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Features April 2014 Issue

A Closer Look at Veterinary Chiropractic

More and more veterinarians looking into the ins and outs of chiropractic care.

“People thought I went off the deep end,” recalls veterinarian Gene Giggleman about the period when he began incorporating chiropractic into his private practice. But he understood, having been a disbeliever himself. In fact, he warmed to the technique only after several years of watching patients in pain restored through chiropractic care at Parker University in Dallas, where he was initially hired to teach in 1983.

The case that finally tipped his hand, figuratively and literally, was a cocker spaniel named Sparky who was brought to his clinic in such abject pain that despite spinal surgery, he shook throughout his body and threw himself over every time he was approached for his veterinary exam. That Sparky's neck was out of alignment was clear to Dr. Giggleman and, knowing that all traditional help had been tried and the dog was otherwise healthy, he decided to try chiropractic. Sparky lived on pain-free for years, and Dr. Giggleman’s full faith in chiropractic was born. Not only did that and the other sometimes amazing recoveries he saw over time prompt Dr. Giggleman to sign up for chiropractic courses, but he also went on to co-found the university’s animal chiropractic program in 2001, which soon after provided post-graduate classes.

Dr. Giggleman even served as president of the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, listed on its website (animalchiropractic.org) as a “professional membership group promoting animal chiropractic to professionals and the public.” It also acts as the certifying agency for veterinarians who have undergone post-graduate animal chiropractic training.

To be sure, there are a number of caveats. One is that scientific proof of chiropractic’s efficacy in treating pain is sorely lacking, a point which Dr. Giggleman himself concedes. What “proof” there is of its benefits is virtually almost all anecdotal. Controlled clinical trials have not tested chiropractic against other pain remediation therapies head to head, nor has potential harm from the bodily manipulations practiced by chiropractors been put under the magnifying glass, so to speak.

Then, too, chiropractic is a valid alternative option to consider only for painful conditions that appear to be spinal in origin and for which there is no surgical or medical option, or for which surgery is out of the question because the dog’s owners cannot afford it, or for whatever reason insist on a nonsurgical approach. Finally, chiropractic should never be used instead of traditional pain therapies, although it may be appropriate as an adjunctive therapy when traditional treatments are providing only partial relief.

Caveats notwithstanding, Dr. Giggleman is enamored of the treatment technique. Though it’s not a cure-all, he says, “used in conjunction with the other treatment tools a veterinarian has at his or her disposal, chiropractic expands a vet’s ability to successfully treat chronic pain originating from the spine.”

Dr. Giggleman is by no means alone in his thinking. Major pet health insurance companies now reimburse people for their pets’ chiropractic care, and the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management links its own site to that of the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.

So what is animal chiropractic?

Usually associated with care for people, chiropractic involves the adjustment of parts of the body, zeroing in on the spine in particular, to remedy subluxation, or displacement, which is believed to cause nerve pressure and resulting pain. Sometimes medication and surgery are utilized, unsuccessfully, before a pet owner takes his dog to a veterinary chiropractor to learn that a chiropractic adjustment was all that was needed to remove the pain.

Veterinarian Gene Giggleman, DVM, gives a dog a chiropractic adjustment.

Though frequently perceived as a relatively new and risky practice, the first recorded use of chiropractic is documented in ancient China from about 2700 BCE. And the “father of medicine,” Hippocrates, is said to have urged his students around 400 BCE to “get knowledge of the spine, for this is the requisite for many diseases.” But chiropractic only made its way to North America in 1895 when introduced by Canadian grocer D.D. Palmer, who founded the Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, several years later.

Today, animal chiropractic programs incorporate the study of anatomy, chiropractic techniques, neurology, and rehabilitation for a minimum of 210 hours for certification. Since 1989, 1,000 chiropractors and veterinarians have received certification through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, which requires prospective students in North America to already have licensure as either a doctor of chiropractic or of veterinary medicine, or be a student of chiropractic or veterinary medicine not more than six months away from graduation. In addition, chiropractors who work on animals must be re-certified every three years. Because individual states vary in their regulations, some states require chiropractors who are not veterinarians to work under a veterinarian’s guidance. (See the box on page 13 for more particulars.)

Despite regulations in place for certification, Dr. Giggleman continues to find himself surprised by the lack of knowledge and even outright fear among people whose pets have not experienced chiropractic care and who have even been advised against the technique by their veterinarians. Now and then, a pet owner visits in a last-ditch effort to heal her dog despite having been taught to equate chiropractic with charlatinism and even outright risk — like the woman who brought her golden retriever in for treatment of pain in his right shoulder and his neck, which turned unnaturally to the right. “She showed trepidation while talking with me, grimacing repeatedly, and started to flinch when I approached her dog, finally saying that her vet had warned her that I would break her pet’s neck. I adjusted her dog, and he was fine,” says Dr. Giggleman.

