Q: As a chiropractor, how did you get into working with animals?
A: I became a chiropractor for humans 30 years ago and only discovered the invaluable benefits spinal manipulation offers animals in the last 5 years.
My husband and I volunteered to raise guide dog puppies in 2009. We have raised 5 puppies for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Our second puppy did not do a lot of the normal puppy things – jump up, try to get on furniture, counter surf. What a good dog – we thought! Until we saw she could not go up the stairs. We took her to the vet and discovered she had hip dysplasia. She was out of the guide program, so we adopted her knowing we had to get her hip surgery. While waiting for appointment with an orthopedic surgeon, a dog trainer asked me if I had tried chiropractic. Well no, I said, but I am one. Long story short – I saw such excellent improvement in her function and pain relief – I ended up back in school for 6 months of intensive training, with veterinarians and chiropractors. This culminated with a grueling board exam – written and skill tests.
At the time, I thought winning on American Idol may have been easier. Those of us who passed – and not all do – are certified in animal chiropractic. Because of the semantics in the legal systems – we can’t call ourselves “animal chiropractors.” We can only say we are certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.
Q: What kind of training do you have?
A: I’m a Doctor of Chiropractic, and I am certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA)
Q: What’s the major difference between veterinary spinal manipulative therapy and other forms of care?
A: To oversimplify it – the basic things we work on are joints of spine and extremities that are not working properly. When a joint is misaligned, it loses motion and position, and it may hurt the dog, horse, or human when you try to move it through its natural range of motion. With spinal joints, we may be only talking about less than a millimeter – it doesn’t take much to affect nerve function. Spinal manipulation helps restore the proper motion and in turn, function in the nervous system. There is a lot more going on in this scenario – neural transmission dysfunction, pain, adhesions, bio-mechanical abnormalities.
Q: How was chiropractic – Uh, sorry… I mean veterinary spinal manipulative therapy for animals developed?
A: A veterinarian, Dr. Sharon L. Willoughby had been in practicing for 13 years, and after having excellent results as a chiropractic patient, she was interested in how it would effect animals. Dr. Willoughby went back to school and graduated as a Doctor of Chiropractic in 1986, founded Options for Animals in 1985 and the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association in 1989. Dr. Willoughby developed the curriculum and format of the basic certification and advanced animal chiropractic programs. The education is offered i
Many veterinarians I have met who do veterinary manipulation are more excited about the results than some chiropractors I know. They love having veterinary manipulation in their toolbox and will try that as FIRST RESORT before prescribing drugs or surgery.
My referrals usually come from veterinarians who are frustrated that the traditional medical protocol has not helped their patient’s condition. Those who refer to me consistently know what kind of cases have responded the best.
As chiropractors, we don’t treat humans with sudden leg paralysis – they go immediately to surgery. However, many animal owners don’t have money for surgery, or the dog is not a surgical candidate because of age or other conditions. It is not uncommon to treat these kind of cases with veterinary manipulation, and sometimes the results are surprising, amazing and happy!
Q: Can any chiropractor or vet adjust and animal?
A:One needs to be certified and working with a licensed veterinarian to work on animals. Sometimes people try to get a “human chiropractor” or lay person to adjust their pets. The Board of Chiropractic in Florida defines chiropractic as “humans only.” It is why you will find that I avoid using the term “animal chiropractic” – according to state of Florida, there is no such practice.
While chiropractors are adept at adjusting the spine, an animal’s spinal anatomy and bio-mechanics are very different from a human’s. Each specie of animal has a different anatomy and it is important to learn the specific vertebral structure before treating.
Any veterinarian can “manipulate” a spine without any prior education, but I would want a vet who is well educated in the intricacies of spinal manipulation working on my dog. By going through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, you are assured the services of a skilled, dedicated professional who will work to provide the very safest care.
Q: What are the most common conditions you see?
A: Common conditions I see are pain from degenerative joint disease aka “arthritis”, injuries resulting from sports injuries, falls or trauma, neurological conditions, lameness, sudden back leg paresis, abnormal gait, change in behavior signifying pain, and conditions that your veterinarian has not had success in helping. Often these patients have been through every test and are coming out normal, when the dog or cat most definitely is not.
In horses – there are additional performance issues from a horse suddenly having difficultly in tight turns, collection or impulsion, short striding, reluctance to jump, go down hill, not tracking up, cold backed, problems with gait transitions, etc.
Yes, our animals can be stubborn – but when your horse or dog can’t manage a movement he used to perform, it isn’t necessarily because they are lazy,ornery or stubborn. If there is a change to a well adapted task – even change in personality – the animal is saying, “I hurt, I can’t do that anymore.”
Q: How do you know that your treatment works on animals? The animals can’t talk.
