When Ann Dey’s dog had a stroke in July, one side of his face became paralyzed so severely he couldn’t blink. She knew she needed to do something before the 13-year-old pug, Jimmy, lost his eye to infection.
“I was open to anything that would help,” Dey said.
At Pets Unlimited, a nonprofit animal hospital that was opening the city’s first all-holistic veterinary medical clinic on Monday, Jimmy received acupuncture for a month. Now, his face is fine.
As alternative approaches like acupuncture and herbal remedies have moved further into the mainstream for humans, veterinarians have made those same techniques increasingly available for pets.
Animal care officials say pet owners have been convinced by their own positive experiences that their pets should also enjoy the benefits of alternative techniques.
“Seeing is believing,” said Sally Wortman, Pets Unlimited’s hospital administrator, standing near a row of scented candles on the new clinic’s reception desk.
A Japanese fountain, soft lights and walls painted in soothing tones of sage, ochre and salmon augment the calming atmosphere of the clinic, which is one floor down from the city’s only 24-hour-a-day emergency room for pets.
The renovations have a therapeutic effect on pets, Wortman said, but added that it was just as important to create a setting where owners also feel relaxed.
“The practitioner can only help the animal through the person,” she said.
Still, the push for the new treatments — also known as holistic or complementary medicine — has not come so much from vets, whose medical training is still steeped in the rigors of the Western scientific tradition.
“It’s been more consumer-driven,” said Joe O’Hehir, executive director of Pets Unlimited.
Marilyn Chartrand of Alameda is one of those consumers.
“I do holistic things for my body. So I thought, how exciting that they’re doing this for animals,” said Chartrand, who adopted a cat from Pets Unlimited.
Chartrand said she treats her cat with aromatherapy when she gets sick, offering her different scents to inhale. “She knows which ones her system needs,” Chartrand said.
That holistic medicine for animals would catch on in San Francisco, which also ushered in the no-kill movement in animal shelters in the 1990s, comes as little surprise. But the field is spreading.
The Maryland-based American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association claims more than 800 members from Florida to Alaska. Chartrand learned about an alternative treatment called therapeutic touch from her sister, a veterinarian who uses the technique on horses in Kansas.
Still, despite broadening acceptance, alternative medicine for animals faces continued skepticism. The American Veterinary Medical Association said in recent guidelines on alternative medical techniques for animals that the organization is “open to their consideration.”
But it stressed that the quality of research into different methods varies, saying some practices “may differ from current scientific knowledge.”
Beth Schneider, an animal acupuncturist for Pets Unlimited, said one positive experience with alternative techniques can be enough to convince doubters.
“They see how beneficial it is to the animal,” she said. “And they want to start going to acupuncturists themselves.”