Veterinarian 'needles' pets - acupuncturist makes house calls

by Rita Lazzaroni. Fairfield Minuteman January 23, 1997

Honey Bear, a Lynx Point Siamese cat, lies on the kitchen table, stretches, then slowly closes her eyes as if it's time for that late-morning snooze. This would not be unusual, except for the fact that he has just been pricked from head to tail with 12 sharp acupuncture needles, and that when veterinarian Dr. Marcie Fallek releases her hold on the cat, the porcupine-looking Siamese yawns and falls asleep until the needles are removed minutes later.

This is the cat's tenth acupuncture treatment and even Fallek, a certified veterinary acupuncturist, who makes house-calls, is amazed by the change in Honey Bear, who was hospitalized with kidney failure and given no hope for survival by veterinarians in Darien. "Animals with blood values that high are euthanized," said Fallek, as she looked over the cat's medical record.. "those are the worst blood values I've ever seen. This cat really should not be alive.... that's why this cat is such a miracle."

Since September when his acupuncture began, Honey Bear has changed from a gaunt, dry scruffy-haired cat to a bright-eyed, sleek cat with an appetite and a renewed interest in life, according to his owner, Audrey Nelson, a nurse who lives and works in Fairfield.

"He should have been getting worse and worse. Instead, he's getting better and better," she said. Wearing a white doctor's coat,and slinging her medical bag, a bright purple duffle, over her shoulder, Fallek drives on to her next house call, where she is greeted by Pearl, a black Labrador retriever who bounds up to greet her before calming down for both a standard needle and a deeper-acting electrified acupuncture needle treatment to help relieve pain from hip disease.

Holistic Animal Doctor

It's all in a long day's work for Fallek, one of seven veterinary acupuncturists in Connecticut, and just 500 in the world, certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. To become certified, the veterinarian trained hundreds of hours and passed strict qualifying exams three years ago. Fallek, who practiced traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years in various Connecticut animal hospitals, several of which have hired her for her expertise in both acupuncture and traditional medicine, now works full-time as a holistic animal doctor in Fairfield.

The veterinarian says that since many people in this area use alternative medicine themselves, they are receptive to its use for their pets.

"In the traditional practice where I work, when I bring (alternative medicine) up, people I would have least expected tell me that have had some kind of introduction with herbs, meditate, something. I mean, it's a tidal wave of interest here. It's amazing to me. Very few people laugh at it." said Fallek, who last year became certified by the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy, an even newer field than veterinary acupuncture. The practice of homeopathy involves prescribing highly individualized plant or mineral-derived remedies for ailments.

"Basically, I was very happy with acupuncture, getting great results, but some of the cats (about 30 percent) would not let me put needles in them," said Fallek, adding that she has found that homeopathy, especially in severe cases, is able to reverse long-term or chronic disease better than acupuncture.

Fallek said that instead of curing disease, drugs used in Western medicine simply mask or suppress symptoms. That's why ear infections recur after even massive doses of antibiotics are taken or skin problems show up again right after steroids are discontinued. "You are not curing the disease. It's pushing it deeper into the body," said Fallek.

She calls the type of medicine she practices "energy healing" and describes her role in the healing process as that of a facilitator. "We are a self-healing organism," she explained. "I'm just triggering the body to self-heal itself. I'm just a catalyst for that."

Acupuncture was used in China as many as 3,000 years ago for treating colic, diarrhea and skin problems in horses and pigs. In the United States over the past 20 years, acupuncture maps for dogs and cats have been developed. These maps show the location of specific body energy points or meridians that assist the flow of what the Chinese call Qi. They think of Qi as concentrated energy that flows like water in a healthy body, the veterinarian said. If Qi gets trapped like in a dam, the energy flow is cut off, causing an imbalance in body energy and illness.

By placing tiny needles, heat or electrical stimulation along these energy pathways, an acupuncturist can release these blockages and restore the body's natural balance. Fallek, whose interest in acupuncture ignited when her dog Annie developed arthritis, said she had excellent results using acupuncture for skin disease, gastrointestinal problems, asthma, diabetes and hip disease. She said the average treatment requires six to eight visits, although often fewer are needed and many times, an animal feels better after the first. However, she cautions that there has been little success in treating cancer, epilepsy or muscular dystrophy-like disease.


Just how acupuncture works to kill pain or boost the immune system remains a mystery, although scientists at the National Institutes of Health are studying if certain acupuncture needle placement causes the body to unleash its own pain-killing endorphins or natural steroids that have an anti-inflammatory effect. It does not matter to Pearl's owner, Cathy Ivanko of Fairfield, how or why acupuncture works. She's just delighted that Pearl is able to bound up and down steps, run in the park, and no longer needs four pills a day for pain relief. "She's a real dog now. Before she had so many limitations." said Ivanko, who discovered shortly after adopting the 8-year-old Lab last August, that she suffered from severe hip dysplasia, a genetic disease that causes joint deformations in the hip leading to lameness.

Thanks to acupuncture, Westporter Cynthia Fox's dog Jeremy also is able to enjoy strolls in Winslow Park again, long after she had been told by three veterinary bone specialists that her 5-year-old champion Afgan hound would never run and jump again, after a freak accident in which a heavy leash crashed on his neck. After Jeremy was treated by an acupuncturist in New York City, Fox turned to Fallek, who had just completed acupuncture training, for what she calls "tune-up work," on Jeremy.

Although Fox concedes that Jeremy will never be able to endure the rigorous training needed to re-enter the dog show ring, she explains her reason for having him treated with acupuncture. "I did it so he'd be laying on the sofa comfortable at age 12, not so he could be earning more show titles for the wall."

Like Fox, Carol Radley of Fairfield, the owner of three cats and two dogs, says she has all the proof she needs that Fallek's medical treatments work. "The proof is when your dog's skin clears up, or he stops limping or stops having diarrhea," said Radley. "That argument that it's just in the mind doesn't work with animals. They can't talk themselves into feeling better. An animal just can't have a placebo effect."

So what do Radley's friends think of her menagerie being stuck with needles for one ailment or another "Some of my friends laugh at me," said Radley, "Others ask for Marcie's number."