Creature Comforts: Holistic Pet Care on the Rise

More animal owners turn to holistic care for their pets
Holistic veterinarian Dr. Nicole LeVeque treats 7-year-old Elliot with acupuncture at Natural Healing Pet Care in Berkley. LeVeque also employs laser therapy and spinal manipulation for animals. Inset: Acupuncture needles, which today are used by more than 6,000 veterinarians. // Photographs by Cybelle Codish

Siddhi was overweight, arthritic, cancerous, at risk of losing an eye, and nursing a torn ACL. The outlook for the Great Dane-mastiff mix wasn’t very bright.

“I thought my dog wouldn’t make it through the summer,” says Amy Uniacke, Siddhi’s owner. “She was in so much pain, she couldn’t even put her head down. She would only sit in one position all day long. She was just wrung out and exhausted.”

Surgery for one ACL would have cost $3,000, and it was almost guaranteed that the 7-year-old, 150-pound giant-breed dog would tear the other in due time. Discussions regarding what to do about Siddhi were grim; euthanasia was not off the table.

But Dr. Nicole LeVeque, a holistic veterinarian who operates Natural Healing Pet Care in Berkley, offered an alternative: a combination of acupuncture, veterinary spinal manipulation, and laser therapy. She made house-call visits to Siddhi, performing therapy sessions three times a week. “She said we should know if it was working in about three to four weeks,” Uniacke says. “But we knew pretty quickly. My dog is now walking like a normal dog.”

Stories like Siddhi’s are not uncommon. And a growing number of pet owners are turning to holistic treatments such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine for their companions, mimicking a growing trend in human medical care. “In college, I went to the American Association of Holistic Veterinarians conference,” says LeVeque, who earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Michigan State University in 2000. “It was very small, and now it’s huge. It’s absolutely huge.”

Acupuncture in particular has been embraced at a growing rate since 1996, when the Food and Drug Administration reclassified needles used in the ancient Chinese tradition as medical devices.

“Acupuncture is relatively new in the U.S.,” says Vikki Weber, executive director of the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS). “It was introduced by the UCLA School of Pain Management in the early ’70s after Nixon opened up the relationship with China. It’s becoming more popular as more people in the U.S. are trained in it to provide the modality to human beings.”

The Fort Collins, Colo.-based IVAS provides training and certification in veterinary acupuncture, and has certified more than 6,000 veterinarians — LeVeque included — since the organization’s founding in 1974. It has about 2,100 current members around the world. “When the UCLA School of Pain Management was learning about it from the Chinese acupuncturists, they were doing labs using dogs,” Weber explains. “And they noticed that the dogs were getting these positive benefits. So they contacted veterinarians, who happen to be our founding members, who came in and witnessed this.”

In 1982, Dr. John Simon of Woodside Animal Clinic in Royal Oak became one of the first certified veterinary acupuncturists in metro Detroit. “I was just intrigued by the idea that you could use needles stuck in different places and different points to actually cure people as well as pets,” Simon says. “It was just fascinating to me.”

Simon has seen the rise in holistic medicine firsthand. “I would say that people are definitely more open to the idea of holistic care [today],” he says. “They’re hearing more about other people using holistic health care for themselves for various reasons. And when their pet is not responding to conventional medicine, they have in their mind that the other option is available.”

LeVeque also observes that the holistic option is often the last one. “A lot of times, the people that come into my clinic are here as a last resort, because everything else has failed or is not working quite as much as they would like,” she says. “They’re just looking for another avenue, and that last hope.”

LeVeque designed her new clinic on West 11 Mile Road with this in mind. The space bears little resemblance to the typical veterinary office. Exam rooms are painted in varying shades of burnt sienna and mint green. Metal exam tables are eschewed in favor of Oriental-style rugs in the middle of each room, covering dark-stained porcelain floors made to look like wood. Bay windows allow natural light and a view of the backyard herb and vegetable garden. The sound of flowing water lends a tranquil air to the reception area. “A lot of people that come in are very emotional,” LeVeque says. “I needed a place for them to feel safe and comforted. With that, I think the animals feel better, too.”

Although LeVeque began her career in a conventional veterinary office, she does no surgeries or X-rays at her Natural Healing Pet Care, choosing to contract these services out to a nearby conventional veterinarian office she’s partnered with. She’s now able to focus entirely on acupuncture, veterinary spinal manipulation (akin to chiropractic care for animals), laser therapy, and Chinese herbal medicine. “It’s hard to say what I do most here, because I don’t want to just come in, stick some needles in, and say, ‘Go home and go back to your normal lifestyle.’ I try to train and educate people toward a better lifestyle for their animals,” she says, which includes nutrition as a baseline for health.

Arthritis and other orthopedic issues are perhaps the most commonly treated issues, but pet owners also seek acupuncture for skin issues, urinary incontinence, respiratory problems, gastro-intestinal issues, and pain management in their animals. “You pretty much have points to treat just about any condition,” Simon says.

Does it work? Simon, LeVeque, and Weber all think so, citing the results they’ve seen in their patients and their own pets. In 2005, when Weber’s Chihuahua was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (a deterioration of the heart that usually leads to heart failure), she began treating him with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. He lived until last April, well into old age, with “a very nice quality of life,” Weber says. She began pharmaceutical treatment only a year before her dog’s death.

Still, holistic-medicine skeptics abound. “Personal experience and anecdotes are incredibly powerful and persuasive. They just aren’t reliable guides to what really works and what doesn’t,” writes the anonymous webmaster of The SkeptVet Blog, an American Society of Veterinary Journalists-certified website that claims to take a science-based look at complementary and alternative veterinary medicine.

A number of acupuncture studies have linked results to the placebo effect. This doesn’t exactly hold up in veterinary acupuncture, Weber explains: “It might be something where I go to see the acupuncturist and I expect to feel better when I leave. Therefore, my mind tells me I’m going to feel better. Animals don’t have placebo effect.”

SkeptVet concludes: “In animals, there is no reliable, high-quality research evidence for the benefits of acupuncture. The studies that have been done have found both positive and negative results, but the poor quality and lack of replication make the existing evidence insufficient to recommend acupuncture therapy.”

To a degree, Weber agrees. “Acupuncture is kind of an ancient art,” she says. “It was developed by the Chinese thousands and thousands of years ago, before there were such things as clinical trials. There need to be more studies on how and why it works in a clinical setting. There have been some that have been focused on the neurophysiology. It has been shown how it works from a neurological standpoint. … We do need more studies like that.”

Weber, Simon, and LeVeque do all agree that holistic medicine is not an all-or-nothing approach and is not intended as a replacement for conventional care. “The first thing that we train a veterinarian to do is, they have to do their Western diagnosis first,” Weber says. “There are times when these animals require conventional treatment, whether it’s medication, surgery, whatever.”

Adds Simon: “We don’t throw out conventional or allopathic medicine. We just use it when it’s most appropriate. And it’s most appropriate when you have an animal that’s in an urgent state and needs antibiotics or cortisone or something that’s going to act right now.”

Weber also emphasizes the importance of seeking out holistic treatments only from licensed veterinarians, like LeVeque and Simon, who are also trained in conventional veterinary medicine.

With all her issues, and approaching old age for a giant breed, Siddhi has been on a pharmaceutical pain medication for the past year. “But we didn’t start with it,” Uniacke says. “We ended with it. Most people use holistic now as a last resort. But I think it should go the other direction. And eventually, maybe it will.”