Pet Owners Turning to Alternative Treatments

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

The prognosis wasn't good for Bilbo. The middle-age pug suffered from a whole host of ailments: itchy skin, weakness in his back legs and a loss of appetite. Bilbo's regular veterinarian told his owner, Abe Haspel of Annandale, that there wasn't much that could be done because the feisty pug was getting old and his condition would only continue to deteriorate.

But three years later, Bilbo is feistier than ever. Haspel credits monthly acupuncture treatments for the change. "He's more energetic, and his allergies have disappeared," Haspel said.

Although some in the veterinary profession are skeptical of such treatments, Americans' growing fascination with alternative medicine is influencing the kind of care their pets get. Veterinarians once shunned because of their belief that such alternative therapies as acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help animals struggling with arthritis and allergies are finding growing acceptance from some peers and an eager reception from pet owners. Others, encouraged by greater demand for the services, are scrambling to incorporate such treatments into their conventional practices.

"Anything you can treat with Western medicine you can also treat holistically," said Jordan Kocen, a veterinarian who specializes in alternative therapies at SouthPaws, in Fairfax.

Like their human counterparts, dogs, cats and rabbits are all good candidates for alternative treatments, Kocen said. He said that acupuncture can help a dog suffering from arthritis and that a cat's asthma can be treated with homeopathic remedies. Other veterinarians said horses, dolphins and snakes can also benefit from such unconventional therapies.

The booming interest in alternative care is fueled in part by owners such as Isabel Barbella of Vienna who have tried alternative therapies themselves. Others turn to acupuncture and homeopathy when traditional medicine has failed to help their pets. Sometimes, it's the humans who end up taking a cue from their animals.

"People see how acupuncture works for their pets and suddenly they're asking if I can recommend a good acupuncturist for them," Kocen said.

The American Veterinary Medical Association says it is "open" to the consideration of alternative treatments. For the past several years, the association has offered workshops about alternative treatments at its annual conventions, according to Craig Smith, a veterinarian and association staff member. But the group's policy also says that "claims for safety and effectiveness ultimately should be proven by the scientific method."

"The biggest concern most veterinarians have is, 'Where is the science behind the therapy?' " said Bonnie V. Beaver, a professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M University. She said that although acupuncture is more widely accepted among veterinarians, treatments such as aromatherapy and herbal remedies are much more controversial.

She said owners might be so eager to see improvement that they think they see a change when none is present. Herbal remedies also raise concern because, unlike drugs, they have not been through a thorough screening process.

Alternative treatments were not always an accepted part of veterinary care.

Mark Haverkos, a veterinarian who is also an animal chiropractor, said he was almost expelled from Ohio State's veterinary school in the 1980s after treating a horse with acupuncture. Monique Maniet, a holistic veterinarian in Bethesda, remembered some colleagues dismissing her as the "voodoo doctor."

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