Chiropractic is one of the most effective, dramatic, and embattled health care modalities currently available to dog owners. The many amazed dog owners whose limping, stiff, sore dogs had to be lifted in and out of the car on the way to the chiropractor’s office, and who were surprised to see their dogs leap unaided into the car to return home after a chiropractic adjustment, can attest to the therapy’s effectiveness and drama. But, in trying to relate the story of their dog’s miraculous recovery at the hands of a chiropractor, many people learn how controversial the therapy is, especially to the uninitiated. “You took your dog to a what?!” they are likely to be asked.
While the earliest record of soft-tissue manipulations dates back to 2700 BC, modern chiropractic stems from the latter part of the 19th century, here in the US. The word chiropractic comes from the Greek words cheir, which means hand, and praxis, which means practice; taken altogether, this means “done by hand.” Exactly what is done by hand varies from one school of chiropractic to the next, but essentially, veterinary chiropractic practitioners seek to affect the nervous system by manipulating the animal’s joints, especially (but not limited to) the joints of the spinal column.
Early chiropractors focused on moving joints in small increments to position the bones in an alignment thought to remove or prevent nerve “impingement.” Regarding the system of nerves in the spinal column and elsewhere as similar to an electrical system, practitioners sought to align the joints in such a way as to prevent electrical “shorts.”
Later practitioners have largely rejected this model as overly simplistic. Today, most describe the goal of chiropractic in a broad sense, as building the body’s health by improving nerve function. Some of what its most ardent fans see as chiropractic’s most powerful gifts – enhanced range of motion, restored joint function in aging or injured animals, and increased vitality and energy – are viewed by modern chiropractors as charming but secondary effects of improved general health.
Most of the controversy surrounding chiropractic stems from the lack of a unified and solely scientific explanation for the modality. As with many of the alternative and complementary health care modalities, chiropractic shines in anecdote; the sheer number of dogs whose health improved with chiropractic care is convincing enough for many people. Laboratory studies that could either support or disprove the benefits of chiropractic don’t exist.
“We don’t have clinical studies where we have taken 500 dogs from day one, and treated half of them and withheld treatment from the other half, and determined how many of each group developed arthritis 10 years later,” says chiropractor Michael Gleason, an instructor who teaches veterinarians and chiropractors at the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, in Port Byron, Illinois. “But in practice, the basic principles hold up.”
Candidates for chiropractic
Obviously, people whose dogs’ health improved with chiropractic defend the unconventional therapy. Which dogs are the most likely to benefit?
Dr. Phyllis Giroux, a breeder, trainer, and veterinarian from Gold Vein, Virginia, offers chiropractic care in her small-animal practice. Dr. Giroux says that lameness and/or another abnormality in a dog’s gait are what generate most of her client referrals; in fact, this is what drove her to seek out information about chiropractic in the first place. “I felt I needed to know more about the causes, prevention, and treatment for lameness, and so developed an interest in chiropractic,” Dr. Giroux explains. “Typically, I see patients when their conventional practitioner hasn’t been able to resolve a lameness problem.”
Since much of her practice consists of sporting dogs, issues of lameness and injury come up more than with the average practitioner. “Fully 70 to 80 percent of my clients have hunting or field trial dogs, a group of highly competitive, athletic animals. Chiropractic care definitely optimizes their athletic effectiveness,” she says.
Dr. Gleason, whose San Francisco Bay Area practice consists of chiropractic on small, large, and exotic animals, says that his “average canine patient” is less likely to be a competitive athlete (though he finds work on this type of animal to be especially rewarding), and more likely to be a middle-aged or older companion dog. “My classic canine patient is a dog that is starting to get older (and that age varies by breed and individual) who is starting to have trouble going up and down stairs, getting in and out of the car, or getting on and off of the couch,” he describes. “Those things, by themselves, don’t always prompt an owner to pursue chiropractic. But when, for instance, the dog yelps and ducks when he gets petted on the back, people more readily think of calling a chiropractor.”
Arthritic dogs make up a large percentage of most animal chiropractors’ practices. While Gleason is clear that nothing will cure arthritis in a dog, he’s seen chiropractic care slow and even stop the progression of the disease.
