Workbench” that placed second in the First Person Arts Festival and was then printed in the Local.

Her most bizarre story was about giving a cow a rectal exam. In the story Dr. Kassell wrote that her arm was all the way up to her shoulder inside the cow’s rectum, but then suddenly a shower of feces “shot out of her anus, coating my hair, my face, my entire body. A bit even seeped into my mouth. I yanked my arm out of the cow, spat on the ground and did the only thing that seemed logical. I left … ”

In keeping with her holistic approach, Dr. Kassell advocates giving dogs and cats fresh, whole, organic foods. Raw foods, she points out, are more nutritious and less work than home-cooked foods; they are also “much closer to the foods” the animals “would have eaten in the wild.”

The raw foods she gives her own pets are what she describes as “partially prepared.” Orange tabby Juniper feasts on a brand called Primal while food for her “big, goofy black lab, Dosewallips,” named for a river in Washington state, comes from both Top Quality and Primal Dog Food. She picks up her order each month at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

To find out more about Kassell’s views and her holistic practice, visit her website: www.holisticvetphilly.com.