Holistic Dog Care and Holistic Checkups for Athletic Dogs

A health maintenance program for top canine athletes.


By Lorie Long

Being married to a NASCAR fan means that I spend a number of Sunday afternoons watching precision-engineered stock cars and their steely-eyed drivers burn up a race track for 500 miles or so, pushing the limits of man and machine.

A few cars crash in catastrophic events that render the vehicle totally unfit for future competition. Other cars get “tight” or “loose” in their handling, receive a ding or lose a body panel, and limp to the garage under their own power, misaligned but still operational. The top finishing cars escape such misfortune, careening over the finish line in apparently good form, but having been supported before, after, and throughout the race by a professional pit crew.

The NASCAR races bring to mind my agility trials and other canine performance events. At these competitions, handlers from around the region converge on the site, offering their canine partners the chance to jump, twist, climb, balance, and run at high speed through obstacle courses, catch an airborne Frisbee, rocket over jumps with a tennis ball in their mouths, or herd flocks of recalcitrant farm stock. Here, too, a spectator may witness tragic “crashes” and temporary setbacks experienced by some of the competitors.

I have become resolute in my desire to do all I can to prevent my performance dogs from crashes, burns, and burnouts. As the pit crew chief for my canine athletes, I have decided to take the steps necessary to responsibly prepare my dogs for their active lifestyles, utilizing the best supportive and preventative therapies.

I enlisted the assistance of Chris Bessent, DVM, a Wisconsin veterinarian who uses chiropractic, acupuncture, and Chinese herbs in her canine and equine sports medicine practice. I asked her to help me develop a routine maintenance regimen – a sort of “pit stop” program – for my Border Terriers competing in agility. Both dogs have good conformation, solid working ability, and a clean record (so far, no injuries!).

Dr. Bessent explained to me how she performs a thorough maintenance evaluation of her athletic canine patients and then applies holistic therapies to support them in their active lifestyles: chiropractic, acupuncture, nutriceuticals, dietary supplements, pharmaceuticals, Chinese herbs, therapeutic massage, and warm-up stretching exercises. The program that Dr. Bessent outlined to me could actually serve as a model for any canine athletic health-maintenance plan.

Thorough evaluation
It goes without saying that every dog should undergo an annual health examination, complete with laboratory tests to evaluate blood chemistry and composition. Hard-working dogs – whether they are athletes or used for emotional therapy work – should be taken to the veterinarian for additional exams if their performance or attitude sours.

In addition to conventional veterinary examination techniques, Dr. Bessent employs an age-old practice, taken from traditional Chinese medicine: tongue and pulse examination of the dog. Dr. Bessent checks the dog’s tongue, looking for a nice pink color. Any indication of bright redness, purple, yellow, or paleness of the tongue suggests a disharmony or imbalance of the energy flow in the dog’s body.

Dr. Bessent immediately follows the tongue evaluation with a pulse evaluation. Other assessments or holistic treatments, such as chiropractic or acupuncture, release endorphins into the dog’s system that can change the dog’s normal pulse rate and affect the quality of Dr. Bessent’s initial appraisal, so tongue and pulse evaluations are the first order of business.

With the tips of her fingers, Dr. Bessent feels the dog’s pulse at the top, midpoint, and bottom of the dog’s right and left hind legs, checking both the “deep” and the “superficial” qualities of the pulse. She carefully monitors the balance and harmony of the energy flowing through the “meridians” or energy pathways of the dog’s body.

A “tight” pulse, for instance, may indicate a stagnation of the energy in the liver. A “slippery” pulse, or one that “feels like a pearl” flowing through the body, may indicate excessive phlegm in the body. A pulse that is too deep may indicate an energy deficiency. In order to promote the free flow of energy, or life force, in the dog’s body, Dr. Bessent corrects any of these imbalances with acupuncture treatments and Chinese herbs.

In many cases, especially in dogs who are active and do not have a diagnosed injury, the pulse is already well balanced. For these dogs, Dr. Bessent recommends two Chinese herbal combinations that support general good health and athletic potential:

• Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, also known as the “Six Ingredient Pill” with Rehmannia.

• Tangkuei and Rehmannia, which helps to tone the liver as well as the kidneys.

These herbal combinations, or decoctions, which Dr. Bessent calls “herbal Gatorade,” benefit the bones in the lower back and nourish the kidneys, thereby toning bodily fluids and rehydrating the dog. The kidneys, known in Chinese medicine as the “flame of life,” support the flow of energy and fluids in the body, which is helpful even for dogs that are not very athletic.

You can readily purchase these Chinese herbal combinations at Chinese pharmacies, Chinese pharmaceutical Web sites, and directly from Dr. Bessent (see sidebar, below). However, no supplement should be added to your dog’s regimen without some support and guidance from your holistic veterinarian.

