Acupuncture with Dr. Donna Kelleher (and patient Mella)
Donna Kelleher, DVM of Whole Pet Vet, was
inspired by an internship with Dr. Allen Schoen, then
receiving a scholarship for veterinary acupuncture
training while still a senior veterinary student. In
turn, she was authorized to treat some of the patients
at the veterinary college with acupuncture.
Dr. Kelleher has been featured at our site since 2003 when she
published the wonderful book,
The Last Chance Dog and Other True Stories of Holistic
Readers will be inspired by this instructive collection of stories
about holistic veterinary medicine. Kelleher, a veterinarian who
received her original training in traditional Western medicine,
explains how she came to realize that there was a more
"compassionate way to heal animals." She cleverly combines true
stories of holistic healing with practical explanations of the
underlying theories and practice. The result is a book that works on
many levels: as an entertaining read, a crash course in acupuncture,
chiropractic and herbal medicine and a testament to the will and
spirit of the animals Kelleher works with.
The following GReat article, which features Dr. Kelleher, was written by Molly Masland,
MSNBC.com health editor. She is known for bringing readers breaking news as well
as the latest on cutting-edge medical research and consumer-health issues. Molly
holds a master’s degree in communication-journalism from Stanford University.
Pets on Pins and Needles: The Case of the Itchy Dog and the Acupuncturist
By Molly Masland, MSNBC, photos by
Katie Cannon, MSNBC
SEATTLE - Mella the golden retriever was an itchy dog — a very
itchy dog. Each night she would stay awake frantically scratching at the
burning sores and scaly skin covering her body. As her allergies grew
worse, the soft skin on her belly turned black with scabs and the tissue
between her toes grew red and inflamed. Eventually much of her fur had
to be shaved off.
“She was a disaster,” says Pat Moberly, Mella’s owner. Originally
bred to become a guide dog for people with disabilities, Mella had to
drop out of the training program when the severity of her skin allergies
everything she could think of — conventional medications, changing the
dog’s diet, using different bedding and even avoiding grasses — but
nothing stopped the endless itching. Nothing, that is, until she took
Mella to see Dr. Donna Kelleher, a Seattle veterinarian trained in
animal acupuncture and other forms of complementary medicine.
Like Mella, many of Kelleher’s patients come to see her
after conventional medical treatments have failed. Author of “The Last
Chance Dog,” Kelleher specializes in treating
animals with chronic diseases, some of which are close to being put
down by the time they arrive for an appointment. She has done
acupuncture on everything from a horse to a bird — even a pet snake that
was slammed in a drawer and suffered spinal injuries.
As I drove to Kelleher’s office on a rainy August morning, I wondered
about the logistics of performing acupuncture on animals. How does one
stick a large dog with numerous needles and then make it sit still for
20 minutes? And how many people would it take to hold down a struggling
golden retriever while a vet put pins in its paws and ears?
Mella receives an examination from Dr. Donna Kelleher.
situation turned out to be a little more serene for everyone involved.
Inside Kelleher’s office, filled with jars of Chinese herbs and charts
showing acupuncture points on various animals, the only excitement was
Mella bounding around the small room, happily wagging her tail.
As soon as Kelleher
began the acupuncture treatment, the dog settled down on the floor and
hardly seemed to notice the needles that were being inserted at points
all over her body — inside her hind legs, on her back, shoulders, behind
her ears and in her paws. Instead of becoming agitated or trying to pull
out the needles, Mella conked out, her head in Moberly’s lap. For the
next 20 minutes, she lay there panting lightly and occasionally yawning,
her eyes glazed over in a doggy trance.
Was Mella a mutant pooch — a hound into
sadomasochism? Or, this being her seventh acupuncture appointment, maybe
she was just used to all this by now. But after watching two other
less-experienced dogs undergo a similar treatment — neither of which
seemed to care much about the needles either — Mella’s behavior didn’t
seem so unusual.
And, the dog does seem to have gotten better. Months after the
acupuncture began, her sores have nearly disappeared, she’s not
scratching much, and the skin on her belly and toes has returned to
normal, says Moberly.
“The improvement has been incredible. I really feel like I got my
Roots in China
Used for thousands of years on humans in China, acupuncture
involves inserting needles at various points on the body to create a
healing reaction. Research suggests that most of these acupuncture
points are located at the site of major nerve bundles and blood vessels.
