Acupuncture for Dogs? Holistic Vets Swear by It

A growing number of veterinarians are embracing alternative medicine.

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Maggie was in trouble. A urinary-tract infection had taken a sudden and devastating turn, and her kidneys edged toward total shutdown. An intensive course of antibiotic treatment failed to make a difference, and as the strong medication wreaked havoc on her stomach lining, Maggie quit eating altogether. Her vet offered little hope for recovery. Then the owner of the 11-year-old golden retriever tried a staple of holistic veterinary medicine: homeopathy.

Never mind that there's a lack of research showing that homeopathy works in humans, let alone animals. Many of a new breed—holistic vets—swear by it. Within a week of starting some homeopathics, plus a special diet and a concoction of herbs, goldenrod, nettles, dandelion, and protein, Maggie started to improve, owner Tracy Rose says. One year after Rose reached out in desperation to Wendy Volhard, a dog trainer and the senior author of the Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog, Maggie is thriving.

"My vet was shocked," says Rose, of Culpeper, Va. Like a growing number of pet owners around the country, Rose is now a convert to holistic veterinary medicine, which advocates a natural diet, fewer vaccines and mainstream medicines, and such alternative therapies as homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and Reiki healing. "I use homeopathy for myself," says Rose. "Why not my dog?"

The hitch is that most alternative treatments have not been scientifically validated; indeed, many that have been tested in humans have proved to be ineffective or to have a placebo effect. More rigorous research is needed, says veterinarian Craig Smith, the complementary-care expert for the American Veterinary Medical Association, a group that represents more than 78,000 vets. "The AVMA recognizes the interest in and use of these treatments and is open to their consideration," Smith says. But the group "doesn't accept acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, or homeopathy as verified methods."

Even so, holistic vet practices have been gaining traction. Membership in the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association in Bel Air, Md., has more than doubled in the past decade, to around 2,000, and hundreds of other vets have been certified in these therapies. Meanwhile, top veterinary schools such as Tufts University and Colorado State University have been developing programs in alternative medicine. "I believe in a team approach across the disciplines," says Regina Schwabe, who integrates 30-plus years of clinical veterinary experience with advanced training in acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy at Pamplin Animal Wellness Services in Pamplin, Va. "There are many cases where you need a trauma center. You need surgery. You need antibiotics to knock out the infection. These new treatments are another tool in the veterinary toolbox."

Here are three alternative veterinary medicine approaches you're likely to encounter:

1. Acupuncture. This practice, which stimulates specific body points aligned with the central nervous system and related to various internal organs with fine needles, is increasingly popular at vet clinics across the country. It's used to treat a range of conditions from joint disease to kidney failure to allergies and more. "For paralyzed animals and those suffering from arthritis, it can make a big difference in returning to mobility," Schwabe asserts. "Even in conventional practices, it's often used in tandem with analgesics and prescription drugs to help speed healing and relieve pain during and after a surgery."

Not surprisingly, it's hard to verify with the patient that acupuncture works. "It's all subjective," says the AVMA's Smith. "While many people treating pets with acupuncture report success, there isn't any data that proves it works." The 20-minute treatments can run from $40 to $85 a pop, and multiple sessions are needed to start—typically six over a period of as many weeks. After that, appointments can be sporadic tuneups.

2. Fewer vaccines. For many years, a set of annual vaccinations has been considered necessary for dogs and cats. The holistic approach typically advocates a lighter schedule, which is a bone of contention between conventional and holistic vets. But many experts see a link between overvaccination and chronic problems such as autoimmune disease, leukemia-lymphomas, arthritis, thyroid disease, and persistent skin problems.