A: There is always the concern about the placebo effect in humans which is a very real phenomenon – it is how they do drug testing. The patient believes the sugar pill was real medicine and gets well.
The fact that animals can’t talk with words is true – but they don’t fake symptoms, and they don’t lie to you just to be nice. They don’t talk themselves into thinking they feel better, and the animals don’t have to “believe” in therapies like chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathic remedies to get results.
Q: How do you know if it is a problem that can be helped with veterinary spinal manipulation?
A: From the case history, my observations of gait, posture and demeanor, and from my examination of ranges of motions, neurological test, and palpation, I can assess if it is a case I can take. I often recommend that you return to your vet for further testing, or additional services ranging from medicine, dietary advise, to surgical consults. the case of the horse, see the farrier or equine dentist.
Many times I am the last resort – everything has been tested – x-rays, nuclear scans, saddle fit and feet are good and nothing shows up! Misalignments don’t show up in traditional tests – their effects do. If I take these last resort cases, I am often not certain that treatment will help, and I tell the owners that. I let them know that with the gentle care I provide – the worst that can happen is they will feel no better. However, these cases are often the miraculous ones that amaze me with the animal’s resilience and ability to heal.
I usually tell people they should see some glimmer of positive improvement in their animal even after one adjustment. That doesn’t mean a complete resolution of the problem in one treatment although it’s happened. Most cases need follow up care to help heal. If there is no improvement after two or three treatments – provided you tried prescribed rest and recommendations – it is usually time to try something else.
Q:How do I know my animal is in pain? He still runs for breakfast, wags his tail.
A: That is a good question. I had a dog that I thought was just showing signs of old age. He would hide under the bed all day. I had to coax him out with hot dogs, but once he came out from hiding, he was happy and ate, did his business, and yes, wagged his tail. I realize now that he was in pain and with the help of medication and alternative care – I could have made his last months more comfortable. It’s in the genetics of an animal to hide pain because it would make them vulnerable in the wild and potentially lunch for a predator. Pain is not a priority for an animal – staying upright and alive is.
One of the first lessons horse handlers learn is to pick the feet – we know – no foot, no horse. But what about his back, head, ribs? Besides the spinal alignment work I do, I spend time teaching my dog and horse owners how to check their animals body for areas that need to be watched or an apparent problem that needs addressed. Sometimes the signs are subtle – other times your dog or horse will give you the stink eye, or more be more expressive when you touch where it hurts. I work to teach you to recognize the signs that indicate neurological deficits and/or the places where your animal is hurting or has lost range of motion. This awareness helps while working with your vet or other practitioners.
Q: Can a pet come see you if there is nothing wrong?
A: Like human athletes who get alignment and bodywork to keep in optimum shape, I provide a “tune up” service for performance dogs and horses a few days before events. It is common to see a dog who “hit a bar” or “missed weaves” at his last agility trial or practice. They may not be lame or exhibiting pain, but something is limiting his performance.
Injury happens when the body is fatigued. This is true in human and animal athletes.Animals need to be well conditioned and in their best form for their sport just like people.
Other owners swear by “maintenance care” and have their animals checked every 4 – 6 weeks. When questioned why they come when their animal is NOT hurting, the typical reply sounds like this: “She just does better and hasn’t had any more chronic back pain episodes like she used to.”
Getting a healthy pet’s spine checked just a few times a year can greatly reduce conditions that are viewed as “normal old age” such as slowing down, not going up and down stairs, and arthritis – which are definitely not normal.
Q: Do patients need a referral from their vet in order to see bring their dog to see you? Do veterinarians refer animals to you?
A: There are a number of veterinarians I work with closely who have learned to recognize what kind of cases veterinary manipulation can help and refer to me regularly. Patients however don’t have to have a direct referral, but they can request their veterinarian give permission to consult me.
In keeping with Florida law – I require owners to get authorization (New Patient Form) from their veterinarian before seeing their animal. It is usually a very simple procedure if your animal has a primary veterinarian. When you call our office 850 479-2700 There are different laws in every state but it is important to remember that animal chiropractic does not replace veterinary medicine – it however works very well alongside it.
Q: What should animal owners expect when they make an appointment with an animal chiropractor?
A: In my practice, they will be asked to get permission from their vet to consult me. During the first visit, the patient’s health history is discussed. Any imaging and treatment records from their veterinarian or specialist may also be looked at, especially if they involve the pet’s current condition. Neurological tests, stance and gait analysis, and motion and static palpation may be performed. From the evaluation, if it looks like I may be able to help, the animal is adjusted, and I give the owner home care instructions.
Q: What is the adjusting tool you use?
A: Chiropractors who treat humans can do manual adjusting or instrument adjusting. My husband and I use Activator Methods on humans because it is more specific, less force, great for treating injuries, post surgeries, and patients in a lot of pain.