The above-described lame and sore patients are the “classic” clients, but are by no means the only dogs that chiropractors can help. For his part, Dr. Gleason describes dogs without discernible problems as being in the best position to benefit from chiropractic care. “I see a lot of patients whose goal is relief of symptoms, but chiropractic is not just about ‘fixing problems;’ it’s really about health care,” he says. “In traditional Western medicine, what we call ‘health care’ is actually disease care. But the purpose of chiropractic is to keep the nervous system healthy, and the job of the nervous system is to keep the body healthy. So I’m pleased when I see animals whose owners have the goal of wellness, or even of enhanced performance.”
Chiropractic for the aged
Gleason describes a couple who owned three German Shepherds, all of which developed crippling and painful arthritis when they were around 10 years old, and died at age 12. Frustrated, they sought out chiropractic care for their last dog when the animal was about 10. Though this animal, too, died at age 12, his condition was so much better than that of the other two dogs at his age, that they became converts to chiropractic.
And, when the couple bought their fourth German Shepherd, they began bringing it to Dr. Gleason for chiropractic evaluation and treatment every few months, starting when the puppy was just 12 weeks old. “These people are exceptions; not many dog owners have this kind of foresight,” says Gleason. “Adjusting puppies is not as visibly gratifying as when you instantly improve a middle-aged dog. But it may well prevent the pathetic, crippled old age that so many dogs have to suffer through.”
In fact, even though Gleason is happy to be able to help arthritic old dogs with chiropractic, improving their mobility for a period of time, he says it gets frustrating at times, knowing that the dog’s compromised condition could have been avoided, had the owner supported optimum health care earlier in the dog’s life.
“It can get depressing when I have a day where all I see are 15- to 18-year-old cats and 12- to 15-year-old dogs with crippling arthritis,” he says. “Even when I can help them, I realize that it’s just putting a Band-Aid on their condition until they die; the damage has been done, and there is no way to reverse it. That gets to me.
“I’d much rather have a younger practice, and dogs that are brought in to improve athletic performance,” Gleason says. “It is really exciting to take a dog that’s had a minor injury and is not winning – say, one that had a track record of winning but is now off a little bit – and adjust them and within a few weeks they are back in the show ring taking the blue ribbons. That’s exciting.”
Cautions and considerations
As excited as he is about chiropractic, and even though he says that sometimes chiropractic is the single most effective thing that can be used to improve a dog’s health, Gleason cautions against people thinking that the modality constitutes a magic bullet. In fact, he says, it is a huge mistake to think that chiropractic cures anything. Instead, it helps the body work to its potential so it can heal itself. “I don’t treat diabetes, cancer, or thyroid conditions; I treat an animal that may have those conditions,” he says carefully. “My goal is to get the nervous system working better, so the body can work as well as it can so it can best fight those conditions.”
Sometimes the dog’s genetic makeup or structure will limit what chiropractic can accomplish. But in other cases, the treatments are so effective at improving the overall function of the animal’s body that adjustments must be made in the dog’s traditional care. This is often the case, says Gleason, in cases of dogs who are receiving thyroid medication, insulin for diabetes, or medications for respiratory disorders. In any of these cases, the dog must be carefully evaluated by a veterinarian concurrently with the chiropractic treatments to make sure his medication level is appropriate to his level of illness (or wellness!). Gleason has heard of cases where an animal who did not receive this veterinary attention experienced an overdose of medication – even though it was administered at a level that was appropriate previous to chiropractic treatment – and had to seek emergency medical care.
And then there are the unexpected cases where a dog declines with chiropractic treatment. Of course, this can happen with any health care modality; everyone has heard of at least one case where the most effective treatment for a given condition caused a serious problem in a patient. Says Gleason, “Even the best chiropractors can have a patient react negatively to their care. And sometimes you can make a mistake in what technique is appropriate, and the result is that the animal is worse after the treatment. Or you can overdo a treatment. Say a dog has severe osteoarthritis, and you use an overly aggressive adjustment; you can aggravate the arthritis and cause a flare-up, and the dog can experience quite a bit of pain for days. It’s not common if you know what you are doing, but it does happen.”
Contraindications for chiropractic?
Gleason asserts that chiropractic can help most dogs become healthier, but does caution his veterinary and chiropractor students about a few conditions under which chiropractic care may be detrimental. “Knowing when not to adjust is just as important, if not more important, as knowing how to adjust,” Dr. Gleason says. “Generally, the contraindications for chiropractic include fracture, tumors, acute inflammation, and acute infection. The interesting thing is, that doesn’t mean the patient won’t experience a benefit from chiropractic; it means you don’t adjust the site of the fracture, for example. An experienced practitioner can modify his or her techniques and work around the conditions. But if you are going to adjust a dog where contraindicated, you really have to know what you are doing,” he says.
