For animals, an adjustment

Chiropractic care gains ground as alternative treatment

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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WESTON — Both hands planted firmly on Jude’s hindquarters, Matthew Cooper applied pressure to the horse’s pelvic region, a chiropractic technique known as motion palpation. Jude, a 1,200-pound retired racehorse bearing the legendary Seabiscuit’s bloodline, is fully capable of kicking Cooper into a barn wall, but stood motionless.

Jude has chronic shoulder tightness and back pain, but he barely flinched as Cooper worked his way along the musculoskeletal system, ending with an “adjustment’’ thrust to Jude’s right carpal joint.

Six months ago, according to Jude’s owner, Abby Clutz, the horse would pin back his ears and “explode with discomfort’’ when ridden. Now, with monthly chiropractic treatments, he is being ridden in equestrian competitions and is off pain medication.

A growing number of horses and dogs — along with cats, goats, birds, zoo animals, and other creatures great and small — are seeing chiropractors as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, one that might otherwise rely upon expensive surgery and potent medication to relieve chronic discomfort, according to veterinarians and animal chiropractic specialists.

“Most horses, like dogs, will let me do whatever I need to do to help them,’’ Cooper said as he worked. “They’ll see me coming and go, ‘Oh, I’m going to loosen up and feel better.’ ’’

Animal chiropractic does not lack for skeptics. As is the case with human patients, chiropractic care is frequently viewed by the medical establishment as unscientifically proven, if not outright quackery.

Regarding it and other so-called alternative therapies such as acupuncture and homeopathy, American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines reflect this division of opinion. While its membership is “open to their consideration’’ in prescribing such treatments, the guidelines say, veterinarians “should exercise caution’’ in pursuing treatment options that may claim to be safe and effective but have yet to be proven so by scientific method.

Nevertheless, Dr. Craig Smith, a veterinary association staff consultant, said there is strong anecdotal evidence that nontraditional treatments, and specifically chiropractic care, are gaining in acceptance among pet owners and vets alike — even though the association would like to see more rigorous study to determine whether they are indeed both safe and effective.

“We’re getting more calls about this from animal owners, and from veterinarians as well, but there’s not much hard data available,’’ Smith said. The official position of the group, a nonprofit association representing 80,000 veterinarians nationwide, he added, is, “if an animal can benefit from it, the veterinarian has the right to offer that treatment option. But in all cases a veterinarian should be part of any diagnosis and treatment plan.’’

Animal chiropractic care focuses on biomechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, principally the spine. Treatment typically involves manual manipulation of the joints and soft tissue, measures designed to promote the body’s natural healing powers.

Ten years ago, alternative or “complementary’’ therapies were rarely mentioned in veterinary schools, said Dr. Alicia Karas, an anesthesiologist with Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. That has changed dramatically, Karas said, with many schools now offering courses in nontraditional therapies and humans looking at their own health more holistically, then applying that perspective to their pets. Karas herself is studying acupuncture.

Tufts does not include such courses in its core curriculum, said associate dean for academic affairs Dr. Angeline Warner. But the school does make training available through elective courses, continuing education programs, and outside speakers in what amounts to “a slow but steady increase’’ in studying alternative treatment modalities at Tufts.

The Association of American Veterinary Colleges, an organization representing 28 veterinary teaching institutions, does not track the number of courses or faculty members offering training in chiropractic care, said associate executive director Dr. Ted Mashima. But, he said, “our general sense is that these course offerings are on the increase.’’

Ten animal chiropractic specialists — certified by the 750-member American Veterinary Chiropractic Association — practice in Massachusetts. Another five or six are licensed by the organization but are not dues-paying members, according to Dr. Randy Caviness, a Bolton veterinarian who is certified in chiropractic care.

Cooper, based in Wayland, sees human patients four days a week, house pets and horses two days. Like many others in his hybrid profession, Cooper worked on humans for years before branching out to other species, in his case four years ago.

The convergence of the two professions, veterinary care and chiropractic, is not new; it began about a century ago before undergoing a revival in the 1980s, according to Cooper and others. Lately, however, it’s become less of a curiosity — your border collie gets what kind of treatment? — and more a commonplace treatment option.

In many cases, practitioners say, an owner might be advised to have an aging pet or farm animal euthanized. Chiropractic care thus becomes his or her last resort.

“There’s this stigma of the little fluff ball some woman brings to her own chiropractor,’’ Cooper said. “But when you think about what we do, people really get it.’’ By alleviating joint and muscle problems that impede movement, he said, not only can he improve an animal’s quality of life, he may prolong life, too. “For animals, freedom of movement is everything,’’ he said.

Dr. Gene Giggleman, president of the chiropractic association, said it is no surprise that the appetite for alternative health care has spilled over to veterinary medicine, whether the patients are race horses and show dogs or beloved house pets with arthritis issues.

“People are at their wits’ end treating signs and symptoms, not causes,’’ said Giggleman, a Texas veterinarian whose practice has shifted from 100 percent traditional veterinary medicine to 80 percent chiropractic over the past few years. “The bottom line is, what’s good for the patient? If I can get an animal well without drugs or surgery, and in many cases less expensively, too, I’ve done a better job.’’

Cooper primarily treats cats, dogs, and horses in his animal practice. Treatment regimens vary, he said, depending on the species, its age and condition. “One adjustment doesn’t do it,’’ said Cooper. “It could be once a week to once a month to three times a week. Dogs usually need more care than horses, but it’s very condition-specific.’’ Fees average $70 per session for dogs, $100 for horses.

A Lexington native, Cooper earned a postdoctoral degree from Options for Animals College of Animal Chiropractic in Kansas, one of three US schools offering degree programs in the discipline. Veterinarians’ referrals and word of mouth account for much of Cooper’s business.

His most effective diagnostic tool: closely observing an animal’s gait. If a horse has trouble turning in one direction or a dog bunny-hops with hind legs together, he said, it is a strong indication of joint problems. Age and injury are likely causes, he added, but even a young, healthy animal can show signs of distress.

Julie Clifford of Sudbury met Cooper while he was treating horses at a stable where Clifford works. A chiropractic patient herself, Clifford wanted to see if treatments could help Myoka, her 13-year-old husky, who suffers from arthritis. For the past year, Myoka has been coming to Cooper for monthly spinal adjustments. He’s now off pain medications, Clifford reported during a recent visit to Cooper’s office.

Dogs, cats, and horses aren’t the only nonhuman beneficiaries. Debra Tranberg of Scituate, a chiropractor with 15 years’ experience treating humans and animals, volunteers at the New England Wildlife Center, where she’s worked on hawks, owls, skunks, iguanas, and hamsters, among other species.

Tranberg said she would like to treat bigger, more exotic animals, like the Franklin Park Zoo leopard reportedly suffering from paw problems last year. But, she added, “You’d have to put it out first. I’d be saying, ‘Make it a little sleepy, please!’ ’’

Cooper knows of one zoo rhinoceros treated for back pain with chiropractic manipulation. While comfortable working on most species, from pigs to pit bulls, he draws the line about where Indiana Jones might.

“Snakes,’’ he said, “I’m not willing to try.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at