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 believed was inevitable: Rudy, just 6 years old, 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 if alternative medicine might help her dog.
"Janet was just starting to do acupuncture then," Hobbs-Monroe recalled. "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 more years.
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, reflective of the patient's strong belief that a particular "new age" treatment will work. However, veterinarians worldwide -- including those who teach at some of the most prestigious and respected veterinary medical schools in the United States -- have begun to embrace alternative medicine for pets. Acupuncture, herbal remedies, hydrotherapy and many other alternative treatments have been effective in treating animals.
Rudy's success with acupuncture led Hobbs-Monroe to rescue another dachshund, Mindy, who had also been scheduled to be euthanized because she was paralyzed from a herniated disc. 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, a 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, 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 work for her patients, too. McKim sought specialized training in a rigorous 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 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 medicine 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 her 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 comprised of 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.
Chiropractic medicine is also gaining popularity among veterinarians, as is animal massage. More than 8,000 new massage therapists from across the United States and 19 countries have been trained in equine and companion animal massage at the Equissage Inc., veterinary massage training facility in Round Hill since 1991. Founder Dee Schreiber said several Loudouners are 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 medicine treatment first used successfully in equine medicine, has saved lives when all else failed.
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. The center, built in 1976, originally was part of a private thoroughbred training facility used to condition horses for racing. 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 just 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. Plus, the pool's warm water promotes flexibility, circulation and mobility.
Today, Zachary is 17 -- three years beyond the normal 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, according to Jones and Austin, is the energy boost their dog gains from swimming.
"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 has referred patients to the center and says, 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.