Gleason gives the example of a dog with an active infection in a front paw. A skilled chiropractor could adjust certain parts of the thoracic spine and increase blood flow to the front limb, to get more white blood cell activity into that area. But increasing the blood flow in a manner and amount such that the infection was spread all over the body could be disastrous. Says Gleason, “I hate to point the finger in any one direction, but if you are a massage therapist who took a weekend seminar in chiropractic, for instance, this is the case that you are going to screw up.”
Even though he has enough experience that he feels comfortable working on an animal who has one of the above mentioned contraindicated conditions, there are some animals that Gleason refuses to treat. One would be an animal who has experienced a recent trauma, but that has not had x-rays taken to ascertain the extent of the trauma. “If I think there may be a fracture or other internal injury, and the owner doesn’t want to pay to have x-rays taken, I won’t adjust that animal,” he says.
Another case is a dog with degenerative myelopathy, a disorder of the spinal cord. “I know from experience that we can go in with chiropractic and acupuncture and nutrition to help those animals, but it’s a temporary help,” Dr. Gleason says. “They may have improved function for a while, but if the animal experiences emotional or physical stress, you can lose all the gains you’ve made in months of care overnight. I’ve seen German Shepherds that were falling over with every third step, and knuckling over so badly that they had sores on the tops of their paws, and with chiropractic, acupuncture and nutrition we get them so they are chasing ducks without tripping. Then they get stressed, for instance, being subjected to a chemical stress like a trip to the vet where they were sedated to get their ears cleaned, and the next day they were right back where we started. I have a hard time justifying treatment, at a cost of hundreds of dollars, that can’t protect them from falling apart overnight.”
Then there is the matter of untalented and unsafe practitioners. A talented person can use chiropractic to work miracles on dogs with all kinds of ailments. But a poorly trained individual – or even a well-educated but unskilled individual – can wreak havoc on a dog’s body and psyche.
Most states permit only two classes of professionals to perform chiropractic on animals: veterinarians who have received “adequate training” in chiropractic, and chiropractors who have received “adequate training” in animal anatomy and physiology. Officially, there is currently only one educational program that seems to qualify as providing this training: the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA), which offers a 150-hour postgraduate course in animal chiropractic. The AVCA admits only doctors of veterinary medicine (DVMs) and doctors of chiropractic (DCs) to this program.
Founded in 1989, AVCA’s mission statement includes “a commitment to the continuing advancement of chiropractic as a health care choice for animals in the world community, and to bringing the veterinary and chiropractic professions together for a common and higher goal of health care of animals.”
The AVCA courses leading to certification consist of 150 hours of study; these are divided into five modules, four of which address chiropractic techniques, with the fifth module combining the technique work into a comprehensive look at veterinary chiropractic therapy, along with case management. A practitioner must have intimate knowledge of all vertebrate processes, orientations, and articulations. Then, the physical skills of palpation – to be able to identify spinal irregularities during clinical examination – and adjusting are honed with continual practice.
Be aware that there are a number of weekend and other short courses available to chiropractors, veterinarians, and even lay people in the use of chiropractic for animals. None of the professionals interviewed for this article thought that any training less that the AVCA’s 150-hour course would be sufficient to provide adequate training.
Which professional is best?
As you might imagine when any two fields of knowledge collide, there will be prejudices and bias as to which type of specialist you should choose to facilitate chiropractic health for your dog.
Dr. Gleason achieved the AVCA’s “Certified Animal Chiropractor” title by entering as a doctor of chiropractic. Not surprisingly, his bias is toward recommending chiropractors with AVCA training. He feels that a chiropractor is simply the better trained person to provide chiropractic care – as long as the person is working under the direct supervision of a veterinarian. “This way, the animal receives the best care from two trained professionals,” he says.
Gleason feels that chiropractors are vastly better prepared than even the most experienced veterinarians to perform manipulations on animals. “To become a chiropractor, you spend about 4000 to 4400 hours in training. About 2000 hours of this cross over with other medical students’ training: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, systems pathology, diagnosis, etc. But chiropractors spend 1500-2000 additional hours in chiropractic college doing static palpation, muscle testing, and technique; it takes that long to get your hands to do that kind of work.”
