When All Else Fails Complementary Medicine Crosses Over into Veterinary Care

Acupuncture has been around for more than 3,000 years. Yet not until the past couple of decades has it become popularly accepted in the West as a treatment for a variety of disorders, or just for preventative wellness.

In humans, that is. Who knows how long acupuncture might take to penetrate the veterinary field.

Not that a few vets aren’t trying. Take Dr. Bud Allen, who with his wife, Dr. Robin Karlin, operates Family Veterinary Center in Haydenville, a practice that specializes in holistic care, mixing traditional medicine with a focus on nutrition, lifestyle, and complementary treatments such as chiropractic care and, yes, acupuncture.

Allen had been performing acupuncure on animals since the early ’80s; Karlin later became sold on holistic care through a personal struggle, when she and her husband were trying, unsuccessfully at first, to become pregnant.

“After two years of intensive fertility treatments, they kicked me out and said, ‘sorry, but you’ll never have children,’” she told The Healthcare News. “After spending $20,000 trying to get pregnant, I was totally devastated.”

But she was convinced by a friend to try alternative therapies in her quest — specifically Chinese herbs and acupuncture — and became pregnant in three months. Another conception followed when she was nursing her first child. “So it’s personal to me,” she said. It also led her to become trained in homeopathic veterinary medicine.

Homeopathy is a system of medicine that promotes general health by using natural remedies to reinforce the body’s own, inborn healing capacity. The art and skill of homeopathy, then, lies in accurately matching up the ‘energy patterns’ of the remedies with those of the patient.

Many homeopathic veterinarians, like Karlin, focus on lifestyle and diet factors when making initial diagnoses, incorporating traditional Chinese medicinal concepts such as ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ foods, and what is right for a particular animal’s constitution. Understanding those concepts, she explained, gives her an advantage over traditional veterinarians who are relying on what they have studied in school to provide all the answers.

But complementary care for animals has also come a long way in the public’s view, mirroring a continuing rise in awareness of similar therapies for people. She cited as an example health plans that cover treatments such as chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture — “how much more mainstream does it get?” — but also alluded to the public’s fascination with nutritional supplements and energy drinks.

“Everyone does it, whether they tell their physicians or not. Everyone has some homeopathic remedy at home. Everyone does nutraceuticals or tries some natural modification. It’s the same with animals. People want to do something natural.”

Giving Paws

Still, many establishment veterinarians scoff at applying homeopathy, acupuncture, or other alternative medicine to animal care. Writing in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Assoc., Drs. Susan Wynn and Paul Root Wolpe make a case against such skepticism.

“The claim that encouraging different belief systems and divergent theories about the nature of health and disease is undesirable fundamentally misunderstands the nature of scientific progress and the crucial role of challenging scientific precepts,” they write. “Some of our most important scientific advances began with thinkers who challenged basic scientific assumptions only to be labeled charlatans and to be dismissed by colleagues. Complacency is the death knell of science.”

Besides, they add, many common alternative treatments have a strong basis in experiential evidence; the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture claims acupuncture needles are routinely used to treat gastrointestinal, respiratory, urinary, musculoskeletal, and dermatological disorders, among others.

“Complementary and alternative medicine includes complex and sophisticated modalities that rest on years of empirical science,” Wynn and Wolpe note, “even if many come late in their development to the double-blind, controlled studies favored by modern medicine.”

Karlin sees alternative and homeopathic medicine as completely normal, although she understands that many pet owners come to it with doubts. She has called her practice a ‘last resort’ for many patients who are not being adequately helped at more-traditional practices.

“I offer people various options,” Karlin said. “I tell them, ‘this is your condition. This route will do this, this route will do that,’ and so on. And I leave it up to the client to determine what route they’re most comfortable with.

“You want to learn as much as you can,” she continued, “and give people educated advice so they can make the decision on whether they want that steroid shot or anti-inflammatories or if they want to do acupuncture. When someone comes in your door, as a health professional, you want to give them all the options that you know are available. That’s not so much alternative — it’s just what we do.”

And putting all the options on the table, Wynn and Wolpe argue, is the most effective way to get to the root of a health problem.

“Complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM) is an eclectic group of therapies, and trying to accept or reject CAVM as a category may lump effective and better-proven therapies with unvalidated, unproven, and radical therapies. In reality, there is no such thing as CAVM versus conventional veterinary medicine; there are only effective and ineffective therapies.”

Yea or Neigh

Many people with initial doubts come away impressed, Karlin said, when they see her husband visit a 1,200-pound horse who seems to be lame, and after some chiropractic adjustments, the animal is fine.

It’s that element of surprise that has hooked many people who would never have considered complementary vet care.

“We now have several veterinarians in the Valley who do acupuncture, homeopathy, herbology, and physical therapy,” she said. “These are all things that work for humans — why not animals?”