Inside an examination room at the Holistic Clinic for Animals in Bend, veterinarian Susan Bertram gently strokes a thin black-and-white dog.
Maggie, a McNab herding dog, stands rigid and anxious on top of the exam table while Bertram feels for a pulse underneath one hind leg. The exam is part of the physical check Maggie gets whenever she's at the clinic. But the 7-year-old animal is not there for a regular doctor's exam; she's there for acupuncture.
A few moments later, Bertram places a needle on top of Maggie's head, a calming point, to help the dog relax, Bertram says. Later, she pushes more needles into different parts of Maggie's body. With an assistant's arm around Maggie to keep her lying down, the dog starts to look more at ease.
Bertram leaves the needles in for 15-20 minutes. Maggie's owner, Whitney Rhetts, said the acupuncture has done wonders for her dog, who suffers from chronic inflammatory bowel syndrome. But instead of conventional medicine, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, Rhetts opted for alternative pet care that includes a restricted diet, herbs and acupuncture every two weeks. "It's working," Rhetts said.
"We've been doing this over a year; she's definitely improved." Rhetts is among the growing number of owners seeking alternative care for pets, local veterinarians say. These treatments might include acupuncture and homeopathy, which uses small doses of natural medicines and remedies. In 2007, 38 percent of adults in the United States used some form of alternative medicine for themselves, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Local veterinarians say that once people start turning toward natural medicine, it's not a far leap for them to try to find similar treatments for their animals. "As a result of people's personal experience toward more natural methods, they tend to choose natural healing modalities for their pets," said Leslie Griffith, a veterinarian with Sage Veterinary Alternatives in Bend.
In Central Oregon, Bertram's Holistic Clinic for Animals and Sage Veterinary Alternatives are two places owners may be referred to for alternative care. The combination of traditional and alternative medicine in veterinary practices has gained more respect within the field, says Deborah Hodesson, another veterinarian in Bend.
She has a more standard veterinary practice, but she'll often refer clients to doctors knowledgeable about alternative treatments. "I like using it in conjunction with the traditional Western medicine," she said. Hodesson warns that owners should be careful in finding the right doctors for alternative medicine.
"I'm pretty picky on who I use," she said. "I want to make sure they know what they're doing because it can be frivolous, expensive and it can not work." Yet, negative perceptions of these alternative types of animal care persist. Critics often see the alternative treatments as an extra expense and based on nonscientific methods, local veterinarians say.
"I think that people imagine that it's very woo woo, crystals and incense, floating around chanting," Bertram said. "But really, first and foremost, we are veterinarians, trained in the same colleges and universities; we go on to do additional education, and are always looking to support what we do with scientific proof."
Griffith, who opened Sage Veterinary Alternatives in 2005, said acupuncture stimulates the body in a way that helps it heal faster. Along with other therapies like herbs and certain diets, Griffith said these treatments can help a pet overcome infections and other deficiencies. "Essentially the definition of acupuncture is to bring the body into balance," she said.
Many of the owners who seek alternative care have animals with chronic maladies like arthritis and chronic pain caused by cancer. For 13 years, Bertram worked at a standard veterinary practice. She saw doctors continuously prescribing medications that she believed would not necessarily help the animal. Bertram said she values conventional medicine but was frustrated.
"My experience is not unique in that I saw how very limited conventional medicine is," Bertram said. Bertram said her treatments also emphasize prevention. "At the very basic level, holistic means the whole. We spend a lot more time on nutrition and supplements and preventive care. We look at the lifestyle of a pet. It's much more individualized," she said. In 2004, Bertram opened the Holistic Clinic for Animals, which has all the same equipment and tools as any other veterinary clinic.
There are rooms for surgery, X-ray and a small laboratory. When a client comes in, Bertram said she and the owner go over options of treatments that include both conventional approaches as well as more alternative routes, such as homeopathy, herbs or putting the animal on a raw food diet. "I do spend a great deal of time educating clients, explaining the options, the pros and cons of each," Bertram said. "I want the client to feel they have a leading role in the health care decisions they are making."
Other treatments that might help pets who have muscular and skeletal problems include massage and chiropractic therapies. Practitioners of these types of treatments also hope to find a place locally. Gina Whipkey is certified in canine water therapy and wants to open a pool where owners can bring their pets for treatment. Whipkey first got interested in hydrotherapy when her dog had hip dysplasia.
"I was looking for something that was easier on her, to keep her in physical shape without the strain," she said. "Swimming is a wonderful method of doing that."