When the needles are inserted, it's believed that various nerves are
activated, creating a cascading effect of increased circulation and the
release of anti-inflammatory chemicals and natural painkillers.
"It's really about
stimulating neurological points around the body," says Narda Robinson, a
veterinarian and adjunct faculty member at Colorado State University's College of
Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Using brain scans,
Robinson is currently studying the linkage between acupuncture points
and areas in the brains of animals.
The popularity of
animal acupuncture in the United States began in the 1970s with the
growing interest in alternative medicine. "As more people started
looking into complementary medicine for their own health care, they
started looking into it for their animals," says Dr. Ed Boldt, executive
director of the
International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, which offers a
training course for veterinarians.
Despite the relatively recent growth of animal
acupuncture in this country, the practice is nothing new — the Chinese
have been doing it for centuries. The one hitch was that they only
created charts of acupuncture points for certain critters, namely
horses, cattle, pigs and other farm animals of economic significance,
says Boldt. Dogs and cats were more likely to end up on the dinner
Without earlier charts to go by, modern veterinarians have learned to
transpose known acupuncture points in humans onto pets. So, for
instance, a point that is at the tip of the collarbone in a human is
presumed to be at the same location in a cat or a gerbil. "Obviously
there are problems with this system," says Boldt. "We have five fingers
and five toes, but horses have a hoof. ... It's not as complicated with
a dog or a cat because they still have similar anatomical features as
us, but there are some limitations."
Even though relatively little is known about
the actual physiological processes behind acupuncture, proponents of the
practice swear by it. Most mainstream veterinarians, however, are still
waiting for more solid scientific evidence that the procedure actually
works and isn't harmful.
"Of the various alternative types of therapies, it's probably the
most commonly used one," says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, president of the
Medical Association. "But the problem with those therapies in
general is that they do not have a lot of research behind them. ... All
of us would love to see research in the area that's published and
peer-reviewed to show us if it's beneficial and, if so, when."
Far from a cure-all, acupuncture is primarily used for the
treatment of certain conditions in animals, such as arthritis, spinal
injuries, allergies, skin problems, asthma and gastrointestinal
great rule of thumb is that it's good for use for chronic diseases —
things that don't generally get better with Western medicine," says
Kelleher. Within about three or four visits, a veterinarian should be
able to see results if the treatment is going to work. Otherwise, it
should be discontinued and another approach tried, she adds.
In order to determine
if acupuncture is having a positive effect, the veterinarian relies on
subjective reports from the owner, such as how the animal is eating,
exercising and sleeping, as well as more objective tests, such as a
visible improvement of symptoms.
"The beneficial effects of acupuncture are
usually so pronounced that you don't have to guess whether it's
working," says Robinson. "If the results are not clear enough, there
might be something that could work better."
But what about the placebo effect? While it's
generally accepted that suggestion can play a strong role in humans, is
there such a thing in animals?
According to Boldt, it's probably pretty tricky
to communicate to the average pet that sticking it with needles is going
to cure its aches and pains. "But, you told the owner what's going to
happen and in that way you could actually be doing a placebo effect on
the owner," he adds.
An owner may desperately want something to happen and, as a
result, could look for signs of improvement when there really aren't
any. For this reason, it's important for the veterinarian to closely
monitor the animal's symptoms and suggest a different treatment if
acupuncture doesn't appear to be working, says Boldt.
Which brings me to the next point — namely that animal acupuncture is
not something you want to have performed on your pet by any Tom, Dick or
Harriet. And, of course, don't try it at home.
improperly trained practitioners can easily wreak havoc on an animal's
body. Penetration of a major organ or blood vessel could occur, or a
severe illness requiring conventional veterinary medicine, such as
cancer, could be ignored.
"We're seeing more and more cases of misdiagnosis or missed
problems that could eventually become serious," says Robinson, who urges
pet owners to seek out only licensed veterinarians who have completed at
least 120 hours of formal training in animal acupuncture.
should be able to fully describe what will be done to the animal,
including the potential benefits and risks. Pet owners should feel
comfortable enough to ask questions and stay in the room at the time of
not, they should find another practitioner," says Robinson.
© 2006 MSNBC Interactive http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5673388
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