SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Animals are considered family to pet owners, and for many this extends beyond sharing the last bite of ice cream or sleeping on the edge of the bed because Fido likes to take up the rest of it.
When a pet gets sick or hurt, owners frequently pay thousands of dollars for surgeries. Now owners can take it one step further, paying for pet acupuncture, massages, laser therapy and Chinese herbs.
While the debate about naturopathic medicine rages on among humans, veterinarians interviewed by the Herald agreed that some alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, can be highly effective in preventing and treating pet ailments.
“It’s not really an alternative to conventional medicine for me,” said Claire Lodahl, owner of Kindness Animal Hospital. “I practice conventional medicine, but I also use complementary (methods) where it is appropriate.”
Lodahl said she was originally skeptical of alternative medicine, but she became a believer after she received acupuncture and started sleeping on a magnetic mattress to combat her own injuries.
One product she touts is the Cetyl Myristoleate Complex, a nutritional joint supplement that keeps joints slippery and is an anti-swelling aid.
“I can’t keep it on the shelf. It is the biggest line of defense against cat and dog arthritis,” she said.
The supplement costs about $24 a month for a regular-size animal and $48 for a large dog.
Sandy is a 12-year-old yellow Labrador with a tear in her cranial cruciate ligament, which causes pain and lameness in her back leg. The traditional and recommended treatment is surgery on the limb to repair the ligament, but it can cost up to $3,000.
Owner Jack Llewellyn has opted out of the surgery because of the price and is trying acupuncture with electrical stimulation along with massage therapy, swimming to strengthen the leg muscle and a Chinese herb that treats arthritis and chronic pain.
Sandy’s veterinarian, Karlene Stange, has practiced alternative pet medicine since 1994 and does acupuncture, massage therapy and prescribes Chinese herbs.
“I wanted to learn acupuncture because I found Western medicine very brutal. It’s rather invasive,” Stange said.
Llewellyn said he was skeptical at first, but animals don’t have the same preconceived notions that people have about alternative medicine and he gave it a shot. It seems to have paid off.
Sandy is limping less and appears to be in less pain, Llewellyn said.
Stange said she still recommends the surgery to stabilize the leg, but she understands why people opt out of the surgeries because of the expense.
Alternative medicine is not without skeptics, though.
Narda Robinson, director of Colorado State University’s Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain, said she is skeptical of Chinese herbs. In many cases, not all of the ingredients are listed on the label, she said, and some contain hidden ingredients such as strychnine, a highly toxic alkaloid.
“There’s really no scientifically based way to practice Chinese herbs on animals yet,” Robinson said. “I think people should think twice before embarking on Chinese herbs, or at least know what they’re taking.”
Stange disagreed and said all the ingredients are listed and go under GMP – Good Manufacturing Practice – to be tested for heavy metals and other pollutants.
Robinson acknowledged alternative medicine, once considered voodoo, is on the rise.
There are still skeptics, but when clients are given the option of surgery or a less invasive alternative, they frequently pick the latter.
One reason is the cost of surgery, but another is the risk of complications.
“Animals could die or be paralyzed. Most people, at least the ones I talk to, would rather avoid surgery as much as possible,” Robinson said.
Robinson practices acupuncture, laser therapy and massage, but she cautions pet owners to look at the training and credentials of veterinarians who practice these alternatives.
Owners should meet the veterinarians and make sure the veterinarian determines what the goals are, establishes a diagnosis and has a clear treatment plan.
Robinson also cautions against animals going to a chiropractor, especially small animals.
“There are no studies or evidence that says doing chiropractic on a dog is going to be safe,” she said. “I’ve heard of small animals being severally injured or killed.”
Petra Sullwold is a local chiropractor who works on people and animals. She said she has never had a bad experience while adjusting an animal, but also says it’s important for chiropractors to be educated by a proper school.
Sullwold is certified through the International Veterinary Chiropractic Association, and said she sees large benefits to animals being adjusted, such as better agility, fewer back issues and less pain.
Adjustments loosen the nervous system along the spinal cord and allows the animal to function at a higher level, Sullwold said.
Stacee Santi, managing veterinarian at Riverview Animal Hospital, also raised concerns about animals being treated by those who are not veterinary chiropractors.
“Our concern is that there are nonveterinarian chiropractors that don’t understand the unique design of animals, and we think they can be a little risky in doing manipulations,” she said. “We’ve seen animals that have suffered negative effects from chiropractic for herniated discs. It can render the animal paralyzed.”
Riverview, which focuses on Western medicine, frequently refers patients to local alternative medicine doctors like Stange.
“I work closely with veterinarians in this county. They refer to me, and I refer back to them,” Stange said.
While alternative methods can be a great substitute, Lodahl warns that owners still need to get their animals vaccinated.
“I’ve had people who heard on the Internet that vaccines are harmful,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it if it were harmful.”