When Haymarket veterinarian Rebecca Verna's 12-year-old Labrador retriever developed mobility problems that didn't respond to other treatments, a friend suggested that she take it to an animal chiropractor. At the time -- the early 1990s -- Verna was a recent graduate of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, and she was skeptical. Even so, she decided to see whether an animal chiropractor might help.
"It was miraculous," Verna said.
After six weeks of adjustment therapy combined with acupuncture for pain relief, her Lab, Kiki, was frolicking outside and running up stairs like a puppy. Verna decided then that she wanted to learn animal chiropractic medicine to help her patients. In 1995, she completed training in Illinois and was certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.
"I thought I had learned anatomy in vet school, but it was nothing like [chiropractic anatomy training]," Verna said. "In chiropractic, you learn the relationship between every muscle, tendon and so on and every single bone and joint in the body. It's not just about the spine. Chiropractic goes all the way to the toes."
Human patients and their doctors are often skeptical about the claims made by alternative medicine devotees. Indeed, positive outcomes in people are often dismissed as psychosomatic. Still, veterinarians worldwide have begun to embrace alternative medicine for pets. Acupuncture, herbal remedies, hydrotherapy and many other alternative treatments have proven effective in animals.
In Verna's Haymarket practice, Healthy P.A.W.S. Medical Center, chiropractic medicine is just one of many traditional and alternative treatments offered. She also provides acupuncture, herbal remedies and hydrotherapy, using an underwater treadmill.
Verna said that in addition to helping pets overcome injuries and age-related disorders, chiropractic is a preventive technique for sport and show animals. She often combines chiropractic with acupuncture. "It releases the tension before the adjustment," she said.
Over the years, she has learned to gently nudge vertebrae in place and her touch is light. "We're not cracking bones here. If I didn't tell pet owners exactly what I'm doing, that 'now I'm making the adjustment,' they'd never notice it," she said.
For pet owners, perhaps the only thing worse than watching a beloved dog or cat suffer from chronic illness or disease -- especially when the animal is relatively young or otherwise sound -- is knowing there's nothing that can be done.
Betsy Hobbs-Monroe of Hamilton has experienced that feeling firsthand. In 1992, a herniated disk left her dachshund Rudy's hind legs paralyzed. Surgery was considered, but doctors had little hope that it would be successful. Hobbs-Monroe, a dog groomer at Leesburg Veterinary Hospital, prepared herself for what she thought was inevitable: 6-year-old Rudy would have to be put down.
But just before the dog was to be euthanized, she remembered hearing that veterinarian Janet McKim provided acupuncture treatment at the Middleburg Animal Hospital. Hobbs-Monroe, who had used acupuncture to treat her own medical conditions, wondered whether alternative medicine might help her dog.
"Janet was just starting to do acupuncture then," Hobbs-Monroe said. "We didn't know if it was going to work, but she said Rudy seemed like a good candidate. So, she gave it a try."
Not only did Rudy walk again, she lived for seven years more.
Rudy's success with acupuncture led Hobbs-Monroe to rescue another dachshund, Mindy, who had been scheduled to be euthanized because she was paralyzed from a herniated disk. The 3-year-old dog quickly learned to get around using a wheelchair cart. But Hobbs-Monroe's goal was more ambitious, and she sought McKim's help again.
"It was amazing to see the progression. First, toes began to wiggle, then her tail wagged," Hobbs-Monroe said.
Today, little more than a year and a half later, the wheelchair cart is in storage. Mindy's favorite outdoor activity is chasing squirrels and terrorizing cats.
McKim, who graduated from Ohio State University's veterinary school in 1980, said she was frustrated by the limitations of traditional veterinary medicine to treat chronic illness in animals. After her sister reported gaining relief from a chronic medical condition using acupuncture, the veterinarian thought acupuncture might also work for her patients.
McKim sought specialized training in a program at the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in San Diego and was certified to perform acupuncture on animals in 1992. Continuing professional education is required to maintain her certification. She employs acupuncture and herbal remedies to complement -- not replace -- traditional treatment of chronic conditions, including cancer.
"I see a lot of dogs and cats with neurological and muscular-skeletal problems -- hip dysplasia, prolapsed disks and strokes," McKim said.
Her patients don't seem to mind the tiny needles, which are inserted two to three inches below the skin. Some animals move about during treatment. Others sleep.
