Making Adjustments

Chiropractic is gaining recognition as a viable treatment option for canine conditions.

Pain relief is no longer just for humans. Today, dog owners have many options when seeking pain management for their four-legged friends. Canine chiropractic is increasing in popularity as one of those alternatives.

Chiropractic treatment offers animals the same benefits it provides humans: increased flexibility, improved health and enhanced quality of life. Chiropractic care can also treat a variety of conditions more commonly addressed with drugs and surgery. Although the notion of treating animals with chiropractic methods typically used on humans surprises some people, many dog owners recognize its value.

Mikey’s story
In 2006, Mikey, a 6-year-old Standard Dachshund, was attacked by a neighbor’s dog and became partially paralyzed. Mikey’s veterinarian thought the dog might regain his ability to walk; however, after a month he had made little progress.

Mikey’s owners, Arlene and Leo, purchased a custom-made cart to help Mikey maneuver. Although the cart gave Mikey some mobility, he was losing a lot of muscle tone in his hindquarters. As a last resort, they decided to try chiropractic. “We were willing to give this alternative treatment the benefit of the doubt,” Arlene Avery says.

The couple traveled to Houston to visit Jacqueline A. Doval, an animal chiropractor certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. Doval believed that Mikey could learn to walk again because tests showed he had some sensation in his legs. Doval adjusted Mikey, taught his owners massage techniques to perform on him and gave instructions on how to help the dog exercise.

For the next month, the husband-and-wife team worked with Mikey twice a day for 45 minutes each session. At their next visit with Doval, they removed the cart and watched Mikey wobble around her office. “We were amazed,” Avery says. “Everything went uphill from there. Mikey now runs around without the wheelchair just like he did before the [attack]. It’s really remarkable.”

When patients come to Doval, it’s usually because all else has failed. “Then I have to prove that chiropractic works,” Doval says. “We’ve had little miracles here and there.”

All in the family
Doval is the first chiropractor in Texas to become a certified animal chiropractor by the AVCA. She became interested in treating animals when she was at Texas Chiropractic College and discovered some videos about adjusting animals. “I had several Yorkshire Terriers at home, and every time I learned a new adjustment, I would practice on them,” Doval says.

Once she graduated and began her human chiropractic practice in 1992, Doval never expected her patients would include animals. All of that changed in 1993 when she received a call from a woman seeking chiropractic treatment for her dog, Penny. Also a Dachshund, Penny was suffering from muscle spasms and was scheduled for surgery to correct a severe hunch in her back. Not wanting Penny to undergo the extensive and expensive procedure, Penny’s owner turned to Doval.

“I used my knowledge and skills from the human model in treating the dog,” Doval says. “I applied hot-pack therapy, ultrasound, massage and manual traction.” (Traction is a stretch-and- hold move meant to separate the vertebrae and remove pressure from the affected spinal cord area, nerve roots and spinal nerve.) A week and a half after Doval made the adjustments, Penny was back to normal and never needed the surgery.

“The neat thing about animals and chiropractic is that there’s no placebo [effect],” Doval says. “It either works or it doesn’t. If a dog comes in limping and leaves not limping, that’s good evidence.”

Two years later, Doval became certified as an animal chiropractor. Since her first animal adjustment more than 15 years ago, Doval’s patient base has undergone a near-complete reversal – from treating only humans to maintaining a full-time animal practice. Although Doval is a licensed chiropractor for both humans and animals, she estimates that 95 percent of her practice now consists of adjusting dogs, cats and horses.

Certification and licensing
Formalized animal-chiropractic education began in 1989 when Sharon Willoughby, D.C., DVM, created a postgraduate course offered at Options for Animals in Wellsville, Kan. She then founded the AVCA, which became a certifying and an education-approving regulatory body for animal chiropractic professions.

The program continues today with doctors of veterinary medicine and doctors of chiropractic training side by side. There are several approved programs in the United States, Canada and Europe. More than 900 animal chiropractic professionals have been certified since the start of the program, with approximately 650 active in the United States today. Doctors of veterinary medicine receive a foundation of chiropractic theory and technique; doctors of chiropractic learn common animal diseases, zoonotic diseases, comparative anatomy and animal-handling techniques. Adjusting techniques are taught with dogs and horses.

The AVCA is the only organization that offers certification to both  licensed veterinarians in good standing and licensed chiropractors with active certification. Certified doctors are responsible for renewing their certification every three years by completing a minimum of 30 approved credits.