Joint and muscle evaluation
After appraising the balance of the energy flow in the dog’s body, Dr. Bessent checks the dog’s joints in both his spine and limbs.

In a maintenance evaluation, the veterinarian watches the dog move, looking for any deviations from proper alignment or movement, like one hip placed higher than the other, pacing (walking with the two left legs and then the two right legs moving forward at the same time, rather than the normal diagonal movement of the legs), dog tracking (the two front legs moving on a different front-to-back plane than the two rear legs), roaching (a rise or hump in the dog’s back), or a visible limit in the normal range of any joint motion.

Then, while the dog is standing, Dr. Bessent feels each joint of the spine, starting at the atlas (the first vertebrae of the neck) and occiput (the back of the skull), and continuing all the way to the tail. She checks for a lack of normal motion, usually due to a subluxation (a vertebrae out of position), too much motion, sensitivity, or tenseness during the examination that may indicate discomfort in that area of the dog’s body.

With the dog lying on his right and then left side, Dr. Bessent examines each of the joints in the dog’s front and hind limbs, from shoulder to toes in the front, and from hip to toes in the rear. She checks for pathologies like crepitation, indicated by a cracking, creaking, or popping sound in the joints as they move. She notes any tendency of the dog to pull away when she manipulates his joints, or any reluctance to complete the full range of motion.

The causes of joint crepitation can be as simple as the presence of gas pockets in the joints or a decrease in the viscosity, or thickness, of the lubricating fluid in the joints. Healthy joint lubrication fluid is almost as thick as jelly, but can become more watery with age or overuse, thereby reducing its effectiveness as a protectant.

Dr. Bessent recommends a glucosamine supplement to help restore the joint lubrication fluid to a more normal viscosity. More serious and complex causes of joint crepitation include arthritis, tendonitis, and bursitis, which may benefit from regular chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, and a combination of supplements in addition to glucosamine.

Based upon her survey of the dog’s conformation, Dr. Bessent works with the dog’s owners to make training recommendations that will reduce wear and tear in areas of the dog’s body at risk for injury.

For instance, dogs who are high in the back end or straight in the shoulders will benefit from a training regimen that reduces stress to the dog’s front end. Handlers can limit the amount of jumping they ask of their dogs in their training sessions, or alternate training sessions at low jump heights with sessions at regulation jump heights. Handlers can also train their dogs to hit the flyball box straight on rather than at an angle that directs the impact at the same single shoulder joint each time.

Dr. Bessent says she sometimes notes obedience dogs, who are usually worked on the handler’s left side, may tend to curve their spines and necks up and to the right during heeling exercises. Dogs with a tendency to develop neck injuries, like Dobermans, benefit from performing their heeling exercises on both sides of the handler to balance the strain on their necks.

One of the most popular nutritional supplements for the relief of joint and soft tissue pain and inflammation is MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), a natural substance found in food and in the body. MSM provides biologically active sulfur, a mineral that is deficient in many diets and certainly lacking in therapeutic quantities.

Taken orally in the form of a powder or in capsules, this substance provides excellent maintenance support, especially to dogs with an inclination to develop tendonitis and muscle strains. Most of the agility competitors I know take MSM for their own well-being in addition to including it in their dog’s diet. Dr. Bessent recommends the following maintenance dosages of MSM for her canine patients:

• For dogs under 45 pounds: ¼ teaspoon two times a day for seven days, then ¼ teaspoon once a day thereafter.

• For dogs 45-90 pounds: ½ teaspoon two times a day for seven days, then ½ teaspoon once a day thereafter.

• For dogs over 90 pounds: ½ teaspoon given as indicated above should be adequate, but more can be given, based upon the dog’s response, up to 1 gram per 45 pounds of weight per day.

MSM is readily available at health food stores, pharmacies, and from discount vitamin suppliers.

After several years of studying canine dietary supplements to find just the right ones to recommend for her active canine patients, Dr. Bessent personally favors Canine Platinum Performance® by Platinum Performance Inc. (Buellton, California), and The Missing Link® by Designing Health (Valencia, California).

Developed in 1996 by equine veterinarian Doug Herthel, Platinum Performance sped bone and tissue healing and reduced the swelling after orthopedic surgeries in thoroughbred horses competing on the racing circuit. Dr. Herthel found that the product aided in post-operative healing, and produced a decrease in allergic reactions and a boost to overall health and energy levels in the horses taking the supplement. He suspects that most horses have diets deficient in trace minerals and, especially, in Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, a key ingredient in cell membrane repair. His investigations resulted in the Platinum Performance family of nutritional supplements for horses, dogs, exotic animals, and humans.

Canine Platinum Performance, a dry granular powder, is not a prescription drug, but is available only from a veterinarian or directly from Platinum Performance Inc. Although the company’s Web site states that an order requires a referral from a veterinarian, I purchased the product for my dogs simply by providing my primary care veterinarian’s name.