"There are certain 'points' that stimulate endorphins, and I always include those, to help keep them quiet," she said.
Veterinary and human acupuncture techniques are virtually identical, McKim said, including the size of the needles, which are imported from Asia.
Local veterinarians often refer chronically ill patients to McKim and other alternative veterinary practitioners in the area. Success stories are common. Veterinarian Pamela Grasso, who has been in practice for 13 years and works at Ashburn Farm Animal Hospital, said she sought training in Chinese medicine after seeing dramatic improvement in the patients she had referred to specialists.
"They'd come back and I could see there was something to this. I decided I wanted to be able to help them like that, too," she said.
As an adjunct to traditional veterinary care, Grasso uses a variety of alternatives to treat seizures, kidney problems, arthritis and many other illnesses and conditions, including behavioral problems. In addition to acupuncture, she strongly believes in the ability of Chinese herb formulations to improve patients' overall health.
"Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years," she said. "I use it as a complement to western medicine, as a preventative and to treat chronic illness."
According to Grasso, Chinese herbal treatments are based on formulas comprising several components -- rather than a single herb -- to overcome or alleviate symptoms. The herbal medication is commonly digested rather than applied and is dispensed in capsules, tinctures or other forms, depending on the animal's preference or tolerance level.
"I have an 18-year-old kitty who takes very tiny pills. I just roll them down," Grasso said.
Massage therapy is also gaining popularity among veterinarians. More than 8,000 new massage therapists from across the United States and 19 countries have obtained training in equine and companion animal massage at the Equissage veterinary massage training facility in Round Hill since 1991. Founder Dee Schreiber said several other Loudoun County residents are currently enrolled in the program.
According to Schreiber, animals enjoy and benefit from deep tissue massage therapy because it enhances muscle tone, reduces inflammation and stimulates circulation. Massage also helps soothe and strengthen soft tissue involved in conditions such as hip dysplasia.
"Massage is preventative and curative," he said. "We know it helps as much for animals as it does for humans."
Some pet owners also say water therapy, an alternative treatment first used successfully in equine medicine, can save lives when all else fails.
Renee Austin and Tom Jones of Ashburn say hydrotherapy saved their Australian shepherd, Zachary, while dramatically extending and improving the quality of his life. Zachary was a 6-month-old pup when Jones, a veterinarian who owns Ashburn Veterinary Hospital, adopted him.
According to Austin, Zachary and Jones were inseparable -- until the dog developed a degenerative neurological disorder that weakened the otherwise healthy animal's rear legs. Despite receiving the best veterinary care, Zachary's muscles gradually atrophied. By age 14, he was almost immobile.
"All we could think at the time was, 'Oh my, God, we'll have to put him down,' " Austin said. "But how could we do that when we have this physically and mentally able animal? We knew we had to do something for Zachary."
Jones and Austin took the dog to the Northern Virginia Animal Swim Center in Middleburg to try hydrotherapy. Built in 1976, the center was originally part of a private thoroughbred training facility used to condition horses for the racing circuit. After Roger Collins and Laura Hayward purchased the property in 1989, they opened the pool for public use and, believing canines might also benefit from swim therapy, welcomed dogs as well as horses.
Collins created swimming regimens to help speed post-operative recovery and developed low-impact aquatic training and fitness programs. After two weeks of therapy, Zachary's muscles began to rebuild.
Swim therapy is used to alleviate -- but not cure -- a wide range of conditions, including hip dysplasia, spinal disk and nerve damage, arthritis, paralysis and muscle atrophy, by safely strengthening muscles with virtually no pressure on the joints. The pool's warm water also promotes flexibility, circulation and mobility.
Today, Zachary is 17 -- three years beyond the usual life expectancy for his breed. He swims twice a week, sometimes for an hour and a half. Walking is easier now, but the biggest benefit is the energy boost their dog gains from swimming, Jones and Austin said.
"It's been phenomenal," Jones said. "I knew the potential, but I didn't really know if it would work for Zachary. There's no doubt now."
Jones, who has referred patients to the center, said for the most part, their experiences have been just as positive. Like other pet owners who have seen results from alternative medicine, Jones and Austin are thankful.
"I know we wouldn't have Zachary now if he hadn't started swimming," Austin said.