Bark if you like needles

Pub date March 30, 2010
WriterTim Redmond

The dog named Hank Stamper got paralyzed on a sunny Saturday afternoon. One moment he was hanging out in the backyard, lying in the little patch of grass and giving the cats next door the evil eye, and the next thing I knew he was making a yelping sound like nothing my dog had ever uttered in his four years of healthy life.

When I got there, Hank was dragging himself around by his front paws, his back legs and hindquarters completely limp and useless.

So I picked up the 90-pound beast and wrestled him into the car and carried him to the pet hospital, where a young vet poked and prodded and confirmed that Hank’s entire hindquarters were numb and paralyzed. The doc didn’t know why, or what might have happened; there was no obvious injury. He said it might get better on its own, or it might not.

The specialist vet we saw the next day didn’t know what was wrong, either; it seemed to be some sort of stroke. An x-ray showed what might have been something screwy in his spine. “There’s a surgical procedure they do at UC Davis,” the specialist vet said. “It costs $10,000, and has about a 50 percent chance of success. I could call them if you want.”

Uh, no. I loved my dog, but that was way beyond our means, and my health insurance didn’t cover family members of the canine persuasion. So, sadly, with much weeping, we took poor Hank home. We figured we’d give it a day or two and, if he didn’t improve, his next trip to the vet would be his last.

While I was lamenting all this at work the following morning, one of my colleagues made a wild suggestion: take him to Irving Street Veterinary Clinic, she told me; there’s a vet there who does acupuncture.

Well, hell. I’d never heard of doggie acupuncture, but Hank wasn’t getting better, plus he was miserable, and we were at the end of the line. So I called and made an appointment. Dr. Jeffrey Bryan met me at the clinic, took a look at the poor mutt, and went to get his gear.

“To be totally honest, I can’t explain scientifically exactly why this works,” he said as he started sticking needles in Hank’s back and legs. “But in a remarkable number of cases, it does.”

We sat on the floor, the dog and I, while Bryan hooked a very low electric current up to some of the needles, then he told me to wait. Thirty minutes later, the doc turned the juice off, took the needles out — and goddamn if that dog didn’t stand up and start to walk.

Seriously — the animal that couldn’t even hold himself up to poo (it was gross, don’t ask) ambled stiffly out of the clinic and got into the car. Four acupuncture sessions later, Hank was running again, and within a few months, we did a 5K race — and the human member of the team wasn’t the one setting the pace.

That was back in 1996, when veterinary acupuncturists were fairly rare, even in San Francisco. I think Bryan was one of only two licensed vets who did it. Today it’s a growth industry.

In fact, an increasing number of vets — people with a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, folks who spent four years in graduate school studying Western science and medical techniques — are treating some of their patients with acupuncture, chiropractic, herbs, and other holistic approaches.

“It’s expanded quite a bit in the past five years,” said Dr. Randy Bowman, who practices at Pets Unlimited, a nonprofit animal hospital and adoption center in San Francisco. “We as vets have become more informed and more in touch with what our clients want.”

Bowman practices what he calls complementary and integrative medicine — a combination of traditional Western techniques and holistic treatments like acupuncture and herbs. “I think a lot of us get fed up with chronic conditions, pets that have problems Western medicine doesn’t have a cure for,” he said. “I wanted to offer my clients something more than the same antibiotic over and over.”

Acupuncture’s been around much longer than what we now call Western medicine. A recent article in noted that primitive acupuncture therapies may have been practiced in India as long as 7,000 years ago, and it’s been part of Chinese culture for centuries.

“One of the earliest records of veterinary acupuncture was some 3,000 years ago, for the treatment of elephants,” explained the article, which was written by Susan Thorpe Vargas and John Cargill.

But the technique didn’t find widespread acceptance in America until much more recently. California first legalized acupuncture in the 1970s. And while some licensed acupuncturists have quietly been treating animals for years, it’s only recently that significant numbers of university-trained veterinarians have started to adopt the practice.

Although most humans have to choose between a doctor with an M.D. and an acupuncturist, in the animal world, the spheres of traditional and holistic medicine have grown closer.

Dr. Hannah Good, who practices in Santa Cruz, is an early disciple. She’s been offering animal acupuncture and chiropractic for more than 20 years. “I look at every case individually,” she told me. “Sometimes it’s herbal treatment, sometimes it’s surgery.”

There are many reasons for the shift toward holistic medicine in the animal world — and one, frankly, is cost. Invasive procedures, antibiotics, steroids — all the things traditional vets tend to do for sick animals — come at a stiff price. Hank’s $10,000 surgical estimate is unusual, but spending hundreds of dollars — many hundreds of dollars — on an animal’s illness is all too common.

The acupuncture that saved Hank’s life cost $40 a session, and the bottle of Chinese medicine Bryan prescribed as a supplement cost $8 at the herbalist down the street.

That’s not always the case — extended acupuncture treatment can be pricey. “But it’s still less expensive, particularly with chronic diseases,” Bowman noted.

I tracked down Bryan recently; these days, he’s a professor at the University of Washington School of Veterinary Medicine and an expert in veterinary oncology. He remembered Hank well — and although he has spent years in advanced training learning to treat animal cancer, he still uses acupuncture at times.

“One of my students had a dog with chronic pain and we gave him a very powerful steroid, but it had no affect,” he said. “But acupuncture made a lot of difference.”

He finds that his clients — even those whose animals have advanced diseases — are interested in alternatives. “A lot of people who have had acupuncture themselves find that this kind of treatment is more in line with their core values,” he noted. “It’s certainly growing in the public consciousness.”

Bryan would like to see the veterinary establishment — which is still dominated by Western scientific models — move more quickly to adopt nontraditional techniques. “Most of what we’re seeing is demand-driven,” he said. “People are asking for it. Veterinary medicine as a whole has done a poor job of being a leader in the field.”