Dogs, Cats Get Acupuncture

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August 7, 2009—In the Washington, D.C., area, acupuncture is becoming a more popular option for treating a variety of animal ailments, from arthritis and nerve damage to constipation.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

At ten-years-old, Maddie the Great Dane is feeling her age.

Arthritis and damaged nerves in her spine weakened her hind legs and brought her pain. It got so bad she had trouble walking and spent months on steroids. She faced possible surgery.

But then a neurologist recommended animal acupuncture.

SOUNDBITE: (English) Cyndee Clay, Maddie's Owner "I have friends who get acupuncture, but it's not something I would necessarily, you know, choose to do myself. So we were, you know, a little skeptical. But we had some friends who had some good experiences with it and decided to give it a shot."

For a little more than a year, Maddie has been a regular visitor to a veterinary acupuncturist in Fairfax, Virginia.

Vet Marilyn Khoury inserts needles into points on Maddie's body to relieve pain or to create therapeutic effects.

Her goal is to relieve inflammation and stress on the spine to help Maddie keep walking.

UPSOUND: (English) Marilyn Khoury, Veterinary Acupuncturist "There is a very nice point at the heel that links two meridians: the bladder and the kidney. And we actually go through and through here."

Despite the many needles, Maddy drifts into a relaxed state during the 20 minute treatment.

Acupuncture doesn't yield instant results, but the Clays say Maddie has regained strength, is walking well and doesn't need steroids much any more.

SOUNDBITE: (English) Marilyn Khoury, Veterinary Acupuncturist "I really dislike the word alternative medicine, because it suggests you have to make a choice. And I think that should not be the case. I think you should be given all the options and you should go with those that do the least harm."

And some veterinary acupuncturists have even revived the traditional doctor's house call.

Caroline Karcher's 19-year-old Siamese cat, Mariquita, has been getting regular acupuncture treatments for about a year and a half.

Mariquita had severe constipation, leading to hospitalization, and an enlarged colon can lead to grave health problems.

Karcher says the only other choices were to let the cat die or surgery, which could have hastened Mariquita's death. Other than an occasional growl, she puts up with the needle treatment.

The acupuncturist inserts more than a dozen needles and runs a low electric current through them.

Karcher says the treatments, along with chiropractic therapy and injections, helped Mariquita little-by-little.

SOUNDBITE: (English) Caroline Karcher, Mariquita's Owner "It wasn't like overnight she was better. It was a long process."

A rescued Saint Bernard, Ares, wears a protective boot to keep him from dragging a hind paw.

Nerve damage in his back left him unable to walk.

His owner credits acupuncture, used with other therapy, with helping restore the dogs ability to walk.

SOUNDBITE: (English) Leanne Lipton, Veterinary Acupuncturist "I think almost every illness can be addressed by integrative medicine, complementary medicine. Anything from a developmental problem, for example a limb deformity at birth, to allergies."

Lipton says her Washington, DC location is ideal for an integrative health approach, since there are many open-minded people who can afford to care for their pets.

She originally treated animals only with traditional veterinary treatments, but found that they didn't always do enough to improve the pets' quality of life.

Now she mixes traditional treatments with acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, herbs and other treatments.

Treatments range in cost, depending on the length and type of therapy.

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