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Veterinarian Patti Prato sits with her Burmese mountain dog, Polly, recently in the Four Paws Veterinary Clinic. The new animal care facility in Missoula offers acupuncture and chiropractic treatment for animals.
GRETA MARTINSON/Missoulian

New Missoula veterinary clinic offers acupuncture for ailing canines

Polly, a 12-year-old Burmese mountain dog, lay sprawled across a soft mat, content and seemingly oblivious to the needles sticking out of her body.

The large brown, black and white canine belongs to Patti Prato. But Polly is also a patient of Prato, a Missoula veterinarian who offers both acupuncture and chiropractic care for dogs at the practice she shares with Bill Duncan.

Prato has had Polly since she was 12 weeks old and initially sought specialized training in acupuncture and chiropractic care to be able to give her dog and others additional comfort.

"That's why I learned," she said. "I wanted to have another tool."

The acupuncture she's been doing for about four years now represents about half of Prato's practice and about 25 percent of the business at Four Paws Veterinary Clinic, which opened Dec. 29 on Connery Way.

Acupuncture has existed in Far East for thousands of years, but it's only been in the last 25 years or so that it's been used in the United States, with mixed results. It involves placing short, hair-thin needles above a variety of pressure points in the skin. It's been used in humans for an endless list of maladies, but in dogs the needles are placed around injured or arthritic joints or are sometimes used after surgery.

"A lot of times it will be when they're arthritic and can't take any pain medication," said Prato.

Some studies indicate that during acupuncture a potent pain suppressant - beta endorphin - is released, producing a "runner's high" much like what occurs during strenuous exercise.

Western scientists have determined that the acupoints mark the locations of "microtubles" beneath the skin, which house tiny nerves and blood vessels, according to Wellpet, an Internet forum for natural pet care.

"Inserting a needle through the skin near any of these tubules, stimulates a sensory nerve ending, causing amazing things to happen that stop pain and/or promote healing," according to the site.

The American Veterinary Association has taken acupuncture off its "experimental" list of treatments and placed it on its "alternative" list, giving the procedure more credibility, but some veternarians say more study needs to be done on its effectiveness. Prato herself said it's hard to quantify the results of the treatment.

"It's think it hard to know how successful it is," she said.

Initially dogs can be nervous about such attention and the vet's surroundings, but the treatment doesn't hurt most canines.

"The first time can be hard for them," Prato said. "Certain dogs feel it a little more. A lot of the dogs that come in regularly will just plop down and wait. They like it."

Most dog owners who have brought their animals to Prato also seek alternative health measures for themselves and are inclined to give the same measures to their pets.

She sees mostly older canines - cats don't tolerate the procedure very well - but although younger dogs are a little more difficult to handle, Prato said she could do them more good.

"I never like it when you're their last resort," she said. "It makes success difficult. If muscles are all atrophied it's hard to make a difference. Š When they're at that point they're weeks away from euthanizing their animal."

"When you want to see them is at the point before their legs are shaking," said Prato. "Not that you can't make a difference in those dogs, but you can make a more reliable difference if they're just starting to get a little older and they're slowing down."

She said alternative treatments often are part of an owner dealing with pets' end-of-life issues.

At a cost of $40 a session, acupuncture sometimes is recommended weekly for a month although an injured rather than a debilitated dog may improve quicker.

"Sometimes the dogs don't respond right away," said Prato, who worked at the Central Pet Clinic for the last four years. "Most people notice some change after the first session. Sometimes their appetite is better. They're getting along better with the other dogs, something that shows that they're feeling better."

Sessions often are combined with some chiropractic adjustment, a benefit to most dogs, she said. The treatment costs $15 a session, but also usually is accompanied by an initial examination fee.

"These dogs get really rigid," she said about candidates for canine chiropractic, which she's doing for about a year. "It's not like they'll have their backs completely out, but when you go to manipulate them you'll find they're really rigid. They've got some fixation of their joints and there isn't much mobility."

Most chiropractic care is referred by other vets and often is done on performance animals such as Labrador retrievers, whose ailments are likely to be immediately noticed by their owners.

"The owners are so in tune with their dogs that they just pick up all the fine nuances," said Prato. "Those dogs respond well. One adjustment and often they improve."

"Acupuncture and chiropractic care has really enriched my life," she said. "I meet the cream of the crop, people who would do anything for their animals. In a profession where often you have to deal with people who won't take care of their animals, it's nice."

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