Even though, legally, a chiropractor with AVCA training needs a referral from or to be working with a veterinarian on a case, Dr. Giroux, a veterinarian who took the AVCA training, feels more comfortable possessing a veterinary education herself, rather than depending on another professional to provide that aspect of health care to the patient. “I like being able to provide my clients with all of the information I think they need to coordinate the total care of their dogs,” she says.
“For instance, new nutritional research may influence how I address the energy, vitamin and mineral, and bone-health needs of dogs in my care – all things that can affect the animals’ chiropractic health. A recent study, for example, showed that only 41 percent of dogs with hip dysplasia had it as a result of genetic influence; inappropriate or inadequate nutrition caused the remaining 59 percent to have poor skeletal health, and that could have been avoided!
“As another example, glucosamine supplementation has been shown to benefit aging and rehabilitating cartilage, as well as promote healthy joint growth in young dogs. A chiropractor can’t legally discuss and recommend these supplements, but as a vet, I can and do,” she says.
Veterinarian Michelle Tilghman also provides chiropractic care for animals from her Loving Touch Animal Center in Stone Mountain, Georgia. But Dr. Tilghman does so without benefit of the AVCA certification; in fact, she was practicing veterinary chiropractic since before the certification program was offered, having studied chiropractic in short courses offered in the mid 1980s by AVCA’s founder, Dr. Sharon Willoughby. However, she feels the AVCA training is the best thing going for newer practitioners.
“I do feel that certification is the best way for people to know that a practitioner has good training and education, that they know what they’re doing,” she says. She, too, has a preference for the practitioner to be a veterinarian first. “Advanced training in chiropractic theory and technique is so important, but knowledge of animal anatomy is paramount; animals are so different from humans. Because animals can display sore back symptoms even when their problems are rooted in something completely – a blocked ureter, for example – a non-veterinary chiropractor might want to make an adjustment that may be inappropriate.”
Deciding which type of trained professional to employ to help your dog is just half the task. It would be great to be able to report that all you have to do is to call up the AVCA and ask for their list of program graduates in order to find a qualified professional to help your dog. But the reality is that one cannot assume that all graduates of this program are skilled and safe animal chiropractors. “I would like to say, ‘Just look for AVCA training,’ but that doesn’t mean the practitioner is going to be good,” says Gleason, an instructor for the AVCA. “There are people who have taken our training and passed our tests, but I wouldn’t refer to them because I don’t like what they do. It’s just like at vet school or med school: In the board exams, they don’t test how well you can treat patients, they test how much you know about treating patients.”
Ideally, says Gleason, a dog owner would be able to see their prospective chiropractor work on a patient or two. But lacking direct witnessing of the practitioner in action, a dog owner should, at the very least, ask for the names and numbers of a few of the chiropractor’s clients, and follow up on these references.
Dr. Tilghman agrees. “Be aware; in the wrong hands, chiropractic can hurt, not heal. Ask your potential practitioner for references, check them out, and trust your instincts.”
One thing to look for in a practitioner is compassion for and rapport with the animal, adds Dr. Giroux. These things are just as important as the education and training of the practitioner, she says. “Chiropractic is an energy medicine; you have to open yourself to an animal’s inner energy, and try to sense where they hurt. And intention is very important. Make sure you work with someone you feel comfortable with. If you don’t sense you are simpatico with your health care provider, neither you nor your animal will gain much from them.”
Dr. Gleason also feels the practitioner’s “bedside manner” is critical. It is very rare for a reluctant, sedated, or restrained animal to be helped by chiropractic, he says. “Every once in a great while you will find an animal in so much pain that no one can get near him to help him, but this is a great exception,” says Gleason. As an example of one of these rare cases, he describes one of his patients, a cat that he adjusts two or three times a year. “When this cat is feeling good, his owner can pet him and he is friendly. When his back starts hurting, his owner can’t touch him; he’ll attack her – that’s how much pain he is in. When he’s in this much pain, it might take two other people to hold him down while wearing welders gloves so I can adjust him. But after his adjustments he gets better, and gets friendly again. I’ve told the owner, ‘I’m more afraid when I’m treating your cat than when I adjust the tiger at Marine World!’ ”
All of the practitioners interviewed for this article also agreed that all chiropractic manipulation and adjustments should be very gentle. Competent chiropractors should never need mallets or ropes to accomplish their adjustments. Our professionals approved of the very occasional use of a handheld tool called an “activator,” but stressed that the mark of a truly gifted chiropractor is the sole use of hands to make adjustments.
