Severe back problems led to partial paralysis for the 11-year-old black Labrador retriever who was named after Harry Potter. After a back operation, Harry was still in immense pain and couldn't move his back legs. His owner, Margaret Thompson of Charles Village, immediately thought of acupuncture.
"I'm an acupuncture person. I have done acupuncture myself," says Thompson. "I read how acupuncture in animals produces dramatic results."
So she contacted Fred Wolfson, owner of Acupuncture for All in Mount Washington, who generally treats humans but also works on animals. Similar to acupuncture for people, pet acupuncture involves inserting needles at various points on the animal connected to sources of pain or discomfort.
"We're down on the floor petting them. A lot of dogs don't even feel the needles," says Wolfson, who often treats animals with chronic pain, arthritis, muscle injuries or allergies.
A week after his first treatment, Harry was walking.
"It's not to say it's all because of acupuncture," Thompson says, "but acupuncture helped him to walk sooner, and the effects of acupuncture on animals is the same as it is on people."
The ancient Chinese medical practice and with other alternative treatments — such as Reiki, massage therapy, homeopathy and herbal remedies — are increasing in popularity and are being used more frequently in integrative approaches to healing animals.
"They feel like it's good enough for themselves and they want this same treatment for their animals," says Michael San Filippo, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. The association recognizes the interest and use of alternative methods of healing, according to its 2001 guidelines update.
Interest in it has grown quickly: The American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture, based in Connecticut, said that over the past year it has gained about 300 members, growing from about 200 members a decade ago to around 940 at the close of 2012.
Other forms of therapy for animals are also becoming more widespread.
Kim Kaleta-Klein of Westminster utilizes several holistic experts for her cats. Acupuncture and Reiki, she said, helped her 11-year-old cat, Sadie, live longer than expected and also relieved the pain of a bulging inoperable tumor in Sadie's eye. Reiki is a form of energy or spiritual healing which involves the practitioner "setting intentions" for healing. During a Reiki session, a practitioner often sits in a meditative position and places hands on the animal; then they share their healing intentions for the animal.
"She was able to live a lot longer than she ever would have," says Kaleta-Klein. "It eased her pain and helped make her happier and calmer. I'm all about quality of life."
Pet owners usually seek alternative medicine in desperation — when their animals are in pain, very ill or dying, says Inez Donmoyer, a Carroll County-based massage therapist and Reiki master teacher and practitioner for cats, dogs, horses and other animals. "People don't really think about these types of therapies unless it's an issue," Donmoyer says.
And veterinary experts say there is no scientific evidence to prove these methods work.
"A lot of it is anecdotal evidence. There isn't research to show what the benefits or effects are," says San Filippo. "We understand there is a call for this kind of treatment. But right now there's not a lot of evidence. Veterinarians should be aware of this. Basically it comes down to making sound clinical judgment."
But advocates say holistic approaches can be used as preventive medicine, as well as a form of healing.
"I think it would serve the animals better if I always worked on them for preventive measures," says Donmoyer, who often tries to work through animals' emotional issues before starting on physical issues. "When it comes to treating animals, I like to look at the whole picture."
Animals who are treated holistically usually have fewer health problems, says Dr. Christina Chambreau, a Baltimore-based homeopathic veterinarian and lecturer who has been advocating for holistic healing for animals since the 1980s.
"It can maintain health and prevent illness. I shift how people think about the health of animals. I get people to ask questions. I give hope," says Chambreau, who suggests pet owners feed their animals a healthy diet, use flower essences to stave off illness and perform Reiki on their pets regularly to balance their energy. "With holistic approaches you never need to give up. It's a whole-body way of helping an animal."
The intent of holistic healing is to cure whatever ails the animals and relieve pain, while conventional medicine often focuses on treating specific symptoms. The ideal approach is for each pet owner to have a team of experts to help when problems arise, says Kathleen Lester, owner of Animal Reiki Alliance in Baltimore.
Reiki and other holistic methods are just part of healing an animal, Lester says. Conventional veterinary care is also needed for checkups, surgeries and conditions that need to be treated with medication. It's an all-inclusive approach, she says.
"People need to figure out what resonates with them and find out what they need and what their animals need. They need to have a board or team of people they can call at any time," Lester says. "Some modalities work with different animals and different people. You need to find what works best for you."
In addition to conventional veterinary medicine, some pet owners are looking to alternative healing treatments. Here are a handful of options:
Acupuncture: The insertion of needles into specific points on the body to produce a healing response, according to the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. Acupuncture treats ailments such as arthritis, cancer and complications from surgery. It can also be used as preventative medicine. The length and frequency of the treatments vary depending on the animal and its ailment.
Homeopathy: A form of holistic medicine in which herbs and minerals are used for healing and prevention, and a diet of balanced, fresh food is encouraged. When homeopathic veterinarian Dr. Christina Chambreau treats sick animals, she takes inventory of all the symptoms that ail the animal. Treatments can vary depending on the specific animal and the ailment.
Massage: Therapists identify areas of pain or discomfort and massage to release stress and ease pain.
Reiki: A form of energy or spiritual healing in which the practitioner lays hands on the animal's affected areas of the body. The practitioner sits in a meditative pose, and "sets his intentions" for healing on the animal, says Kathleen Lester, owner of Animal Reiki Alliance in Baltimore.