Bark if you like needles

PETS ISSUE: Acupuncture and holistic medicine is a fast-growing trend in animal treatment -- and the veterinary establishment is slowly catching on

Dr. Randy Bowman, vet and acupuncturist, treats Sebastian

The dog named Hank Stamper got paralyzed on a sunny Saturday afternoon. One moment he was hanging out in the backyard, lying in the little patch of grass and giving the cats next door the evil eye, and the next thing I knew he was making a yelping sound like nothing my dog had ever uttered in his four years of healthy life.

When I got there, Hank was dragging himself around by his front paws, his back legs and hindquarters completely limp and useless.

So I picked up the 90-pound beast and wrestled him into the car and carried him to the pet hospital, where a young vet poked and prodded and confirmed that Hank's entire hindquarters were numb and paralyzed. The doc didn't know why, or what might have happened; there was no obvious injury. He said it might get better on its own, or it might not.

The specialist vet we saw the next day didn't know what was wrong, either; it seemed to be some sort of stroke. An x-ray showed what might have been something screwy in his spine. "There's a surgical procedure they do at UC Davis," the specialist vet said. "It costs $10,000, and has about a 50 percent chance of success. I could call them if you want."

Uh, no. I loved my dog, but that was way beyond our means, and my health insurance didn't cover family members of the canine persuasion. So, sadly, with much weeping, we took poor Hank home. We figured we'd give it a day or two and, if he didn't improve, his next trip to the vet would be his last.

While I was lamenting all this at work the following morning, one of my colleagues made a wild suggestion: take him to Irving Street Veterinary Clinic, she told me; there's a vet there who does acupuncture.

Well, hell. I'd never heard of doggie acupuncture, but Hank wasn't getting better, plus he was miserable, and we were at the end of the line. So I called and made an appointment. Dr. Jeffrey Bryan met me at the clinic, took a look at the poor mutt, and went to get his gear.

"To be totally honest, I can't explain scientifically exactly why this works," he said as he started sticking needles in Hank's back and legs. "But in a remarkable number of cases, it does."

We sat on the floor, the dog and I, while Bryan hooked a very low electric current up to some of the needles, then he told me to wait. Thirty minutes later, the doc turned the juice off, took the needles out — and goddamn if that dog didn't stand up and start to walk.

Seriously — the animal that couldn't even hold himself up to poo (it was gross, don't ask) ambled stiffly out of the clinic and got into the car. Four acupuncture sessions later, Hank was running again, and within a few months, we did a 5K race — and the human member of the team wasn't the one setting the pace.

That was back in 1996, when veterinary acupuncturists were fairly rare, even in San Francisco. I think Bryan was one of only two licensed vets who did it. Today it's a growth industry.

In fact, an increasing number of vets — people with a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, folks who spent four years in graduate school studying Western science and medical techniques — are treating some of their patients with acupuncture, chiropractic, herbs, and other holistic approaches.

"It's expanded quite a bit in the past five years," said Dr. Randy Bowman, who practices at Pets Unlimited, a nonprofit animal hospital and adoption center in San Francisco. "We as vets have become more informed and more in touch with what our clients want."

Bowman practices what he calls complementary and integrative medicine — a combination of traditional Western techniques and holistic treatments like acupuncture and herbs. "I think a lot of us get fed up with chronic conditions, pets that have problems Western medicine doesn't have a cure for," he said. "I wanted to offer my clients something more than the same antibiotic over and over."

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