The article below was published in the February 11, 2007, edition of the Schenectady Gazette.
Pongo lies calmly on a pile of blankets in the small, sterile office, an orange leash connecting the aging black dog to his owner’s hand.
“He had a bad day yesterday,” Pongo’s owner, Sally Knapp, reports. “He’s had some diarrhea, and he isn’t eating.”
This is Pongo’s fifth visit with Dr. Pamela Scerba, a veterinarian who specializes in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.
The dog barely moves when Scerba slides the first needle into the “calming point” at the top of his head, and he remains still, for the most part, while she methodically inserts an additional 14 needles into his back, legs and hind quarters. When Knapp tells her Pongo lacks an appetite, Scerba asks, “Want me to do a point for appetite?” and sticks a pin in his snout. Pongo jumps; the area is sensitive. Then he settles back into his cushion.
The needles stay in for about 20 minutes.
Knapp, of Albany, admits that she had a little trepidation about treating her 14-year-old dog, who suffers from a host of ailments, including arthritis, with acupuncture. “It’s kind of mysterious, and you’re wondering what is going to happen,” she said. “I’d never heard of anything bad happening, but I was skeptical.” So far, she’s happy with the results.
For the first time in recent memory, Pongo was able to lift his legs while urinating, and on a recent trip to Shampoodle, a Delmar business that washes dogs, he climbed up the ladder and into the bathtub on his own. In the past, he’s needed help.
“I was really surprised and delighted,” said Knapp, who decided to try acupuncture after a friend recommended it.
Locally, only a handful of veterinarians are trained in alternative medicines such as acupuncture. But they say that more customers are asking for their services. In the past year, Scerba, who is based at the Halfmoon Veterinary Hospital, has seen her practice grow from four or five animals a week to between 15 and 20 a week.
With more Americans seeking out alternative medicines for themselves — in 2002, the National Institutes of Health estimated that 8.2 million U.S. adults had used acupuncture, a number that has grown steadily over the past two decades — it’s only natural that the number of pet owners willing to consider such treatments is on the rise, veterinarians said. As a result, more veterinarians are taking courses in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.
“We’ve been using acupuncture for 20 to 30 years in this country,” said Dr. Chris Brockett, who owns Saratoga Veterinary Hospital and also serves on the executive board of the New York State Veterinary Medical Society. In the veterinary world, “we’re seeing more and more of it. I won’t say it’s rare.”
For one thing, veterinarians have seen that acupuncture is effective, particularly when it comes to relieving pain.
Blend of Medicine
Scerba got a taste for alternative medicine after working with Dr. Robert Chen, who owns the Fort Plain Animal Hospital and blends Eastern and Western medicine. She decided to take an acupuncture course at the Chi Institute of Chinese Medicine in Gainesville, Fla. “When I first went to class, I didn’t think I wanted to do it exclusively,” she said. “I had biases, too. But then I saw how well it worked.” A year ago, Scerba decided to specialize in Eastern medicine.
Carol Vischer, a veterinarian who owns Northeast Performance Equine in Saratoga Springs, had a similar experience. As an internist, she found herself treating horses who, during the winter months, were receiving acupuncture in Florida. Their owners wanted acupuncture in the summer months, too, and so she decided to take a course. Today, she treats ailments such as lameness using acupuncture and chiropracty.
The first thing Vischer does with a horse is a thorough physical examination that involves touching the animal’s body on all its different pressure points to see how it responds. “Animals don’t lie,” she said. “It hurts, or it doesn’t.” Then she performs a chiropractic evaluation, an assessment of the mobility of the spine and the mobility of the joints and limbs. Then she looks at the teeth, and the feet.
“In Eastern medicine, you treat the root cause, and that’s where it becomes an art and not a science,” Vischer said. “It’s not something that can be put into numbers.”
Acupuncture is nothing new. The term describes a family of procedures involving stimulation of specific points — the acupoints — on the body using a variety of techniques, such as penetrating the skin with needles or electrical stimulation. In China, where it originated, acupuncture has been practiced on humans and animals for thousands of years.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the body is seen as balancing two opposing forces: yin and yang. Health is achieved by keeping the body in a balanced state, while disease results from an internal imbalance of yin and yang. Such imbalances lead to a blockage in the flow of qi — vital energy — along pathways called meridians. The acupoints are located along these meridians.
The veterinarians who practice acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine consider them complementary medicines that should be used in conjunction with Western medicine. Acupuncture, they said, is a treatment, not a cure.
“It’s more of a whole body approach,” said Scerba, who has treated seizures, pain, aggressiveness and gastrointestinal disorders with acupuncture. Most of her clients choose to combine acupuncture with Chinese herbal medicines, but some, including Knapp, do not.
Dr. Ron Scharf, who owns the Animal Hospital of Niskayuna, combines Western medicine and sophisticated tools such as ultrasonography and radiography with acupuncture and homeopathy, a treatment based on the theory that certain conditions can be treated using small doses of substances that, in larger doses, might exacerbate the condition. The majority of his practice is conventional, but some clients seek him out for his expertise in alternative medicines.
“I try to find out what people want for their animal,” Scharf said. “I try not to hard sell [the alternative medicines]. If people don’t come to it, I don’t usually mention it.”
Homeopathy, Scharf said, is not widely understood, and not always immediately effective. “More vets are doing acupuncture, but not necessarily homeopathy,” he said. “It’s a little harder for patients and clients to appreciate how it works. It’s gentle and long-lasting. If a patient is old and terminal, it’s comfortable for the patient.”
Scharf said that under homeopathy, symptoms are considered a body’s way of communicating that it is fighting something off. A remedy for a cat who is acting wild and biting might include small amounts of belladonna, a poisonous plant.
Chen moved to the United States from China in 1991. In China, all veterinarians study herbal medicine and acupuncture; Chen went on to get a master’s in the subject, and today uses both Eastern and Western medicines. Over the years, patients have become more comfortable with the Eastern approach, he said. “Sometimes I do conventional medicine, but it cannot solve all problems,” he said. “I may seek an alternative answer. If a client decides they’re not interested, I give them information and have them think about it.”
Brockett predicted interest in acupuncture would continue to gain ground before levelling off. “I don’t think people have come to a point where it’s their primary mode of medicine,” he said. “A lot of what goes on is based on Chinese history and anecdotal information. There’s not a lot of hard science behind it.”
Brockett does not do acupuncture himself. Five of his clients have taken their pets to an acupuncturist, and two have stuck with it. If customers are interested in trying an herbal supplement, he said he’ll do some research and see if he can come up with some sort of remedy.
Today’s pet owners are more likely to consider their pet a member of the family. As a result, they’re willing to pull out all the stops if their pet gets sick, and that could include trying alternative medicines.
“Look at where the dog was 20 years ago,” Brockett said. “He was tied up in the yard. Now where is the dog? He sleeps in the bed with you, or has his own bed.” As Americans have become more isolated, their pets have become more important, he said. After work, “you go home to your own little world, and who is waiting for you? Your pet, with unconditional happiness upon your return.”
Knapp said she plans to spare no expense in making sure Pongo is comfortable.
A mixed breed with the features of a black lab, Pongo is trained to assist a person in a wheelchair, and spent nine years pulling Knapp around the University at Albany, where she worked as a librarian until she retired.
Copyright (c) 2007 The Daily Gazette Co. All Rights Reserved.