Does acupuncture work on dogs?

Pets and people.
June 20 2005 10:41 AM

Acupuncture for My Border Collie

Does "holistic" veterinary care really work?

Illustration by Mark Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

I have a troubled dog. Orson, my border collie, came to me when he was 2. He had issues. So, we've been to trainers and behavioralists and tried any number of different training methods. We've herded sheep. Chased geese. Practiced positive reinforcement. I've used hand signals and whistles, a special voice, enticing food. I even changed his name because it carried so many unpleasant associations.

Along the way, he and I have grown as close as members of different species can be. No human has ever had a more vigilant and attentive companion, and I'd do anything for him (within reason).

Yet Orson still has serious problems. He limps, tenses, cringes, nips. When aroused, which is often, he can be aggressive around other animals and unpredictable around children. Orson defends gates and doors with almost frightening fury and determination and has crashed right through windows several times. He has also tried to herd school buses, lawn mowers, skateboarders.

A couple of months ago, a young woman who helps care for the gardens on my farm was working in the yard, Orson sitting placidly next to her. When she stood up suddenly, he jumped up and nipped at her, leaving a welt on her collarbone.

I give my dogs a lot, but I expect a lot in return and nothing matters more so than this: Hurt no person, hurt no one else's animals. As much as I love this dog, as much as he has done for me, I would put Orson down in a minute if he ever seriously harmed someone. So, I was upset by Orson's assault, even though Annie wasn't, particularly. I spent time working with them, having Annie walk Orson, give him food, brush him, and interact with him. After several weeks, she is once more completely at ease with him, and he with her. I hope, for his sake and mine, that such an incident never happens again. But it was a wake-up call, the most serious of several recent incidents. Orson's arousal and aggression problems seemed to be resurfacing. I needed to act before anybody got hurt.

Perhaps, I thought, the restoration of my farm—the to and fro of tractors, trucks, and strangers—had destabilized him. But it was also possible that there was some underlying physical problem.

So, I took him to my vet, who drew blood, tested his kidneys and thyroids, took X-rays, and did almost everything else we could think of. It cost hundreds of dollars and revealed nothing. Her conclusion surprised me.

"Look," she told me. "There's nothing conventional veterinary medicine can do for this dog. He's physically healthy. But he does have problems. I'd like you to take him to a holistic vet in Vermont who has helped with problems I can't fix."

This was not a suggestion I particularly relished. I had read enough "holistic" veterinary advice on the Web to make me leery of it. I don't doubt there are many useful alternative approaches to almost any form of medicine, human or animal, and Eastern veterinary approaches are in vogue among dog lovers now. But it's almost impossible—at least for me—to gauge the effectiveness of these alternatives, which many people first encounter online.

The Internet can become a quagmire for dog-lovers seeking counsel. The mailing lists and sites I visit occasionally are filled with all sorts of health information, much of it wrong. My friends who are vets say that among their biggest problems in recent years are well-meaning but intense animal lovers who discover home remedies and free advice online, often from people who call themselves "alternative" or "holistic" healers. Why, they demand, aren't vets using these treatments on their dogs?

I trust vets, as a rule. They love animals, make little money, work long hours, and spend years paying off their student loans. Most of those I've dealt with are well-informed diagnosticians, quick to seek help or refer clients to specialists. Imperfect though veterinary care may be, I think vets are a dog owner's best shot when health issues arise. Still, conventional veterinary care has its limitations. Vet offices are crowded and stressful; vets are busy, often harried. They tend to get uncomfortable when they find themselves beyond measurable physical ailments. Many lag behind, for instance, in dealing with the behavioral issues that are now the leading cause of death for American dogs, because behavior doesn't show up on diagnostic tests.

My vet understood her limitations. So, I ended up driving to Vermont with Orson—skeptical, but figuring I owed it to the dog to give it a shot.

