Daphne Livoni, M.S. L.Ac.
Office for humans in Oakland. Pets seen in El Sobrante, Walnut Creek, Greenbrae + Alameda, Contra Costa & Marin Counties.
New York Times
By MICHELLE SLATALLA
We haven’t been invited back to the Hamptons since the time he stole a cheeseburger from the hand of a child. Then he jumped into the pool, climbed out and shook himself off on the guests. That was probably forgivable. What came next joyfully vomiting pool water, grass and ground beef at the host’s feet was not.
I would like to say this behavior was atypical. But Otto was a spirited dog. He once toppled an elderly neighbor after he snouted her crotch too enthusiastically.
How I miss those days.
Now Otto is a slow-moving 9: X-rays show that he is arthritic, with swollen elbows. His orthopedist recently said he had a bulging disk. Despite every treatment known to modern veterinary science from glucosamine tablets to prednisone to monthly injections designed to protect the cartilage in his joints the only thing Otto throws himself into these days is our other dog’s food bowl.
Nobody is happy about Otto. A few weeks ago, he watched dejectedly as my husband and I set off on a hike without him.
Then, at the very place on the trail where Otto once rolled happily on the carcass of a dead mouse, we suddenly heard a rhino crashing through the bushes.
A crazy-eyed, burr-covered retriever emerged. We would have mistaken the dog for the ghost of Otto’s youth if not for its white, old man’s muzzle.
The dog’s owner appeared on the trail a few seconds later.
“How old is he?” my husband asked, absently picking a burr from behind the dog’s ear.
“Twelve,” the owner said.
“He’s in great shape,” my husband said.
“He used to be barely able to walk,” the owner said.
What helped relieve the dog’s arthritis and joint pain? Acupuncture, the owner said.
We were skeptical. “Otto would pull out the needles with his teeth,” my husband replied.
“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the owner insisted.
We watched his dog grab a 10-foot branch at the side of the trail and wave it dangerously, like a scimitar. Just like Otto used to.
“Any minute now, he’ll put out someone’s eye with that sharp tip,” I said wistfully.
The next morning, I Googled “veterinary acupuncture.” That is how I learned that this version of the ancient Chinese therapy that calls for inserting needles into specific locations on pets is gaining steam, even outside Northern California.
At Dogster.com, the online social network for pets that Otto joined last fall, I found a discussion on “Doggie Acupuncture: To Do or Not to Do?” A canine member named Bo had “asked” last month about whether he should try acupuncture. More than a dozen members described positive experiences for “severe breathing problems” and “spay incontinence,” including one case involving an arthritic dog named Sabrina who “doesn’t really enjoy getting the needles in, but she always feels so much better afterward.”
Maybe acupuncture was worth a try? Certainly a growing number of veterinarians think so.
“It should be considered in certain conditions, especially those that involve chronic pain,” said Vikki Weber, the executive director of the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, which is based in Colorado and began sponsoring training in 1974.
Both Ms. Weber’s group and the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture, a trade association, have Web sites (ivas.org and aava.org, respectively) with searchable databases that list hundreds of trained veterinary acupuncturists worldwide.
The American Veterinary Medical Association, an organization that represents 76,000 veterinarians nationwide, does not keep track of how many of its members practice acupuncture and does not recognize acupuncture as a specialty.
“But we recognize the interest in and use of alternative modalities like acupuncture,” said Dr. Craig Smith, a spokesman for the association.
While no definitive studies prove the treatment’s effectiveness, Dr. Smith said, he recommended that pet owners who are interested in the procedure seek the advice of their veterinarians.
I was too sheepish to ask Otto’s vet. I knew from previous conversations that she was ambivalent about acupuncture; she had once had an acupuncturist working under her supervision but discontinued the practice after deciding that the physical benefits, if any, were incremental and possibly the result of a placebo effect.
“Animals can’t experience a placebo effect,” I had argued.
But their owners can, she retorted.
So in the end, the way I found an acupuncturist for Otto was though more Googling, which revealed Daphne Livoni, a licensed acupuncturist. She also practices under the supervision of veterinarians at three animal hospitals.
Then, as Ms. Livoni gently inserted pairs of super-fine needles along both sides of his spine and in his hips and elbows, Otto appeared not to really notice. Instead, he sniffed her needle box to see if it held food.
Then, after unsuccessfully trying to compel her to give him a dog treat, he sighed and lay on the floor one leg touching hers and another touching mine to reassure us he wasn’t playing favorites and remained calm for the rest of the 30-minute session.
The treatment cost $120. Ms. Livoni suggested follow-up appointments, administered on a weekly or biweekly basis depending on how well Otto appeared to respond. She also told me to report any changes in his behavior or energy level.
Did the needles have an effect? I couldn’t tell. My husband said no. The next day, Otto still seemed pretty stiff.
The next week, after the second treatment? Same. The third? Ditto. The fourth? I started to feel discouraged.
But at the fifth session, Ms. Livoni said Otto’s elbows were less swollen, his tongue was pink (“like a young healthy dog”) and his ears needed cleaning. As she removed the needles, she suggested I take him to his favorite trail and let him walk.
The next day, I pulled the station wagon up to the trail head, opened the back and watched in amazement as Otto sprang out and ran crazily toward the creek. It was like watching a dog version of the movie “Cocoon.”
He scrabbled down the bank and belly-flopped into the water. Within minutes, he was standing sure-footed on slippery rocks, brandishing a dangerously big stick.
The day after, he didn’t even limp. At the dog park, he stole tennis balls from less motivated dogs and dropped them, slobbery, at my feet. For the first time in months, he wanted to fetch.
Was it the acupuncture? Or a coincidence? Seeking a reality check, I took him to the vet ostensibly to have his ears cleaned.
“Otto, you look so relaxed and happy,” the vet said as he leapt to his feet when she entered the room.
I told her everything. “Could the acupuncture be the reason he’s better?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said. But after looking at his medical chart, she said that the last two times she had seen him after he had taken prednisone in November and then, again, for a checkup in December his mobility had been improving. It was possible his current state of health was merely the result of gradual amelioration that I hadn’t noticed till now.
“Maybe I’m suffering from a dog owner’s placebo effect?” I asked.
Maybe, she said. On the other hand, she added, it wasn’t necessarily bad if my hopes that Otto was getting better had led to regular exercise that had strengthened his muscles. “One good thing about acupuncture is that I’ve never seen it hurt a dog,” she said, adding that the only major downside was the cost.
Then she handed Otto a dog treat. As he leapt for it and I worried he might accidentally rip off her finger in his excitement, I realized with relief that it’s only a matter of time before he throws up on someone’s feet again.
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