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Abby had posterior paralysis accompanied by spinal-cord compression. Surgery was not an option and steroids numbed her pain but caused gastric bleeding. Abby's prognosis was grim. After acupuncture, however, she lived to the ripe old age of 16.
Fred slipped and fell on the ice outside his house. His legs didn't respond to surgery and without the use of them it looked like his options were running out. Following his first few acupuncture treatments he started kissing his doctor on the nose, something his master says he never does to anyone.
Another patient named Fred threw up some 12 times a day because of a digestive disorder. After just two acupuncture treatments his problem resolved.
Dr. Allen Schoen is a true believer. The self-described left-brained, double-blind-study-dependent, Cornell-schooled veterinarian performs miracles of modern medicine using the tools of the ancients every day, and you get the feeling he's regularly surprised by how well they work.
Schoen remembers his first acupuncture patient particularly well. One Friday in 1981 a man brought a black lab into Schoen's office. The dog was suffering from degenerative joint disease and could no longer run, play, or go outside. His owner figured it was time to say goodbye and brought him to Schoen. The New York vet was reluctant to put the animal to sleep and asked the man to wait just one weekend. "I don't know if this stuff will work," Schoen says he told the pooch's human companion, but he knew he had to try.
That same weekend Schoen was scheduled to attend a training session on veterinary acupuncture. When he got back from the conference, Schoen undertook his acupuncture treatment on the lab. "It probably took an hour for me to place my first needle," he says. "My assistant finally screamed at me, 'Will you stick a needle in already!'" After six treatments the dog walked into his office on his own with a ball in his mouth. At which point, Schoen says, his mouth dropped to the floor and he adopted a new mantra: "If at first you do succeed try to hide your amazement."
Since then Schoen has been adding such holistic therapies as chiropractic, medicinal herbalism, and homeopathy to his veterinary practice. As a result he's been saving pets conventional veterinary medicine had given up on, he says.
Schoen was the keynote speaker at a recent conference sponsored by the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine Outreach Office. It may seem strange for the university, the epicenter of conventional medicine, to sponsor a conference on alternative critter care. But not only is information mounting that many of the therapies work, according to the vets in attendance, veterinary clinics are finding that holistic treatments are good business.
A year ago the UM Academic Health Center, which oversees the departments that train doctors for both humans and animals, issued a report recognizing alternative health care as a growing industry. Of the approximately $13 billion spent on holistic care for humans each year, $10.5 billion comes directly out of patients' pockets, not insurance-company coffers. The University Medical School was directed to begin including information about therapies such as acupuncture, massage, medicinal herbalism, and chiropractic into its curriculum.
The veterinary school was also quick to recognize this "potentially huge" area of practice, says conference organizer Laurie Greene. In addition to practicing holistic veterinary medicine at the Uptown Veterinary Clinic, Greene heads up the school's outreach programs. She says alternative therapies give vets more treatment options to offer their clients, which in turn can help make a vet's practice competitive. "Many [people] are saying, 'If I can use this on myself, why can't it help my pet?'" she says.
The Uptown Veterinary Clinic charges between $45 and $65 for an initial acupuncture assessment and $27.50 for each subsequent treatment. A first-time chiropractic visit runs $75 to $95 and $55 for each visit thereafter.
In other cities, clients now demand holistic treatment options for their pets, according to Schoen. And given that some 200 pet owners showed up to a public lecture given by Schoen the night before the conference, it would appear he and Greene are on to something.
Whether they can sell the therapies as "medicine" to other vets, both in private practice and at the university, is another matter. As several of the 100 or so vets at the recent conference were quick to point out, both doctors and academics are used to thinking of alternative therapies as rogue science.
Much as in human medicine, advances in veterinary science mean patients are living longer, explains Kia Benson, president of the UM student chapter of the American Holistic Veterinary Association. Pet owners are searching for ways to prolong their time with their pets and are also looking for cost-effective preventive treatments. Complementary therapies often provide these options, she says, but only in the last couple of years have vet schools taken an interest in integrating these therapies into their teaching. Benson's group has been working with the school's curriculum committee on adding instruction about complementary therapies to the school's offerings.
Like their human-doctor counterparts, many vets describe the popular remedies as "complementary therapies." In other words, they are to be viewed as a worthwhile supplement to traditional care but not a substitute.
University of Minnesota veterinary professor Jeffrey Klausner is on the curriculum committee. "We hope to give introductory material to students to raise their level of awareness of these techniques," he says. "Whether we start teaching in-depth about the procedures, I'm not sure.... We need further study."
In 1996 the American Veterinary Medical Association released its first set of standards for complementary therapies. Although the guidelines say that acupuncture is now considered an integral part of veterinary medicine, many of the vets at the conference say their colleagues frown on the use of alternative therapies.
Dr. Glenn Nielsen of the Waite Park Veterinary Hospital near St. Cloud says he's seen that reluctance first hand. "I've seen many of my friends [hauled] in front of the state veterinary board" for using some alternative methods, he says. "They said the theories were unproven."
In recent years Nielsen's practice has evolved from a strictly conventional practice to one where alternative therapies are used regularly. One of the most compelling reasons to educate vets about holistic therapies and to research their effectiveness is to weed out the charlatans that, he says, just like in human medicine, plague the field.
"With alternative therapies there is so much information out there that is misleading and untrue," says Nielsen. "And it's largely due to profit motives." Some states have begun licensing alternative veterinary practitioners. Minnesota has not.
Nielsen says his practice has attracted new patients suffering from everything from cancer to hip dysplasia to heart disease. Not only has traditional veterinary medicine given up on many of these animals, but conventional treatment is often ineffective and usually too expensive. For example, surgery and radiation therapy for an animal with cancer can cost upwards of $15,000, he says.
"Everyone has to decide whether to be a pioneer or a settler," he says. "There are some of us who just can't be settlers."