Americans love alternative medicine: Between 30 and 40 percent of U.S. adults seek complementary treatments each year. But should we consider them for our animals, too? While these treatments may bring relief, "it has really been a problem to try to prove in scientific studies that they are therapeutically beneficial," says Alicia Karas, DVM, an assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, who is also a veterinary acupuncturist and an anesthesia and pain-medicine specialist. Here’s what the experts say about the following options.
"There are very few side effects from acupuncture, so it can be used in conjunction with a number of different therapies," says Christine Swanson, DVM, of BluePearl Specialty & Emergency Pet Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is board-certified in veterinary oncology and trained in veterinary acupuncture and integrative medicine. Swanson has found acupuncture to be effective for chronic conditions such as arthritis, back pain, and neurological conditions.
While research is promising, it’s hard to measure the success of treatment, because patients can’t describe how they’re feeling. There’s also a "caregiver placebo effect," in which owners (and even vets) may perceive a treatment to be helping when it’s actually not. "That’s why it’s important for veterinarians to do a thorough examination to determine the effectiveness of the treatment,” says Swanson. Both Swanson and Karas emphasize that acupuncture, like other alternative therapies, can supplement but shouldn’t replace conventional diagnostic and treatment methods, such as X-rays, medication, and surgery.
Like chiropractors who treat humans, veterinary practitioners face skepticism from the mainstream medical community, since their evidence of success is overwhelmingly anecdotal—and many neurologists don’t recommend spinal manipulative therapy. Supporters argue that chiropractors can produce results when conventional diagnosis and treatment come up short. "Chiropractors can really help with older dogs," says Karas. "They don’t just manipulate the spine; they handle the digits and the hips and do tail and jaw traction." If you want to give this treatment a try, look for a practitioner who’s certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.
Massage—or the use of fingers, hands, and machines to manipulate soft tissues—can address pain from injuries and surgery, provide relief from inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and help rehabilitate animals like dogs and horses that have been sidelined from sports. As with other therapies, be sure to check first with your pet’s primary care doctor. “If your veterinarian seems to not be open to it, you can say, ‘Well, I’d like to see somebody who is,’" says Karas. Bottom line, she adds: Hope should always go hand in hand with realism. "Although benefits can occur, don’t expect miracles."