Non-Traditional Medicine for Dogs

I’ve always been somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to things that are off the beaten path.   Acupuncture, herbal medicine and even chiropractic treatments were just weird science or as it’s called around our house “voodoo medicine”.

About ten years ago all that began to change.

Our local Brittany club invited an acupuncture/chiropractic vet to one of our meetings to demonstrate the work he was doing.

The vet brought in a ninety plus pound, eleven or twelve year old, Springer Spaniel named Mack.  As all good sporting dogs would do, Mack walked in and started introducing himself around to the room of ten or fifteen people.  He looked comfortable but moved very gingerly around his back end.   As someone in the room began giving him butt scritchers, his rear end collapsed to the floor.

The vet said that this happened to Mack quite a bit.  Between his weight and his bad hips, he had a few problems that needed to be dealt with regularly.

The vet began giving his talk about his life as a regular vet who moved into acupuncture and chiropractic practice that concentrates mainly on dogs and horses.  While he talked, he stood Mack up and began running his hands down Mack’s spine and placing needles in his back after finding just the right spot.  Mack didn’t react to any of the pokes. In fact he looked quite happy.   Six or eight needles later, the vet finished and set the timer on his watch.

As we waited for the “treatment” to take, the vet continued with his story.  He talked a great deal about why he began moving from traditional medicine as well as telling us stories of the successes and failures that he had in his practice.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, he removed the needles, stood Mack back up and proceeded to push on his back-end.  Nothing.  No dropping to the ground, no whimpering in pain, not so much as a wince.  In other words, Mack’s pain had been shut down.

Either this dog was the best trained dog I had ever seen or there was something more to this “voodoo” medicine than I would have ever thought.

About a year later, we would find ourselves in this vet’s office with our dog Maggie who was having problems with her neck.  Maggie had a head tilt as well as a problem that didn’t allow her to give a full hard body shake to realign herself (the wiggling from nose to tail type of shake).

The vet went up and down her spine searching for the problem.  He held his one hand with the thumb and pointer finger forming an O shape and the other hand would tap into the O shape.  Where it went through the fingers, he made an adjustment to her neck and back.  He found seven spots that he popped (yes at times you could hear the pop).  When we put her back down on the floor, she shook from head to tail for the first time in months.

The head tilt was a bit trickier and something that the vet recommended that we see our regular vet about.  He didn’t feel that it was muscular or anything that he could deal with.  He had a couple of suspicions but deferred to more traditional medicine.

Several years later, we’d find ourselves at another vet with our old guy Charles.  Charles was about eleven at the time and had been having some problems with his back right leg.  After long runs, he would begin to drag this leg a bit when he was at a medium gait.  This was very noticeable after having watched him run for so many years with a smooth flowing motion.

As the vet examined him, he immediately asked if he’d ever had any liver problems as his “liver points” were quite sensitive.  A month earlier, he had been at the University of Minnesota after he “ate something“ while running at the farm.  Whatever it was that he ate spiked his liver ALT levels to astronomical levels.  It took our vet and the U of M $500 worth of tests and two days to determine this.  It took the “voodoo vet” less than three minutes.

After he completed the examination, he injected him at specific points in his back with a supplement as well as injecting the joints with another supplement.

The next day Charles was back at the farm running like a pup again.  For Charles we found that the effects of these treatments lasted from three to four months.

As Charles aged, we found that we had to adjust when he would receive treatments.  We found that we couldn’t run him on the day of the treatments.  He usually felt so good afterwards he would run himself into the ground and it would take several days for him to recover fully.

Last year, our then 13 year old Jessie fell off some furniture flat on her back while she was asleep.  After a trip to the emergency vet, a trip to our regular vet and two days curled up in her kennel, we took her to the acupuncturist.

The emergency vet had put Jessie on some pain pills to help with her back pain.  These pills left her so doped up that she would have trouble walking normally.  Our regular vet prescribed steroids to help with any inflammation that she was having.  While she was a bit better she still yipped in pain if she moved wrong and would immediately curl back up in her kennel and not move for hours at a time.

The acupuncture vet examined her and then put about a dozen pins in her at various points.  He then hooked up a small device that would put an electrical charge through the pins.  While that was quite unsettling for me to watch, Jessie didn’t seem to mind at all.

After the treatment she still was a bit ginger, but seemed to be more comfortable.  Within two days she was once again counter-surfing in the kitchen.  In this case I believe it was the combo between the steroids and the acupuncture that really worked out well for her.

This spring Jessie paid a visit to our newest vet who is a traditional vet who also does chiropractic, acupuncture and herbal medicine (she is also Sam’s vet).

Since Jessie was nine, she has had problems with her front shoulders during summer field training.  Twenty minutes into her run she would begin to hobble on her right front shoulder. The pain wasn’t enough where she would stop running on her own, but she would definitely need to be picked her up before she did any further damage to the shoulder.

Our new vet did an extensive exam on her and we talked about a course of treatment.  As an older dog (now 14) with a history of back problems it would be quite easy to start cracking and adjusting things.  The vet suggested that with a dog of advanced age it would be better to work through the process slowly so we wouldn’t traumatize her too much.

The vet started with her front shoulders.  We heard a loud pop and Jessie’s eyes widened with that “what the heck just happened” look followed by a look of relief.  She was fine.  The vet decided that this was enough for the day.  We talked about a plan for her summer training that would allow her to stay more active and relieve some of the stress on her body.

