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Las Vegas-area veterinarian a pioneer in holistic treatment of animals

Bringing animals back to health in body and spirit is natural to Dr. Joanne Stefanatos.

From a pet cockroach to sickly and abandoned lions, Stefanatos’ philosophy of holistic veterinary medicine has ushered good health to thousands of Las Vegas animals in the last 39 years.

Homeopathy, acupuncture, electrodiagnosis and magnetic therapies are among the alternative remedies Stefanatos swears by and couples with conventional medicine. The natural methods aim to treat the whole body, rather than just the disease, virus or bacteria, she said.

The 65-year-old has cared for creatures ranging from Las Vegas elite animal performers to the Nevada wild at Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital since 1974, always at the same 1325 Vegas Valley Drive location. Whatever can’t fit through the door, Stefanatos has been known to treat in the parking lot.

"I always wanted to help animals," she said. "It was clear in my mind what I had to do."

The New York City native spent her formative summers in the Catskill Mountains rescuing any animals she could, she said. School-year weekends were reserved for escapes within the urban jungle she called home.

"I would visit the Central Park Zoo every weekend without fail," she said.

A career in veterinary medicine was just a given, she said.

Stefanatos holds a degree in zoology from UNLV, a fellowship in anatomy from St. Louis University and a doctorate of veterinary medicine from the University of Missouri.

She returned to Las Vegas in 1972 and completed internships with local hospitals before branching out privately. Stefanatos practiced conventional medicine until she met an injured coyote that changed it all.

The pup suffered radial nerve paralysis when it was hit by a car, and options were few. It could either live life as an amputee or stumble around with a stump, Stefanatos said.

"I knew something better had to be done," she said.

Stefanatos prayed and sought out a local acupuncturist who traded treatments for driving lessons. After the third treatment, the coyote was moving its broken limb and en route to recovery.

"Medicine is good, but it’s not always perfect," she said. "I was the right person at the right time."

Stefanatos learned holistic methods to expand her practice and became a pioneer in the field. She helped form the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, which now has more than 3,000 active members.

She also was appointed Nevada wildlife veterinarian and to various boards and associations. She is married to holistic chiropractor Dr. David Hetzel .

The couple take biannual trips to Africa to study and interact with the animals. They oversee five feeding sites for wild animals around the Las Vegas Valley. At their home, they have one dog inside and a handful of acres outside for their animal sanctuary.

Stefanatos adopted lions in dire need of a safe home. Some came from Las Vegas showgirls who fell in love with their cub coworkers but became overwhelmed as they grew.

A mountain lion joined the roost when a local woman failed to domesticate it and came under fire by Clark County Animal Control.

"We became their pride — not they, us," Stefanatos said. "We devoted our life to them."

The cats are now dead, but the sanctuary remains active. Stefanatos takes home ailing animals on the weekend. One recent weekend, she had 17 baby ducks, a hawk, five pigeons, a desert squirrel and a jackrabbit in her care.

The veterinary hospital consistently receives new clients and unfortunately, Stefanatos said, about two or three homeless or abandoned pets per week.

"You can just cry thinking about them all," she said.

Stefanatos stopped accepting animals in Strip attractions — entertainers Siegfried & Roy were among former clients — so she could focus on her always-bustling docket.

Richard Mills, client and resident of Brookline Springs near Pecos and Russell roads, heads to Stefanatos when the wild birds he protects in his neighborhood fall ill.

"She’s the Mother Teresa of animal and bird life," Mills said.

Mills recently had six ducks die mysteriously near his home. Stefanatos comforted Mills when he brought the ducks into Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital for autopsies.

"I kept looking pained, and she’d say, ‘Don’t worry, they’re in heaven,’ " Mills said.

Mills also brings his 23-year-old cat Kia in for acupuncture.

In return, Stefanatos brought seven ducks to the pond in Mills’ neighborhood after they were abandoned in a water feature at Wynn Las Vegas, 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South.

"She’s just a godsend," Mills said. "This woman is totally devoted to animal life."

Paradise resident Sally Canada was near hopelessness when one of her seven beloved Dachshunds started to limp and cross its back legs while walking. The 7-year-old pup, named Gretchen, had a slipped disc in her spine due to jumping up and down from furniture.

Two weeks of electroacupuncture and Gretchen was almost brand new, Canada said.

"I’m just so thankful I got her in here in time," she said.

Canada holds on to Gretchen during the painless, non-invasive therapy. Stefanatos moves through the treatment quickly, thanks to decades of experience.

"It’s a matter of reprogramming her body," she said of the dog. "She knows the routine by now."

Stefanatos is a published author who has penned several medical articles, two books and a piece of children’s literature related to holistic healing and natural living.

She emphasizes preventative medicine rooted in an organic diet to her clients. She practices what she preaches, she said, with a natural, nutrient-rich diet and strictly holistic medicine for herself and husband.

Stefanatos said she has no plans to slow her gait.

"(I’ll work) as long as God wants me to," she said. "There so much that needs to be done, and there’s always more."

Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital is open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 735-7184, email jstefanato@aol.com or visit holistic-veterinarian.com.

Contact Centennial and Paradise View reporter Maggie Lillis at mlillis@viewnews.com or 477-3839.

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