Stephanie's office was surprisingly quiet, almost soothing—no other dogs, no crowds of people. All of the rooms were carpeted, the windows curtained. New Age-y music was playing in the background.

Stephanie gave Orson four or five minutes to sniff around, check her out, get comfortable. She talked to him quietly, mentioned his name often, gave him a treat or two. There was no examining table, just a carpeted platform in the middle of a large room. Orson hopped up on it without even being asked. I appreciated the atmosphere; vet offices can be stressful for humans, too. Stephanie took considerable time talking to me about him, time a regular vet could never afford. I amazed myself by nearly bursting into tears after telling her, "There is a broken part of this dog that I just can't reach." I had never quite said that to a vet before, nor had any vet asked.

She gave Orson a chiropractic exam, massaging him gently and discovering extreme sensitivity along his spinal column, perhaps from the time years before when he'd been hit by a car. Stephanie felt he was tense, in pain. I could see and feel his discomfort too, once she showed me.

She suggested a program of treatments to ease his arousal and excitability. He was appropriate and affectionate, she could see, when not excited or alarmed. She prescribed Chinese calming herbs, plus acupuncture for his soreness. We'd start that day. I felt she had quickly identified and focused on the right issues—discomfort, arousal, anxiety—and considered them treatable.

I had brought along Rose, my other border collie, Orson's pal and protector. When Stephanie took out her acupuncture needles, Rose jumped up and stood between him and this new vet, growling and showing her teeth—something I'd never seen her do before.

Stephanie seemed to be expecting it. She didn't startle, reassure, pull back, or scold. She showed Rose the needle, speaking her name softly and calmly. Then she brought the needle down to Orson's skin, then back to Rose's nose. Satisfied, Rose jumped off of the table. I was impressed.

Then I watched, surprised, as Stephanie inserted a dozen needles in Orson's back, shoulders, neck, and legs. Within minutes, he was lying on his back snoring, feet in the air, tongue nearly hanging off the table. I had rarely, if ever, seem him so relaxed.

Orson has had acupuncture treatments for several months now, and I'm mixing the prescribed herbs into his food. Everyone who sees him believes he is a radically changed dog. The broken part of him is not fixed. He's still excitable—especially around gates and doors—and protective of me. But he is much calmer, distinctly less uncomfortable and agitated.

When we go to see Stephanie now, he bounds out of the car, darts into her office, jumps up on her platform, and lies down for his needles. Within minutes, he is dozing peacefully. When the last needle is removed, he hops off the table and sits eagerly by the cabinet where Stephanie stores the treats. Then he lies down under her desk while I pay for the visit.

The experience has opened my mind—at least partly. Because she wasn't interested in taking X-rays or drawing blood, Stephanie focused more clearly on the dog and his problems. Because she was free of so many of the procedures and equipment integral to veterinary practices, she got to see him more clearly and know him better.

But recently the side of holistic care that I'm most wary of surfaced.

"Have you ever given any thought to an animal communicator?" Stephanie asked me one day last month, inquiring about the people who claim to be able to talk to dogs.

"No," I said. "Not yet." I have come a considerable distance, but not that far.

I don't believe that dogs have words or narrative. I think it demeans them to project thought processes into their heads and mouths. Many of us who own and love dogs seem to want them to be like us, think like us. How tempting. It would certainly be simpler for me if Orson could talk and tell me what happened, why he is so anxious, what I can do to help. But one of the things I have learned from him is that he's an instinctive, and wounded, animal with an alien mind, not a four-legged human waiting for a therapist to tap into his childhood.

Clearly, though, holistic care can fill some of the gaps left by traditional care. If my dog had developed a serious medical issue like cancer or kidney failure, my choice would be traditional veterinary care—without hesitation. And I don't think Orson needs his mind read, or his intense instincts translated into words for my comfort.

But acupuncture? Some herbs? A dose of Enya, followed by some sweet talk, hypoallergenic treats, and a good massage? So far, so good.

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