Acupuncture gains favor as pet remedy Aging pains and injuries soothed through needles

December 08, 1997|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Noah stands relaxed on a faux sheepskin rug as Dr. Cynthia Dahle inserts 20 wispy needles through the thick black fur around his neck, along his back and chest and on his rear paws.

His ears droop, then his eyelids. Finally, the 11-year-old border collie gives in to endorphins released by the acupuncture needles bristling from his hide. He curls up on the rug and dozes while Dahle and his owner, Ilene Caroom of Annapolis, discuss a procedure helping Noah to live a comfortable old age.

Veterinary acupuncture has been practiced in the United States for about 15 years, but has recently begun flirting with mainstream status.

"There's been a gradual buildup of support starting with a grass-roots movement," said Dr. Allen Schoen, a Connecticut veterinarian who has treated animals with acupuncture for 15 years and is viewed as an expert in the field.

He attributes this to growing acceptance of acupuncture by human patients in the West.

"I was having a chronic back problem and it helped me. And here I had this dog and he was in pain," said Mary Munroe, whose Airedale terrier, Alfie, was a patient of Dahle's. "I thought to myself, 'If I feel better, why wouldn't Alfie?' "

In animals -- including horses, cats, reptiles and birds -- acupuncture is used to treat skin conditions, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems and sometimes infertility. Most commonly, it's used to soothe the pains of old bones, joints and muscles -- problems like Noah's.

Dahle began treating Noah in late summer for a back problem so severe he'd stopped using his left rear leg. After two acupuncture treatments, Noah started using all four legs again.

Anne and Frank Rupert were amazed by the effects of acupuncture on Timba, a 14-year-old yellow Labrador retriever-German shepherd mix with hip dysplasia.

"I was skeptical at first, but we just thought, 'If it makes it easier for him and keeps him with us a little longer, let's try it,' " she said.

With pet owners like Noah's and Timba's spreading the word, more people are asking for acupuncture for their animals.

It is not taught at most veterinary schools in the United States. Some colleges, such as Kansas State and Iowa State universities, offer elective courses in acupuncture or are adding them.

In 1974, a half-dozen veterinarians started the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS). Membership had grown to 500 by 1993, but since then has nearly tripled, to 1,386.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, which certifies veterinarians in the United States, accepted acupuncture as a valid treatment in 1988. Last year, it pronounced the procedure "an integral part" of veterinary medicine.

Dahle, certified by the IVAS to perform acupuncture in 1993, said the treatment accounts for about 30 percent of her Stevensvillepractice, thanks to referrals from veterinarians who don't do it and word of mouth from satisfied pet owners.

Dahle charges $55 for an initial visit with a dog, and subsequent visits cost about $35, but the amount varies with time spent with animal and the nature of the problem, she said.

Schoen, who has written two textbooks and a book for lay people about veterinary acupuncture, described it as an effective alternative treatment with a solid scientific grounding.

Schoen, who has a master's degree in neurophysiology, explained: "It's a stimulation of nerves in the body to stimulate the body's own neurotransmitters and neurohormones."

In layman's terms, Lothian veterinarian Dr. John Stott said, it is "like throwing switches" in an animal's body to help it heal itself.

"It's not the end-all of treatments," said Stott, who treats horses. "For some things it works very well, and for some things it doesn't work so well."

Stott usually charges about $100 for initial visits by horses, and the cost of follow-ups varies.

Acupuncture works particularly well on performance injuries horses sustain on the racetrack or in the dressage ring.

Said Wayne Bailey, who trains thoroughbreds at Bowie Race Track: "At first, I thought it was hocus-pocus, but he's made a believer out of me."

The pride of Bailey's stable, a 6-year-old chestnut gelding named Wise Dusty, owes his $460,000 in winnings to acupuncture.

"He had back problems, foot problems," said Bailey. "Acupuncture took care of all that."

Stott and Dahle are two of eight Maryland veterinarians the IVAS has certified to perform acupuncture.

"It is exactly like learning a new language -- the approach is so different from Western medicine," said Dr. Mark Crisman, who teaches equine medicine at Virginia Tech's Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va.

The cost of the course and travel expenses and time off from work to learn is steep -- about $10,000 according to Donna Watkins, course and office administrator for IVAS.

"But I look at it as an investment -- like any piece of equipment," said Stott.

Despite increasing acceptance by the public and the academic world, the procedure has detractors. Several veterinarians from colleges around the country expressed skepticism but declined to speak on the record. They called acupuncture a fad supported by little scientific data.

The final word on the subject will come from patients and their owners.

Noah, after his 20-minute session Friday, pranced around the treatment room, eyes bright, ears pricked up and tail swishing.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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