Chaco, a 13-year-old Australian shepherd with a white, arrow- like spot running down his snout, circled the room carefully before collapsing on the rug at Healing Path Animal Wellness, an integrative veterinary medical care center that opened near Manitou Springs in 2012.
He's here for his weekly appointment with Dr. Jennifer Pearson, a vet who often prescribes acupuncture and herbal medicine for clients. Chaco has been receiving acupuncture treatments, which help manage his knee arthritis, for a couple of years now. The large dog seems to take it in stride as Pearson gently taps and twists tiny needles into points on his flanks, upper torso and head.
"Some dogs go into a trance," Pearson said.
Pat and Jerry Alexander are staunch believers in integrative vet care. They found Pearson about a year ago when their beloved Natalie, part Labrador and part cattle dog, was diagnosed with a terminal Aspergillus infection. The conventional vet they were seeing then said the dog likely wouldn't make it past August.
Natalie, 13, now receives acupuncture treatments twice a month from Pearson.
"It's like night and day," Jerry Alexander said. "After the second treatment, we could see some difference in the right direction. Now it's like a normal thing - she goes in and enjoys it. She's not scared of the needles, and she's more energetic when she leaves."
An acupuncture treatment at Healing Path runs $90 for the first session and includes an exam. Following treatments cost $65.
What is integrative vet care?
Pearson prefers the term integrative because it encompasses conventional and nonconventional medicine. Holistic is also applicable - it means the vet looks at the patient's entire picture. Treatment depends on what she finds; it doesn't always mean acupuncture or a tincture.
"If I need to put someone on an antibiotic, they're going on antibiotics," she said.
When Tugboat, a giant Newfoundland, showed up with a raging ear infection, Pearson decided it was better to prescribe conventional medicine.
"If I can make it go away right away - awesome," she said. "Now if that same dog came back with an ear infection every two months and we just keep shooting medication at it, it's time to take a step back and ask what's going on."
It was after working at a conventional clinic for several years that Pearson became curious about alternative healing. Her education at Colorado State University included a certification through Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians, which is affiliated with the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association. A chance to study herbal medicine at the College of Integrative Veterinary Therapies, an Australian, distance-based program, prompted her to quit her job and pursue certification.
"I would love to tell you it's miraculous," Pearson said of nonconventional treatment. "Sometimes it is. But it's mostly nice for me because if we run out of treatment options from the conventional side, I have other things I can offer."
Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese medicine typically used on humans, requires a practitioner to tap thin needles into different parts of the body. The treatment is said to help move and redirect stagnant chi, or energy, in the body and encourage healing. Though the American Medical Association takes no position on the modality, stating "there is little evidence to confirm the safety or efficacy of most alternative therapies," veterinary acupuncture is approved as an "alternate therapy" by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Integrative vets use it for a wide range of disorders, including chronic pain, especially if they want to avoid administering medication that an animal can't tolerate. It's also useful to help stimulate and strengthen the immune system, increase appetite and treat back issues.
"Dogs will sometimes be paralyzed because they slip a disc, and acupuncture is fantastic when surgery is not an option," Pearson said.
Herbs are also an option for some maladies.
A patient can take St. John's wort instead of Prozac. The herb marshmallow can help soothe an upset stomach, and fennel, agrimony and raspberry and blackberry leaves can help prevent gas, Pearson said.
Time moves slower at an integrative vet practice such as Pearson's. Appointments are longer (acupuncture sessions last an hour), providing time for the animal to get comfortable and investigate the room or plop down on the rug covering the hardwood floor.
There are no stainless steel lab tables, and the animal isn't taken into a room to have blood drawn. It's part of a new movement in vet care called low-stress handling that isn't necessarily related to alternative care.
"We read the animal's body language and try to keep him from getting too stressed out," Pearson said.
"We don't take animals into the back and pin them down to make things happen. We use treats and blindfolds and talking to them."