Sometimes dogs are brought to a chiropractor after euthanasia has been recommended because there appears to be nothing that can be done for a pet in intense, unremitting pain. And the technique works. “Saving even just one life from euthanasia through the use of chiropractic care made all the training and work I put into learning this art worth it,” Dr. Giggleman comments.

Chiropractic’s reputation in the veterinary community

As stated above, much of chiropractic’s association with quackery exists, Dr. Giggleman believes, because there is an abundance of anecdotes, like his own, but a dearth of actual scientific research.

But even with that limitation, there are ways for consumers to receive safe care that very well may help and at least won’t cause harm. Their best bet is to “seek a licensed veterinarian or chiropractor who has received the appropriate training in animal chiropractic by one of the schools that is monitored and approved by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA), and they should seek a practitioner who is then certified by the AVCA,” says Dr. Giggleman. “AVCA certified practitioners have undergone extensive training and have taken a series of exams, both written and a practical exam, and have demonstrated their abilities and expertise in animal chiropractic. In addition, most states require that for a trained chiropractor who is not a veterinarian to see their animal, they must have a referral from a licensed veterinarian.”

Soulful-eyed Mojo, who belongs to Alicia Karas, DVM, director of the Pain Consultation and Referral Service at Tufts Cummings School, feels so much more comfortable now that he goes for periodic chiropractic tune-ups.

The post-graduate program at Parker has graduated some 400 students since 2002. Though initially students were almost all chiropractors, more and more veterinarians are signing up, perhaps as chiropractic becomes more familiar. In fact, for the first time since its inception, the Animal Chiropractic Continuing Education program at Parker has more veterinarians than chiropractors registered, according to Dr. Giggleman.

“I often advise dog owners who have come to me for chronic pain to seek chiropractic care,” says Alicia Karas, DVM, director of the Pain Consultation and Referral Service at Tufts Cummings School. “The inability to get up, do stairs, and so on, might be due to subluxations that are present, just as they are for humans. And any dog who is already lame, has weakness, or other types of pain, may utilize his body poorly because pain or weakness has led to being crooked, overly taxing certain muscles, causing malalignment, and thus may respond by being balanced by chiropractic adjustments.”

Dr. Karas even found help for her own dog through chiropractic when his discomfort shifted to outright pain. “My active, fit, trim eight-year-old Lab, Mojo, began to be lame in the front upon rising, and it was episodic — on and off varying from nearly imperceptible to marked — and this continued for over a year while I tried a variety of things for pain,” she explains. “X-rays of his front legs showed some arthritis in his toes and a ‘titch’ of arthritis in his carpi, or wrists. Mojo was also sore when Dr. Karas pushed on his spine between his shoulder blades, which didn’t seem to bother him much until one day, when he was nine years old, he developed a severe bout of spinal pain.

Dr. Karas treated Mojo with medications, acupuncture, massage, and the like, and he felt better, but not better enough. “I finally made good on my resolve to take him to see my chiropractic colleague, and he never has been lame in the front since and that was two and a half years ago!” she says. Mojo continues to go in for “tune-ups” ever four to six weeks to keep pain at bay.

In hindsight, Dr. Karas wonders if Mojo subluxated, or strained his upper back, by trying to spare his arthritic feet more pain. Or perhaps it was simply that eight years of jumping from the family SUV finally took its toll. “I will never know, just as many people never realize the inciting cause of their own pain, but in hindsight, he had been refusing jumps in the show ring at about age seven or so, and this was odd because he loved that particular exercise, so maybe he never had sore feet at all — just a pain in the neck, so to speak,” says Dr. Karas.

Going forward

The stigma surrounding chiropractic will dissipate, Dr. Giggleman anticipates, as “more and more veterinarians take courses in animal chiropractic that are approved by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association and as more and more clients request this type of service for their animals.” Dr. Karas concurs. “Chiropractic care, in my mind, is one of several modalities that may actually fix pain, or reduce it, rather than simply medicating the patient to deal with the pain,” she says, pointing out that evidence is showing that humans do better managing their chronic pain when they do tai chi, yoga, physical therapy, and massage, in addition to studies on people showing the benefits of chiropractic adjustment.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Dr. Karas adds. “I think there is a great need for medications for many indications, but how nice if the pain just ceases to be a problem?” 

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