A one-pound canister contains a 60-day supply of the supplement for a 30-pound dog, and costs $15. Larger size containers are more cost-effective. The newest addition to the line is Canine Platinum Performance Plus®, with glucosamine added to the formula.

The Missing Link, also a granular powder, is more widely available from dog supply catalog houses and pet supply chain stores. It comes in a vegetarian formula, as well. A one-pound bag of The Missing Link costs $16 when purchased directly from Designing Health and will support a 40-80 pound dog for about 60 days.

Both supplements derive their Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids from flaxseed. If, at first, your dog develops stomach gas or other symptoms of not tolerating flaxseed well, Dr. Bessent suggests gradually building up the product in your dog’s diet or, if necessary, switching to a fish oil-based source of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.

Joint therapy
A less well-known but highly effective treatment for canine osteoarthritis and joint crepitation is Adequan® Canine (polysulfated glycosaminoglycan) produced by Luitpold Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Shirley, New York. Approved by the FDA and developing a following among small animal veterinarians as a preventative for highly active dogs at risk for developing arthritis, as well as a disease medication, Adequan Canine not only treats the pain of arthritis but also stimulates the cartilage repair processes.

Adequan has been used by large animal veterinarians on their athletic equine patients for many years. The drug is supposed to suppress the enzymes that eat away at joints, help to lubricate the joints, and reduce inflammation from overuse.

Adequan Canine is a prescription-only pharmaceutical administered by intramuscular injection. Many dog owners inject their own active and working dogs once a month, but others prefer that their veterinarians do the honors. Because of the route of administration, this drug is stronger and more effective than oral supplements like Cosequin®, but Adequan Canine also can be used in conjunction with these supplements. A single injection for a 45-pound dog costs about $20 – $25.

Physical therapy
Immediately before participating in a canine sport or performance activity, Dr. Bessent recommends working through some stretching exercises that take your dog’s joints gently through their range of motion. Here are a few exercises you can do with your dog:

• Straddle your dog behind his shoulders while he is standing, hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and move the treat from side to side, encouraging your dog to bend his neck. Try to have your dog bend to touch your knee on each side.

• While your dog is standing, hold your hand against his chest and hold a treat in front of his nose. Encourage him to push against your hand and stretch his neck toward the treat.

• While your dog is lying on his right side, slowly stretch his left legs forward and back, holding each stretch for five seconds. Repeat with his right legs while lying on his left side.

• Teach your dog stretching behaviors like spinning in a circle left and right, bowing his head down, play bowing his entire front end on command, and “sitting pretty,” or “begging,” on his hind legs.

• Remember, never to force your dog’s body into any position or movement; just encourage comfortable motion.

After an agility-filled day, I enjoy giving my dogs a gentle rubdown. Indeed, therapeutic massage or hands-on soft-tissue work increases the flow of blood and lymph fluids to the large muscle groups of the body, carrying away the toxins and metabolic wastes produced by athletic activity. Massage also relieves tension, enhances muscle tone, and increases the flow of nutrients to the skin.

There are a host of different methods you can use, including direct pressure, stroking, kneading, compression, and cross-fiber massage. Dr. Bessent recommends enlisting the services of a professional canine massage therapist, both for therapy and to help you learn to perform the techniques that are most useful for your dog.

Some canine massage therapists offer massages at the site of agility trials and other dog sports events. As massage tends to relax muscles and sometimes makes dogs who are not used to having a massage “goofy,” Dr. Bessent suggests that handlers visit these massage therapists only after running their events. Actually, getting your dog used to a massage at home is the best way to gauge your dog’s reaction to a massage and to decide how to best incorporate it into your schedule. Stretching is the most appropriate warm-up therapy to engage in directly before participating in an event.

My new plan
After my consultation with Dr. Bessent, I have pledged to broaden the support therapies I offer to my dogs in order to sustain them both through many years of athletic activity.

In addition to the fresh, home prepared diet I regularly provide, along with pure, distilled water, my orders of Platinum Performance Plus and The Six Ingredient Pill with Rehmannia are on the way. I will begin sharing my own jar of MSM with my dogs in the future. After adding these supportive supplements to their diets I will consult with my veterinarian about incorporating Adequan injections into their healthcare routine when appropriate. And I’m committed to a monthly chiropractic adjustment and holistic evaluation for my dogs, rather than just the occasional visit.

As usual, I will retrieve my dogs out of their crates in plenty of time to stretch their muscles before an agility run. And they can both look forward to a rubdown when back at home or in the motel room, or perhaps enjoy a therapeutic massage at the site, after their events.

I hope to see you “in the pits” with your athletic, healthy canine companions.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Selecting a Holistic Veterinarian”
Click here to view “Considering a Holistic Approach to Your Dog’s Health”
Click here to view “Non Traditional Treatments for Athletic Dogs”


Lorie Long lives in Oriental, North Carolina, and is an avid agility competitor.