NEW YORK – Judith Williams-Lohmar always loved animals – she had several pets that she called her family and also worked at a local shelter.
As her animals got older, she noticed that not every veterinarian looks upon an aging canine with the same level of care as they would a younger one. Williams-Lohmar wanted to know how to improve the lives of her own animals and those in the shelter.
So in 2010 she started taking courses that ranged from Reiki to aromatherapy at the Lightfoot Way in Houston, a school that teaches alternative medicine to veterinarians and pet owners.
“I wanted to continue to ensure a level of care throughout the course of their lives regardless of age,” said Williams-Lohmar, who has since put her training to work by opening Putting on the Dog Spaw in Houston.
Alternative health care techniques for animals have been around for decades, much as they have been for humans. For a long time, many people rolled their eyes when devotees suggested aromatherapy or energy work to address pets’ problems.
But as holistic practices gained acceptance among humans, the benefits of alternative medicine for animals has been considered.
Some veterinarians are finding that alternative therapies expand the options they can offer. Barbara Royal started her career as a traditional veterinarian, but felt that she didn’t have enough tools to help all of her patients.
“I had so many sensitive animals or animals that couldn’t go under the knife,” said Royal, who owns Royal Treatment in Chicago. “What I really wanted to be was a healer.”
Fifteen years ago, Royal began working on geriatric animals that would get acupuncture for their arthritis. She then started to see cancer patients, animals with kidney disease and even animals with allergies. Now, she practices acupuncture and herbal medicine not only at her animal hospital, but also at zoos and aquariums.
“Chronic disease, allergies, seizures,” she said. “It’s amazing – I’ve had animals with allergies, and they’re gone.”
Holistic practices, such as massage, can benefit both the physical and mental health of an animal, practitioners say. Massage can help relax an animal if it is feeling upset, for example.
Giving animals massages after surgery also helps them regain their range of motion sooner, says Lisa Speaker, founder of the Rocky Mountain School of Acupressure and Massage. She has also worked with puppies that had swimmers syndrome, a disease when the legs grow laterally and the ribs grow flat because they are allowed to lie on their bellies too long. They were massaged and went to physical therapy daily, and eventually their legs went back under their bodies without surgery, she says.
Alternative medicine certification programs, such as Speaker’s and the one Williams-Lohmar attended, are seeing their business boom. Their students include pet owners, veterinarians and people who want to open holistic businesses for animals.
Attendance at Speaker’s school, for instance, increased by 200 people between 2009 and 2011. She’s even had to hire more teachers. Students mostly learn massage at the school. Professionals can earn a dollar a minute for an animal massage, but it varies based on location and animal type – a masseuse would earn more in the horse racing industry, for instance.
Alternative medicine practitioners say they have encountered a lot of skepticism as they practice their trade. But now they find a growing number of veterinarians taking them more seriously.
“When the pet owner becomes interested in alternative ways to help their animal, then the veterinarian starts looking at it as an option to add it to their business,” Speaker says.
Some veterinarians are hiring alternative medicine experts in their hospitals. Stacey DiMaria, for instance, was hired to practice acupuncture, primarily on dogs, at West Frederick Veterinary Hospital in Frederick, Md. She began as a traditional veterinarian, but learned acupuncture after she saw the positive effects on her own arthritic dog.
“I felt a need for it, and nobody else at the time was doing it,” said DiMaria, who started practicing acupuncture in 1998. “We try to use it when conventional methods have failed. It’s very exciting when someone comes for some new kind of problem that you haven’t treated before.”