However, many less credible chiropractic programs don’t result in certification. One of the major goals of the AVCA is to provide the public with ways to find adequately trained doctors to help their pets. “The AVCA courses only train graduate licensed vets and graduate licensed chiropractors,” says Gene Giggleman, DVM, president of the AVCA and dean of academic affairs at Parker College of Chiropractic in Dallas. “We do not train lay people. Our goal is to get more doctors certified and to make sure that only those who are licensed are practicing animal chiropractic.”

Most states have laws requiring that for a chiropractor to treat an animal, the patient has to be referred by the treating veterinarian and that the vet has to determine that chiropractic will not harm the animal. Giggleman explains that the AVCA’s mission is to bring animal chiropractic into the forefront as a safe and effective alternative for animal care, and help the profession gain a place within the legal scope of care. “The bottom line is that all of this will help the animal patients,” Giggleman says.

A helping hand
Chiropractic is the practice of using hands to adjust the body. “There are numerous things out there, such as adjusting tools, but that was not chiropractic from the beginning,” Doval says.

She believes the body, be it human or animal, has the power to heal itself. “My goal is to help the body get from a state of disease back into ease,” she says. “This is accomplished through spinal manipulation, balanced muscular exercises, stretching and strengthening exercises, as well as proper nutrition.” But Doval is quick to point out that she’s not the cure. Rather, she makes sure everything is intact in the spine and skeletal system so things can work properly. “When a car continues to run out of alignment, the tires will wear and tear,” she says.

Doval recognizes that chiropractic for animals is complementary to veterinary care. It’s not meant to replace conventional veterinary methods. “I never knock anything that has to do with veterinary medicine or surgery,” Doval says. “Everything has its place, but some people don’t have that kind of money or aren’t aware that there are alternatives to surgery. There are numerous other modalities out there, including chiropractic, acupuncture, physical therapy, rehabilitation and Chinese herbs.”

The competitive edge
Many of Doval’s patients are competition dogs. As the chiropractor for the Reliant Park World Series of Dog Shows in Houston, one of the country’s largest canine events of its kind with 12,000 dogs entered, Doval understands the competitive nature of canine sports. “If a toe is out of alignment, a dog can be off by seconds in its performance,” she says. Similarly, more complex ailments can derail a dog’s future as a performance athlete.

Sarah Dow, a Houston resident, spent several years training her Border Collie, Sweep, for agility performance and competition. At age 2, Sweep was diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia, and the doctors thought she would not be a good competition dog. “The specialists told me that all Sweep should really ever do is lie on the couch and be a pet,” Dow says.

Not satisfied with that news, Dow started researching different therapies and learned about canine chiropractic. For the past 10 years, Sweep has been under Doval’s care. “Since starting treatment, Sweep has not had a lame day,” Dow says. “She doesn’t exhibit any pain and has been a great performance dog.” Sweep was named the 2006 United States Dog Agility Association’s Performance Grand Prix National Agility Champion.

Dow credits chiropractic in enabling Sweep to continue performing and competing successfully. “It’s like any athlete,” Dow explains. “You have to do things outside of competing every week to keep the athlete strong. Dr. Doval is an important part of Sweep’s support team that helps keep her running.”

What to look for
How do you know if your dog needs chiropractic care? Doval says to look for changes in behavior, such as a formerly sweet dog becoming grouchy. Difficulty climbing stairs can be a sign of arthritic pain, which is especially a problem in large dogs as they become older. A dog chewing its hind leg with no visible irritation might indicate a sleepy nerve condition. “If an owner tells me their dog has always walked with a little waddle or a little shuffle, I tell them that that’s not normal,” Doval says.

Chiropractic can be employed no matter what the dog’s age or physical condition. In young dogs, chiropractic helps provide a good start on an active life. For older animals, it keeps them mobile and comfortable. The frequency of treatment varies depending on the individual dog’s lifestyle and health needs. “Chiropractic has become more mainstream and more preventative,” Doval says. “People are realizing that medicine is not the be-all, end-all.”

Through her treatment and care, Doval gives hope to her patients even when veterinarians say there is none. “I’m often the last resort for many people and their pets,” she says. “It’s my gift back to the universe.”

Meredith Wargo is an award-winning freelance writer in Houston.

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Dogs · Health and Care