Jessie had no incidents of shoulder pain throughout the entire summer training season.  Jessie actually ran more this summer than the past three summers combined.  She suffered no reoccurrence of the shoulder pain and her fall hunting season was much the same with no lost time due to old injuries.

Our final experience has been with our seven year old female Sam.  Sam was diagnosed with cancer in November of 2005 after having routine surgery to remove a cyst on the back on her neck.

Sam after her surgery- note the large scar on the back of her neck!

The cyst turned out to be a cancerous grade three “Mast Cell” tumor.   Our regular vet immediately sent us to the University of Minnesota for a consultation with their Oncologist.

Upon the recommendation of the Oncologist it was decided that further tests should be run to determine if the cancer had spread.  This battery of tests included everything from testing all major organs to blood tests and bone marrow tests.

When all the tests came back negative, the Oncologist’s minimal recommendation for further treatment was a secondary surgery to further check the area where the lump was originally removed.  He explained that when regular vets do a standard lump removal they only take as much of the lump and skin around the lump as is minimally necessary.  Unfortunately for Sam this particular type of cancer could be located near where the original lump was found but still outside the cut of the original surgery.

The second surgery was done just before Christmas 2005 and Sam now had “clear wide margins”.  In other words, they didn’t find cancer in any of the additional skin or tissue they removed from the area.

The oncologist’s further recommendation “just to be sure” was to do a series of chemo on her that would occur every twenty one days for the next 4-6 months.

While they were testing Sam they found that she has a form of hepatitis.  The hepatitis would limit which forms of chemotherapy she would have been able to withstand.  There was a good chance that the best form of treatment for this cancer would have shut down her liver completely.

The second choice of chemo was not as effective and would also affect some of her ability to field train with the other dogs in the spring and summer.  The chemo would tax her immune system greatly and she would be far more likely to be affected by all the nasty things that you can find in the field.  While the Oncologist was all for her getting exercise, he was way less enthused about the hunting training aspect of things and all the critter contact that comes with that activity.

After consulting a number of people that had gone through cancer treatments with their dogs as well as throwing the question out to different email lists (a great source for a wide variety of experiences and information), we decided that we wouldn’t do the chemo.

The question in our minds was still “is she cancer free?”  After all the tests and surgeries, the Oncologist felt good about her prognosis (better than the original 5% survival rate for 4 months or more that we were originally given) but he still couldn’t tell us with any certainty that she was totally cancer free.

Running her through a course of the chemo could a) kill whatever cancer was left in her body b) it could do nothing other than make her sick if there wasn’t any cancer c) it could do nothing to the cancer that was remaining and she would die anyway d) it could kill her outright.

We made the decision that we wouldn’t pursue the chemo as the downside was too high.  I’m not advocating this choice for anyone else as only you know what is right for your dog.  It was the decision we made based on all the factors above.

Within a couple weeks we also started taking Sam to the voodoo vet.    The vet examined Sam and put her on some Chinese herbs which were specifically for her liver problems and for cancer suppression.

We also asked her to go through Sam’s diet with us.  Our expectation was that we were going to be mixing up a raw diet with all kinds of weird stuff in it.  We were wrong.  The vet went through the commercial food that we were feeding to ensure that Sam was getting everything nutritionally that she would need to fight off any reoccurrence of the cancer.  No change in diet necessary.

The herbs that the vet put Sam on have stopped her quickly rising ALT liver levels that her hepatitis causes.   Granted the levels will not recede for her, but after two years of rising levels, the herbs have seemingly stopped the rise and will hopefully continue to do so into the future.

This was all done with an 1/8th of a teaspoon of some Chinese herbs and a pinch of “liver blend” herbs twice a day.

Sam is still doing well more than a year after her surgery.  She also just celebrated her 7th birthday and was able to run at field trials last spring and fall as well as enjoy another successful hunting season.

So what have we learned from all of our various experiences?

We have learned that there is a place for alternative treatments in our dog’s long term treatment plans.  While there are still some things that are kind of “out there” for me, I’m much less skeptical about things like chiropractic, acupuncture and herbal medicine treatments.  They are however not a cure all for every situation.

If you are seeking alternative treatments we have found that it is best to find a vet that does both traditional veterinary medicine as well as alternative medicine.

In Sam’s case had we not removed the cyst her cancer would have spread and killed her.  We have found that vets with a combination background seem to work out the best.  They respect the traditional methods (cutting out tumors for instance) when they are the right treatment.  They also use non traditional methods to bolster and supplement the body’s natural processes.

To find an acupuncture vet near you check out the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture website at  Specifically look for the DVM at the end of their names to ensure that they are actual vets.

It’s also important to remember that not all treatments work for all dogs.  As one vet explained to us about Sam’s cancer and the Oncologists recommendation of chemo treatment, “that’s what they do”.   In other words you don’t take your car to a mechanic to get it washed and waxed. You take it there to get it fixed.   The Oncologist was offering up what they knew how to do and what they felt was the best course of treatment, that is their job.  It is your job to decide if that is the best treatment for your dog.

As a former skeptic on non-traditional methods of treatments, I have been convinced through our experiences that these methods are at least worth a try.   I hope that you’ll find our experiences helpful in deciding whether to look at non-traditional treatments in the future.

-Dave Pluth

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