Suzanne Kelly’s first acupuncture client was a dog named Joe. The Dalmatian’s nails had become so badly worn and bloodied that the dog needed to wear special paw-boots.
“He’d had disc surgery in his neck,” explains the Cork vet. “And he’d problems with his knee ligaments which meant he couldn’t walk two or three steps without falling down. His nails were all scuffed because of problems with his movement.”
Suzanne had discovered that treating animals with conventional medicine was not always effective. “Clients who may have been undergoing some acupuncture treatment themselves were asking me about it – they wondered whether I could treat animals with needles.”
Her curiosity was piqued. She attended the Association of British Veterinary Acupuncturists and, whilst living in the UK, completed a course there before treating her first patient, Joe, in 2006. Before the Dalmatian was brought to Suzanne’s attention another vet had told the owner to put the dog down. “So I was trying acupuncture as a last resort. It’s often the case; a last resort. People come because they are desperate,” she says.
“I started treating him and at the start I didn’t see much difference; I was still a bit sceptical back then. But the owners could see a change: he was happier; there were signs. After a couple of months of treating him, I remember calling his name in the waiting room. Joe jumped up all by himself, and I could hear his feet clacking across the slippery floor. His nails had grown back.” Joe’s condition continued to improve. Soon, he was able to walk a few miles at a time.
After living in New Zealand and the UK, Suzanne returned to Cork in 2009. She now lives in East Cork and practices at the Abbeyville Veterinary Hospital.
Chinese and Western are the two main branches of acupuncture, she explains. “Chinese is based on the unblocking of Chi, or energy, in the body. But I do Western, which is usually deep into muscle. We put needles in where it’s affecting their nervous system; we often end up putting the needles in the same place.”
Suzanne has clients who travel to Abbeyville for treatment from as far away as West Cork, Kerry, and Limerick. Currently, there are seven registered vets in the Republic using acupuncture, one in Waterford and, more recently in Cork, Dermot Cunningham at the Sunbeam Veterinary Hospital, in Blackpool.
“Not all animals will respond to acupuncture, and they don’t know why that is – nobody does. But herbivores, like rabbits, do.
“Cats and dogs [respond] very well, too. I don’t do acupuncture as alternative medication, it’s integrative and part of the animal’s treatment. They still get their supplements and dietary considerations.”
late phone call is received in Dublin on a Saturday night. At 10pm, we gather in the brown-tiled back-kitchen of a retired vet’s private home. Three Border Collies have arrived and maintain a watchful eye on their owner, who sits with her back to the rear door.
The woman has suffered burns to the face thanks to a spitting frying pan a few days before. She wants the vet to relieve the pain through acupuncture. However, her three valuable dogs take precedence.
“I am the one with the problem today,” she winces. “But the dogs are getting a quick going over first.”
Border Collies are bred for their intelligence and obedience, and these three have had a very successful track record in dog trials. The woman, a firm believer in the benefits of acupuncture, ensures that her pets receive treatment first. Acrobatic movement is a critical feature of dog trials; not only can acupuncture facilitate this but it can unlock other indiscernible issues.
“To compete they have to be in a good state of mind, too,” she says, smiling at the vet. “He will always find something that regular vets don’t find.”
Indy is the eldest of the trio at nine years of age. The vet uses his fingers to procure a divining reaction. “I go along the back with my fingers and if the dog flinches...” He kneels in front of Indy, bunches up his hands and keeps his middle fingers locked and straight. He adds: “There are master points and sometimes they are instant, and that’s what you’re looking for.”
He looks up and smiles. “Science says that what I’m doing is bullshit. But divining is used for finding water, and sometimes oil companies use it to find the best place to drill… I use the same technique with animals, and if I get a reaction I treat it – like a sprained or arthritic joint.”
The vet inserts needles into Indy’s back. The dog remains content, calm and attentive. “The needles are extremely fine and therefore not painful going in. But when the needle hits a nerve, you’ll feel it.”
The needles remain in for 10 minutes. During that time, he finds no reaction in the two younger Collies, the four-year-old Loly and ten-month-old Glint. Later on, though, the benefits of the treatment will be apparent. “I’ll know the difference through the little subtle things Indy does, as to whether he’s feeling better,” his owner says. “And he’ll sleep more heavily – an extra hour or two.”
When the retired vet (who wishes not to be named) began to use acupuncture in 1973, he was one of the first vets in Ireland to do so. A lot of his work has been with horses.
“I treat the best in the country. Cheltenham winners; and two of my clients have won the Melbourne Cup,” he remarks.
“There are some race horses that freak out on their way to the race track – if you can calm them down before they reach the track, using needle points… I can give them an extra place or two.” He grins. “But a horse running fifth will not win!”
Siobhan Menzies qualified as a vet in 1990 and has been using acupuncture for the past 12 years. She established her practice Holisticpet in 2003, and works out of four clinics in Northern Ireland. There are only two other vets who practice acupuncture in Northern Ireland. Acupuncture is the foundation of Siobhan’s practice“Most of the animals have had full clinical investigations, including X-rays and even MRIs. They’re often post-surgery; I add my own adjunct to that, to achieve the best pain management possible for the animal,” she says.
“We’ve even treated dogs that were quadriplegic, after spinal trauma from a fibrocartilaginous embolism or clot. The dogs had lost power in both fore and hind legs but we managed to get them back on their feet. It’s very rewarding; there’s no downside – there are no negative affects except on the pocket,” she laughs.
Animal acupuncture is not cheap; each session costs about €40 (and up to €80 for a horse). Siobhan adds: “But my clients are very dedicated and they are happy to pay for it if it makes their pet more comfortable. Most of my patients are also insured.”
Back in Dublin, after removing the needles from Indy, the Border Collie, the vet treats the woman’s facial burns. During her treatment, he tells of a particular case in Toronto involving a horse that belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – Canadian vets had asked him to give a talk on his healing methods.
“I remember one horse was suffering from colic. He had a twitch, and I couldn’t get rid of it. So, 15 minutes after using the needles, I sent him back. Shortly afterwards, I got word to hurry to the stables. There, beside the horse, I found the biggest pile of manure I’d ever seen.” The horse was cured. “There had been sceptics among the vets, but that big pile shifted their opinion.”
* International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS - www.ivas.org); Abbeyville Veterinary Hospita, e: email@example.com; Holisticpet, Northern Ireland: www.holisticpetni.com; E; firstname.lastname@example.org
* Sunbeam Veterinary Hospital; www.sunbeamvets.com