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Acupuncture Goes to the Dogs

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Written by Tara Leonard

Healthy Living

APTOS (December, 2008) -- The acupuncture patient rests quietly as Dr. Patty Wilson takes his pulse, examines his tongue, and begins to insert thin, flexible needles into his legs, back and neck. “How’s that feel?” Wilson gently asks, leaning over the treatment table for a final insertion. The patient licks her face.
The affectionate patient is Rocco, a 12-year-old Jack Russell Terrier with bright eyes, perky ears, and a constantly wagging tail. You’d never guess that just months ago this brown-and-white bundle of energy was listless, incontinent, and shaking uncontrollably as the result of an endocrine disorder called Cushing’s Disease. Traditional veterinary medicine offered two treatments: complicated surgery or drug therapy with potentially toxic side-effects. Owner Robert Mettalia chose a third option, an integrative approach that combines the best of Western veterinary practice with Eastern techniques such as acupuncture and herbology.
Several times a month for the past six months, Mettalia has brought Rocco here to the Del Mar Pet Hospital in Aptos. During half-hour sessions like this one, Wilson, a board-certified veterinarian trained in veterinary acupuncture, inserts up to a dozen needles in carefully chosen points on Rocco’s diminutive frame. Rocco also takes Chinese herbs in easy-to-swallow capsules and follows a strict diet. The results speak (and bark and wriggle with joy) for themselves.
“It’s been an absolute miracle,” says Mettalia as he strokes Rocco’s head.  “He was on his way out. It’s like night and day.”
Wilson works with calm efficiency, moving adroitly around the treatment table in a traditional lab coat, a stethoscope draped around her neck. After a decade of veterinary practice, she became interested in alternative approaches after her own experience with breast cancer.
“I started to explore how I could support my body in alternative ways such as exercise, diet and acupuncture,” she explains with a smile. “At the same time, I began to see clients who wanted alternative medicine for their animals and I had to turn them away. I decided it was something I could add to my practice to help people take better care of their animals.”
The key word is “add.”  Wilson, who graduated from veterinary school at UC Davis, returned to school in Florida for certification in Traditional Chinese Veterinarian Medicine. Now she integrates the best of Western and Eastern approaches. “I present people with their options and let them decide what they want to do. If you really need Western medicine, I’ll tell you that. I can help a dog on chemo to feel more comfortable. I can make a difference for animals who can’t handle steroids. I had one animal come in with a euthanasia form because she was paralyzed from a ruptured disc and the owners couldn’t afford surgery. I combined acupuncture and herbs with a more traditional veterinary approach and now she’s walking fine.”
Acupuncture has been practiced in some cultures for thousands of years, but only recently became accepted by Americans as treatment for themselves, let alone their pets.  According to practitioners, health is reliant on the free flow of energy, or qi, throughout the body. Illness is the result of blockages in this flow, which can be relieved by the placement of thin needles at specific points in the body which correspond to internal organ function. Wilson practices “transpositional acupuncture” which takes human points and transposes them to the animal.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, interest in veterinary acupuncture has surged in recent years to where it is considered an integral part of veterinary medicine. It is used to treat a range of ailments from hip dysplasia and joint disease to gastrointestinal problems. It appears particularly effective in pain management.
While research is underway to explore the effect of acupuncture on animals, few conclusive studies currently exist. But the anecdotal evidence – including patients like Rocco – is hard to dismiss.
“There’s no pre-existing belief or non-belief about this treatment in an animal,” Wilson says as she plucks the needles from Rocco’s back and rewards him with a handful of kibble. “They can’t tell you, ‘I feel this or that.’ All you know is what you see and I’ve witnessed the results time after time. It’s undeniable that they get better.”
Rocco wags his stubby tail in agreement.