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The Use of Complementary Medicine for Pets

The Use of Complementary Medicine for Pets

Many people accept acupuncture and chiropractic care as effective forms of complementary medicine. But can these techniques help animals, too? Yes, they can. Have a look...
PetPonder Staff
By Lana Christian

Molly, a normally playful 4-year-old Miniature Schnauzer was in obvious pain. Somehow, she had injured her rear right leg. Her veterinarian thought the culprit was a pinched nerve or pulled muscle, so he prescribed muscle relaxants and steroids. No apparent improvement was seen after the full course of drug treatment, so the vet increased the steroid dose. Molly became lethargic and lost control of her bladder. In desperation, her owner asked if any other treatments were available―such as acupuncture and chiropractic care. To her amazement, one veterinarian in her area offered those modalities. After a month of treatments, Molly appeared completely healed, restored to her playful self.

Is this a case of pet pampering? Not at all. Complementary medicine in all forms is practiced widely in veterinary clinics in Europe. Chiropractic care for race horses and thoroughbreds is common in the U.S. Veterinary acupuncture is on the rise in the U.S., particularly as an adjunct to anesthesiology and post-surgery care. And the trend is spreading.

Why the recent interest in complementary medicine for animals? Many people who seek these services for their pets have benefited from these treatments themselves. If pet owners find a treatment that works well for them, they will be more likely to seek out similar therapies for their pets-especially if standard treatments fail. That was true with Molly's owner.

So how do acupuncture and chiropractic treatments work? The principle behind acupuncture is to restore balance to the body. Traditional thought is that the body possesses meridians of energy that branch into all organs. When an interruption occurs in a meridian, illness or a disabling condition can result. Today's science theorizes that acupuncture causes neuromechanical stimulation or release of natural chemicals that can decrease pain and promote healing. Very thin needles are inserted into selected places on an animal. Sometimes these needles have a very low-voltage electric current applied to them. Or, the veterinarian can use small-bore hypodermic needles at acupuncture sites to inject minute amounts of vitamins and/or medicine. Molly received such injections at a few sites in her leg, back, and one place in her neck.

Chiropractic care is based on the premise that disease results from a lack of normal nerve function. Manual manipulation and adjustments of body structures, such as the spine, can help restore health. Molly's spine was out of alignment because she 'favored' her injured leg. Her injury had caused some muscles to tighten and draw up, which caused subsequent misalignment.

The attraction of both therapies is that they are surgical-free, often pain-free, and almost always drug-free. Molly couldn't tell us if the treatments were painful at all, but her demeanor said 'not'. People who undergo acupuncture and chiropractic care generally agree that virtually no pain is involved, and relief is often immediate. Lasting relief comes with multiple treatments.

Half a dozen chiropractic treatments, coupled with several acupuncture treatments, were Molly's ticket back to health. She experienced no adverse side effects as she did with standard drug treatment. (Her single 'side effect' was that she memorized the route to both vet facilities―and she made it clear that she'd much rather go to the park any day.) Complementary medicine is not a panacea for animals (or humans). But it can be a valuable addition or alternative to standard treatment for certain conditions.

What do practitioners say about these treatments? Dr. Debbie Wilson was the moderator of the Veterinary Integrative Problem Solving (VIPS) IV course when she heard guest speaker Dr. Cindy Lankenau talk about―and demonstrate―veterinary acupuncture. Wilson was so impressed with what she saw, that she took the 160-hour certification course offered by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society.

Wilson pragmatically says, "I think of acupuncture as one modality amongst many. It doesn't replace Western medicine and surgery, especially for major conditions... But it is strongly indicated for things like musculoskeletal and postoperative pain and many chronic diseases."

Colorado State University's new wing of its veterinary teaching hospital includes the Shipley Natural Healing Center, dedicated to complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM). The center offers teaching, hands-on experience, and scientific research. Its research can catapult CAVM from the perception of 'voodoo-that-may-work' to the realm of mainstream science.

Veterinary chiropractic care will soon be taught in the new Options for Animals International Academy of Animal Chiropractic in Wellsville, Kansas. Sharon Willoughby, DVM, DC, founded the concept and the program in 1988. Her work lives on in that new facility and in the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA), a certifying agency for animal chiropractic schools and their graduates.

Standards of practice for complementary and alternative veterinary medicine vary from state to state. Consult your vet for advice―ask questions; and weigh all the options for optimizing your pet's health.