Read This or We'll Stick the Dog Again

The New York Times April 12, 1998 by Margalit Fox 

Fido has arthritis, so the vet sticks him full of pins. Fido gets better. Fluffy is scratching the neighbors. A few doses of a solution made from the essence of flowers and Fluffy is the soul of purring tranquility.

Hokum? Magic realism?

Neither, according to practitioners and consumers of holistic veterinary medicine, a constellation of non-traditional therapies increasingly popular as adjuncts, or alternatives, to conventional veterinary care.

In recent years, many alternative practices that caught on with humans in the 1960's and 70's - acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, nutritional therapy and botanical medicine - have been employed by a growing number of veterinarians. These therapies, some of which have roots in Eastern medicine, are used to treat everything from arthritis and skin problems to gastrointestinal ailments, hernias and behavioral disorders.

"Every technique that's used in people can be used in animals," said Carvel Tiekert, a veterinarian in Bel Air, Md., who is the executive director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. Tiekert founded the organization in 1982 with about 30 members; today, he says, it has about 700 members.

Some practitioners use holistic methods exclusively; others combine them with Western medicine and surgery. "I define holistic medicine as everything that works," Dr. Tiekert said.

A number of pet owners, themselves satisfied consumers of alternative medicine, are inspired to seek similar treatment for their animals. Others, having exhausted the round of orthodox therapies, seek holistic medicine as a last resort. "When people come to me, they've gone the gamut of drugs and they're looking for something else," said Marcie Fallek, a holistic veterinarian who practices in Manhattan and Fairfield, Conn.

Dr. Fallek, 45, specializes in acupuncture and homeopathy, in which minute doses of toxins, hugely diluted, are used to stimulate the body's natural defenses. (Toxins include arsenic, poison ivy, rattlesnake venom, rotten meat, tincture of tarantula and the saliva of a rabid dog.)

The cost of alternative treatment varies with the practitioner. A single acupuncture session, for example, might range for $40 to $75. For a 45-minute homeopathic consultation, Dr. Tiekert charges $112.50; by comparison, he said, a 20 minute appointment with a conventional veterinary specialist might be $60 to $70.


In the larger veterinary community, the response to holistic medicine has ranged from benign indifference to outright condemnation. "I've heard people make comments that they didn't believe in this and they thought it was witchcraft, but that's certainly not the prevailing attitude," said John Freeman, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which has more than 61,000 members in the United States and Canada.

In 1996, the association issued a set of guidelines for the practice of alternative medicine. While the guidelines do not constitute an endorsement, Dr. Freeman said, they acknowledge the increasing demand by pet owners for nontraditional approaches, and the increasing interest among many vets - along with occasional acupuncturists and chiropractors - in providing them.

"There is some good anecdotal data out there to suggest these treatments are beneficial," he said, adding that further controlled studies and peer review are needed before a definitive evaluation can be made.

One of Dr. Fallek's current patients is Phoebe, a 5-year-old golden retriever mix who was hit by a car in November. As a result of the accident, in which two of her vertebrae were displaced, Phoebe's hindquarters were paralyzed. Chances of recovery were deemed poor, and Phoebe's owner, David Ulrich, a clinical psychologist who lives in Stamford and Lyme, Conn., was advised by another veterinarian to consider euthanasia. Then Mr. Ulrich's acupuncturist recommended Dr. Fallek, who began treating Phoebe with acupuncture, castor oil packs on her back, vitamins and nutritional supplements.

During a recent appointment with Dr. Fallek, Phoebe, who started to walk again `10 days after the treatment began, pranced around the Manhattan apartment borrowed for the occasion. The dog has recovered almost completely, Dr. Fallek said; x-rays of Phoebe's spine show the displaced vertebrae realigned.

Dr. Fallek coaxed Phoebe to lie on a mat and inserted 1 1/2 -inch-long acupuncture needles near the dog's spine, forming a ring around the site of the injury. "There are different meridians where energy runs through the body," Dr. Fallek said. "The Chinese see disease as a blockage of energy along the meridians, and what we do is try to unblock it."

She attached electrodes to the needles and applied low-level electrical stimulation, a procedure she described as painless. "The is helping the chi, or the energy pass through the obstruction," she explained. Phoebe's reaction to the procedure was to investigate whether the electrodes were edible.

"Relax, Phoebe," Mr. Ulrich said. "Just feel that energy pulsing through you." Then he and Dr. Fallek resumed their discussion of whether chi can be transmitted directly between people by touch. The treatment ended and Phoebe, liberated, was off and running.

Dr. Fallek, whose veterinary education was strictly Western, now makes holistic medicine the mainstay of her practice. "I think conventional medicine has its place," she said. "I just don't want to be the one to do it."