By Rebekah Wolf
It’s Friday morning and Baxter, a chocolate brown Shar-Pei mix, stretches out on the floor at the Ruff House Daycare and Boarding facility in West Amwell, New Jersey. He relaxes as Susan Barnhart, a canine massage therapist, works each muscle of his body to release any tension.
Barnhart began treating Baxter regularly to familiarize him with positive forms of touch. After spending 10 years tormenting and aggravating chained up animals as a bait dog, he was left with both physical and emotional scars. Barnhart noticed a positive change in Baxter by the end of the first massage, noting how he happily stood in the doorway, preventing her from leaving the room.
“After about a month to a month and a half of massage therapy, Baxter started coming around and getting more comfortable with other people,” Barnhart says.
A weekly massage, which can last anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the dog’s health, releases a lot of anxiety, especially for service dogs working in high-stress environments, she says.
Alternative therapies for animals, also known as complementary therapies, became popular for horses in the United Kingdom about 20 years ago. People started turning to physical therapy after serious injuries as an alternative to euthanasia.
Now animals of all shapes and sizes reap the benefits of everything from acupuncture to hydrotherapy, practices humans have enjoyed for hundreds of years.
“Most veterinarians suggest alternative therapies because prolonged medicinal treatment can raise toxicity of the liver and kidneys,” says Gael Parks, clinic director and founder of Dog Paddle Hydrotherapy and Wellness in Pasadena, California. “It’s really important to work on the root cause of the problem. Often we find people doing both and then weaning their animals off of the medication.”
For enthusiasts of alternative therapies, it is all about quality of life. Animals are seen as valued members of the family and their guardians want to make sure they receive the kind of care they would expect for themselves. Barbara Royal, DVM and owner of The Royal Treatment Veterinary Spa in Chicago agrees. “It’s a way for people to be involved with their pet’s health at home and have more common sense,” she says. “That’s my number one goal, to bring common sense back to medicine.”
Angel Gulermovich of Los Angeles, for example, began taking her 14-year-old cat Owein to a veterinarian specializing in acupuncture to alleviate systems of arthritis. Owein was taking medication to treat the condition, but because of the high dosage, faced certain liver damage.
“I’m extremely glad acupuncture was suggested to us, because I don’t like to think about what he’d be like without it,” says Gulermovich. “It’s made him a much healthier cat overall.”
In addition to treating arthritis, acupuncture has stabilized Owein’s weight and cured his eczema, problems Gulermovich wasn’t expecting to be solved with acupuncture. She was so impressed with the outcome she decided to try acupuncture for herself.
In fact, complementary therapies are becoming so popular that the American Veterinary Medical Association issued guidelines for their practice in June 2001.
At Dog Paddle the focus is on coupling traditional medicine with complementary therapy. It opened its doors a year ago after Parks convinced the veterinarians at Rose City Veterinary Hospital in Pasadena of the need for other forms of treatment in the Los Angeles area. The organization is centered on hydrotherapy-the use of a pool filled with warm, purified water and equipped with counter-flow jets, in conjunction with other therapies.
After a physical examination by a veterinarian to determine the overall health of the animal and what treatment options are available, they are sometimes given acupuncture to increase circulation and flush toxins from the body and massage to loosen the muscles, before beginning hydrotherapy. Dog Paddle believes that hydrotherapy is beneficial for animals suffering from arthritis, hip dysplasia, and even paralysis.
Margaret Rudoy, Dog Paddle’s head rehabilitation therapist, finds that people can be hesitant to try complementary therapies for their animals since such practices sometimes carry negative stigma in the human world.
“Dogs don’t have the preconceptions that people have. Usually, when people see the benefits of acupuncture with their animals, they try it for themselves.”
Rudoy backs her medical advice with personal experience. She had a 14-year-old dog that was diagnosed with liver failure, but with a combination of acupuncture and raw foods, her dog was able to live for two more years. Now she sees a lot of dogs that have gone through surgery or have been written off by their regular veterinarians and guardians are looking for a last resort.
Because people are more likely to consider complementary therapy for their animals with the encouragement of their vet, the staff at Dog Paddle works diligently to educate the public by visiting animal hospitals and breed clubs.
“This means we can help that many more animals, and that’s what it’s really all about,” Parks says.
Determining the best treatment for pets is based solely on individual needs. But Barnhart points out that Baxter may not have become the lovable dog he is today as quickly without the help of massage therapy.
“It’s an alternative therapy, and people are reluctant to try it,” Rudoy says. “I don’t like to disregard Western or Eastern medicine. They work best hand in hand.”