Fido gets a different stick: pet acupuncture catches on

Southwest vet boosts business, animal health and patient satisfaction with new treatment

Southwest veterinarian Dr. Julie Smith is offering a rare and what some might consider strange treatment at the Westgate Pet Clinic, 4339 France Ave. S. -- pet acupuncture. Performed only by a handful of vets in the state, pet acupuncture has recently become popular at vet schools and helps animals with problems ranging from chronic pain and arthritis to grief.

Smith, who has been a veterinarian at Westgate for eight years, said she finished her certification in traditional Chinese medicine only a year ago, focusing on acupuncture, acupressure, herbal and chiropractic treatment.

She said she currently has 10 acupuncture patients, made up of mostly dogs and a few "nice" cats; she is very choosy about who she treats, wanting to build a success rate before expanding the treatment. Smith estimates that in the past year, acupuncture has helped 85 percent of animals she's tried it on.

She said she uses acupuncture treatment for animals who don't respond to conventional treatments, or whose owners don't want drugs used. "Many people these days don't want to put their dog on a drug," Smith said.

The ideal candidates for success, she said, are animals with painful arthritic conditions.

The treatment

Smith says the first step when starting acupuncture treatment involves an in-depth interview with the animal and its owners. At that meeting, she gets a better idea of an animal's specific problems and its constitution, which helps her tailor the treatment.

Smith said a constitution is like the animal's personality, which the Chinese classify in groups. For example, she said, a golden retriever generally has an Earth constitution, because they're typically happy and eager to please. A Metal constitution, Smith said, is more aloof and sensitive to grief.

She explained the treatment while working on a first-time patient, a 10-year-old cocker spaniel named Max. Smith said Max, who was being treated for grief, was a perfect example of a Metal constitution. Following the death of his companion two years ago -- another cocker spaniel named Maddie -- Max's owner said he's been mopey and not himself. "Max really started acting a lot gloomier after that," said Lynnhurst resident Nancy Johnson.

Johnson said her family tried to ease his grief by finding him new companions, going though two spaniels (for whom she had to find good homes) and their two rat terrier puppies. Still, she said, nothing worked, and Max continued to mope. During a routine visit to Smith, doctor and patient's owner discussed the situation and decided to give acupuncture a try.

"I will try anything," Johnson said.

As Smith began to insert up to 12 blue and pink needles, she explained that there are 365 points of acupuncture that serve as guides for different treatment areas called Meridians, like the body's highway system of energy flow.

Smith said she's trying to hit the body points connected to grieving. She said acupuncture works through a tingling sensation that occurs when needles are inserted and left for a few minutes. During that time, Smith said the body increases antibodies and neurotransmitters, helping to heal various ailments, depending on where in the body they're placed.

She said the initial visit and interview costs $87, and most patients need $47 follow-up appointments once a week for four weeks. After that, Smith said she just has owners bring their pets in as needed.

Does it work?

Johnson said 24 hours after the treatment that Max was friskier. She said his eating habits have improved and he's playing with the other dogs. "His tail's going fast. He honestly seems to be much better," Johnson said.

Another Westgate client, Edina resident Karen Seal Grafe, has brought her folden retriever-yellow labrador mix Brandy, 13, to Smith for years. As Brandy has aged, Seal Grafe said the dog had developed painful arthritis and her quality of life had been steadily declining.

"I got frustrated with traditional treatments," she said, listing the numerous anti-inflammatory drugs Brandy had been on to battle the arthritis.

Seal Grafe said the acupuncture therapy was her last hope before putting Brandy to sleep. "It's worth a try," she said. "If we get another good year of her living a good life, it's worth it."

Following a course of treatments with Smith, Seal Grafe said Brandy was a different dog. She said she was begging to go on walks, climbing stairs easily, even getting up on the counter in search of food. "I was very surprised by the results," Seal Grafe said -- the results even shocked her skeptical husband.

Good for business

Smith said acupuncture has been a welcome addition to her business. She had Western-medicine training at Iowa State University, but incorporating Chinese-style practices was difficult for her.

Practitioners of Western medicine, she said, have tended to shy away from treatments such as acupuncture because it does not follow a linear pattern; doctors cannot measure out a treatment and measure success physically using such indicators as blood count. "You can't measure chi," Smith said.

Still, pet acupuncture is gaining legitimacy. University of Minnesota professor of small animal internal medicine Jane Armstrong said roughly 10 percent of veterinarians in the state offer acupuncture services. She said the U started incorporating acupuncture into its curriculum last July.

Armstrong said many vets had viewed acupuncture as a metaphysical treatment, but the treatment's success, plus client requests, the procedure's safety and the teaching benefits, have helped it catch on.

Armstrong said the number of veterinary students interested in acupuncture has also been on the rise. She said it's a definite business booster because so few veterinarians offer it. "It offers a competitive advantage in offering a service not a lot of others in the country do," Armstrong said.

Smith agreed and said she's seen a few new clients already as a result of acupuncture referrals. "I think in the end it will be a nice practice-builder," she said, adding that in the future she'd like to incorporate herbal therapy into her treatments, too.

For more information on pet acupuncture, contact Dr. Julie Smith at 925-1121.