What to expect
Say you have decided that chiropractic just may help your dog. What should you expect from your dog’s first visit to the qualified practitioner you have tracked down?
First, if the practitioner is a veterinarian, he or she will perform a general health examination in addition to a chiropractic evaluation. (If the person is a chiropractor, he should require a referral from your veterinarian, to ensure the dog does not have any health conditions that could contraindicate chiropractic.) The practitioner should ask questions about your goal for chiropractic treatment: are you seeking treatment to improve a specific condition, or to improve the general health of your dog?
The chiropractor may make small, gentle adjustments to joints on your dog’s legs, shoulders, neck, and back. When the adjustments are made, your dog should not show any signs of pain or alarm (beyond, perhaps, a quick glance at the practitioner following a particularly big adjustment). A few dogs, especially those suffering from chronic pain or those who are always extraordinarily guarded about their bodies, may react more. If your dog protests the treatment, talk to the practitioner and ask whether he or she could use less forceful techniques. If he is unreceptive, or if the treatments do not benefit the dog, try another practitioner.
The practitioner should also tell you what to expect following the adjustment, and approximately how many more treatments he recommends. Dr. Gleason says he tries to detail the full range of possible reactions to adjustments, and tells the clients to expect something in the middle. “I tell them the worst and the best possible things that can happen, and that what they will see will probably be somewhere between.
“Sometimes, the animal will get worse before it gets better. These are the reasons: One, chiropractic stirs things up, it asks joints to move that haven’t moved for years. So you might see some irritation, inflammation, or even some stiffness or discomfort. Two, chiropractic changes patterns in the nervous system, and this can change the perception of pain. For instance, sometimes, the patient will have a limb where the nerves that are supposed to tell the brain what’s going on with that limb have been numb for years, almost asleep. An adjustment can ‘wake’ that up, and the animal suddenly starts to perceive discomfort, and may lick or chew the feet or limb. It’s similar to when your hands are so cold they get numb, and then when you start to warm them up, they get painful.
“Your animal may also feel a whole lot better. Chiropractic will sometimes block the pain signals, so that the perception of pain reduces, and their body says, ‘Yippee, I can run again!’ If this happens the animal will often go out and overdo its activity,” Dr. Gleason says.
For the abovementioned reasons, Gleason recommends keeping the animal’s activity controlled for a few days following its adjustments. “I want them to move, but in a controlled manner, for at least four to five days. I like to see the dog being taken out for a four to five very short walks per day – perhaps two to five minutes each, depending on the dog’s ability, and perhaps one slightly longer walk, say, 10 to 15 minutes. If this is an active dog, this might be minimal. But even this might be too much for an older dog. Even a walk to the end of the driveway, or up and down the hall a few times, is better than nothing. If the animal doesn’t move, the adjustment will freeze up; it won’t take. I ask them to do this for at least four to five days before returning to their normal schedule.”
Ideally, within a few days or weeks of treatment, you should notice an improvement in your dog’s physical and emotional state. His allergies may be soothed, his energy level and spirits risen, and his appetite sharpened. If you fail to observe these or any other improvements after three or four treatments, you may wish to consider consulting another practitioner. The effectiveness of this healing modality truly hinges on the knowledge, skill, experience, and intuition of the chiropractor, so give another individual a chance to help your dog before giving up on chiropractic. Your dog will appreciate your persistence.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Chiropractors For Canines”
-By Susan Eskew
Susan Eskew, a freelance writer from Crested Butte, Colorado, is a regular contributor to WDJ.
Thanks for breaking down the process of what to expect when taking my dog to the chiropractor. My dog has been suffering from arthritis, so my husband and I have been trying to find treatment options. Hopefully we can find a great pet therapist in our area!
When my dog had a leg injury after he had a bad fall, I decided to look for an animal chiropractic specialist. It’s such a relief to know that a chiropractor will make small, gentle adjustments to my dog’s joints. Perhaps, I shall then make sure to check that when the adjustments are made, my dog should not show any indications of pain. Hopefully, I can find a chiropractor that uses less forceful techniques.