Jean Thompson used her fingers to lightly feel her way up the spine of a golden retriever named Charlie, who lay contentedly on his side.
Halfway up his back, she felt a vertebrae out of place and used her index finger and thumb to gently shift it back in alignment.
“There you go, Charlie,” she purred. “Doesn’t that feel better?”
As a chiropractor for more than 20 years, Thompson has realigned the spines and joints of people suffering from back pain, migraines and digestive issues. Her client list expanded to animals after patients asked if she could help their beloved pets as well.
She treats mostly dogs and cats, but has also realigned the musculoskeletal structure of rabbits, goats and horses. One time she treated a ram.
“That was interesting,” said Thompson, who treats the furry set at Maryland Animal Chiropractic in Howard County, which she founded in 2009.
Chiropractic care is one of the alternative health treatments more pet owners are using to cure their animal’s ailments. People are also turning to acupuncture, massage therapy and reiki, a practice where healing energy is transmitted to the animal through light touches of the hand.
“I think we’re seeing more interest in alternative types of treatments, which mirrors what we’ve seen in human medicine over the past several decades,” said Michael San Filippo, a spokesman with the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Veterinarians have become more willing to provide these treatments as research has increasingly backed up the health benefits, Filippo said. Complementary, alternative and integrative medical practices are also now part of the curriculum of many accredited veterinary schools, he said.
Noreen Javornik, the owner of Noreen Javornik Acupuncture in Howard County, said she treats whole families, including their pets.
“People are doing more complementary treatments for themselves, as well as for their animals,” she said.
Still, the American Veterinary Medical Association cautions that any chiropractic or other alternative treatment be done in conjunction with a veterinarian.
“If your pet is receiving acupuncture or chiropractic treatment, your veterinarian should be a part of the process; either performing the procedure directly or aware of and overseeing its delivery,” Filippo said. “If your pet seems to be acting strange or out of the ordinary after receiving these treatments, share these concerns with your veterinarian.”
Just like with people, pet owners are looking for options beyond traditional medical treatment that use fewer drugs and surgeries in favor of the body naturally healing itself.
The idea behind chiropractic care is that alignment of the body's musculoskeletal structure, particularly the spine, will enable the body to heal itself. If the vertebrae become dysfunctional it can interfere with performance of the nerves that branch off the spinal cord, chiropractors believe. This can inhibit mobility and cause stiffness, pain and tension.
Visits with a chiropractor are what brought Charlie back to his old peppy self, said his owner, Kim Perez of Laurel. A car clipped Charlie in the back after he chased a deer into the street. The dog broke his pelvis and cracked his right hip.
Surgery fixed some of the physical problems, but Charlie was still not himself, Perez said. She also tried light therapy, massage and swim therapy.
“He was still kind of gimpy and sad,” she said.
She saw a noticeable difference in Charlie after his first chiropractic session with Thompson. There is often times pain or realignment in other parts of the body that may not be easily detectable. In Charlie’s case, his spine compensated because of troubles with his hip after the accident.
Just as with humans, not everyone is on board with alternative treatments for animals. Some considerate it quackery and having no more than a placebo effect — if any effect at all.
Kerrianne Hanlin, a veterinarian who also offers chiropractic services, said she is sometimes selective about which patients she will introduce to the treatment.
“Not everybody is on board,” Hanlin said. “They may say that it is interesting, but won’t set up an appointment.”
Thompson said she just needs people to try it.
“I keep getting busier and busier because it works,” she said.
From 5 percent to 10 percent of Hanlin’s animal patients at North East Animal Hospital in Elkton get chiropractic services at any given time. She started offering the treatment after noticing some of her older animal patients were suffering with pain and not moving well.
“I thought it would be nice to be able to give them a drug-free way of relieving pain and making their joints feel better,” she said.
Chiropractors and acupuncturists said they are often asked how to get animals to stay still. Easier than you think, they said.
“They really just lay there and soak it up,” Thompson said. “Once they realize it feels good, they will relax for the rest of the appointment.”
When they get antsy or resist, a treat or stomach or behind-the-ears rub from the owner also helps.
Certification is voluntary for chiropractors through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association or the International Veterinary Chiropractic Association. Thompson suggests people only use those practitioners who have these certifications.
In Maryland, to practice acupuncture on animals you have to get an acupuncture license and also get a state certification.
Larry Lichtenauer, the president of a small public relations firm, brings his two toy poodles, Roxy and Boh, to Thompson for chiropractic care.
The Reisterstown resident and his wife first brought Boh, who one day was suddenly lethargic, not eating and constipated. They couldn’t figure out why.
“He was just moping around,” Lichtenauer said. “He had no interest in doing too much.”
After seeing Thompson, Boh was new and improved, he said.
After several weeks of treatments, Boh is now back to almost 100 percent, he said.
“It is like it freed everything up,” Lichtenauer said.
They have since taken their other dog, who suffered from arthritis and creaky joints. She now walks better and her joints no longer make noises.
“It definitely works,” Lichtenauer said.