Tired of tripping over squeaky toys on Christmas morning? Ditch the gear and pamper your pet with the gift of good health this holiday season. There’s no shortage of holistic vets who offer services such as acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments and therapeutic massages that can increase flexibility while decreasing pain associated with arthritis, pain or other health issues. Dr. Evelyn Orenbuch, president of the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians, offers some things you need to know before scheduling an alternative medicine appointment for your pet.


Your pet will need a thorough veterinary rehabilitation exam.

Keep in mind that dogs and cats can’t tell you about aching paws or tight shoulders. A thorough exam allows the rehabilitation veterinarian to determine exactly what’s wrong and develop a treatment plan — even if you arrive with a referral. “I do an exam no matter what because I still have to decide what my next step will be,” says Orenbuch, owner of Georgia Veterinary Rehab. “I can’t just say, ‘You’ve had ACL surgery, start on the treadmill.’”


The principle applies to massage therapy for pets as well. At Georgia Veterinary Rehab, massage therapy is used to improve healing by decreasing pain and swelling after injuries. The procedure also helps break down scar tissue and increase relaxation in anxious pets. While a human spa visit may include aromatherapy, candles and fluffy white robes, Orenbuch stresses that veterinary massage sessions qualify as medical treatment. “While the massage can be very relaxing, we are trying to alter and improve [the pet’s] health,” she says.


Acupuncture can address a number of issues — but it typically requires more than one visit.

Acupuncture has been used to treat a range of pet issues, particularly arthritis. Some veterinarians even use acupuncture to help pets cope with the side effects of chemotherapy treatment. But don’t expect one visit to remedy a problem. Orenbuch usually recommends a minimum of three sessions at one- to two-week intervals during the initial treatment phase. With continued care, symptoms lessen over time.


Cats do well with acupuncture treatment, too. All that pouncing and prowling can take its toll on cats, leading to back problems. If you notice any change in your cat’s strut, problems sticking that dismount from the couch or a reluctance to play, consider scheduling a veterinary rehab appointment. You may have read about the “wobbly” cat named Moki that benefitted from regular acupuncture treatments to address coordination issues caused by a neurological disorder. Of course, getting cats to the vet is another story. Once they arrive, Orenbuch says felines respond well to acupuncture.


“They are little chi machines,” she says. “They just suck that stuff up.”


All pets can benefit from chiropractic adjustments.

Years of going up and down steps or jumping from the car can cause alignment issues for pets. Chiropractic care helps readjust a pet’s alignment, reducing pain. Orenbuch says this treatment option, often combined with acupuncture and veterinary rehab exercises, works to strengthen a pet’s musculoskeletal structure.


“A dog that’s been limping often has compensations causing back pain and other areas of discomfort,” she says. “People don’t realize the pain dogs are in.”


Treatment often includes showing clients exercises that they can do at home. Many pets also benefit from weekly or twice-monthly adjustments during the initial stage, with the frequency of visits tapering off over time. In many cases, dogs show improvement during the first session but require regular maintenance to keep joints properly aligned.


“It took your dog years to get like this,” she says. “Give me at least a few months to undo it.”


Puppies also benefit from preventative care, particularly if they are predisposed to joint issues or engage in sports such as agility or Frisbee.


It may look fun, but this medicine is serious business.

Walk through Orenbuch’s state-of-the-art facility in Marietta, Ga., and you may be drawn to the massive resistance pool or feel the urge to roll around on physioballs. But this gear serves a serious purpose, strengthening muscles weakened through arthritis, hip dysplasia or injuries.


“I always say rehab is about increasing strength, decreasing pain and increasing proprioception, which is knowing where your hands and feet are in space,” she says. “If you want to give your dog something special for the holidays, give them a rehab eval and find out if there is something people are missing in terms of what’s going on with their dog.”


Finally, help may be closer than you think.

A few years ago, clients would have had to travel across state lines to receive the services offered by Orenbuch and her staff. Now, acupuncture, laser therapy and rehab are more widely available. To find a certified doctor in your area, check out these resources:


Got a pet question? Send it to pets@mnn.com and our expert will try to track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.


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