The activator is a metal tool containing a extremely fast moving internal piece that does the adjusting. It makes a clicking sound which some clicker trained dogs love, but some are spooked by it. I use both manual and activator adjusting as needed. On horses – even though the tool causes a reflexive motion that results in reflexive relaxation of the muscles around the joint, it is important to use the hands on some parts of the horse.
If your veterinarian thinks a Class IV Laser can help your animal and doesn’t have the equipment, I will use laser on animals to promote pain relief and tissue healing. Generally, I send you back to your veterinarian for laser treatment and acupuncture if it’s available – and I do the spinal manipulation.
Q: How long do appointments take?
A: The first visit takes approximately 30-45 minutes. Follow up visits take approximately 20 minutes.
Q: How many visits will it take?
A: Depends on your animal’s condition. If there is no improvement after two to three treatments – provided you tried prescribed rest and recommendations – it is usually time to try something else.
Q: I’ve heard that once you start going to a chiropractor, you have to go all the time.
A: The truth is – people often need multiple adjustments at first especially if they have been in an accident. Once your alignment is correct, than you can go only as often as you want or need. The best plan is what works for you.
I try to teach animal owners the signs animals show indicating they need to get care. Once they know what their animal’s behavior is like when in alignment – they are aware when the animal needs a tune up.
Q: Do animals mind being adjusted? Will it hurt?
A: The gentle manipulation I do is not painful. If an animal has pain that is severe enough that I can’t examine them, I will usually send them back to the veterinarian for pain management. Once their pain is manageable I can assess them and begin treatment.
If a dog is in intractable pain, the veterinarian will administer a mild, short lasting anesthetic in office so that the animal can be treated.
I get a kick out of how tickled owners are that their dog seems so eager to come back to the office after the first or second visit. Often animals are a bit nervous on the first visit – which is normal behavior. They are in pain and often associate going to the vet with injections. However, with a follow up visit, the animals are excited to see me. I like to think it is because I serve good cookies! Their owners think that they begin to associate feeling better with visiting me, so they are eager to come back.
Q: How long does my animal need to rest?
A: I advise most owners to let their animal rest the remainder of the day after treatment. It is important to restrict your animal’s activity post treatment because animals sometimes get a surge of energy or feel good enough to want to play or run full out. Their soft tissue has not healed and they are very vulnerable to re injury. Each case if different and depending on your pet’s condition I will offer different recommendations.
Q: How does a petite woman like you adjust a 1,200 lb horse?
A: As I was being trained to work on animals – being only 5’3 – I was initially intimidated about working with horses. I trained with a fabulous local trainer and horse woman, Mirka Hermanova Crew at Equine Foundations by Mirka on natural horse handling in order to get comfortable working and reading these beautiful creatures. Nevertheless, I was initially concerned I was not big or strong enough especially compared to men in my profession.
It is actually easier for me to adjust a horse than a muscular 250 lb man because of the horse’s bio-mechanical design. The horse’s structure is similar to a suspension bridge – that is what allows a thousand or more pounds to stand on top of four comparatively small legs and feet. The “cable” is the ligament running along his back transfers the weight to the legs. Unlike us, no muscles are needed to support the horses standing weight – other than the triceps. Therefore, no muscles are contracted when horse is standing still, so there are no muscles to work against vertebral adjustment. Even the head is connected to the main cable by the nuchal ligament; it takes muscular effort to put his head down – not hold it up. Knowing the anatomy of the articulating facets and the vectors, line of corrections – even though a horse may weigh 10 times as much as a human – it does not take 10 times as much force to adjust a horse. It actually takes less. Some uncertified people don’t understand this and may apply too much force. When seeking someone to work on your horse, go with a trained professional certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.
Q: What’s the strangest animal you’ve ever adjusted?
A: I mostly adjust dogs, horses and a few special cats that veterinarians sent me. I once helped a colleague adjust a squealing pot belly pig that had been in a car accident. He wasn’t driving.
After my very first week of classes learning veterinary manipulation, I adjusted my son’s chicken and that was only because his cat ran away too fast to catch! The hen had not laid any eggs before I worked on her. Was it a coincidence that she laid her first egg a week later?
Recently a vet called me in to work on a bearded dragon lizard that was lame. It took some creativity to work on her itty bitty spine. There was no immediate change in her lameness but the vet and owner were delighted that the lizard went from dark brown to brilliant colors as I worked on her – an indication of a happy, oxygenated lizard they said.
Q: Do you have any favorite success stories?
A: I have had some happy one treatment “miracle”surprises. I can’t count the times I didn’t see an animal but once and assumed I didn’t help them because they never returned for follow up care. Many I have thought they were put to sleep. Sometimes months or even years later I will learn from a friend they referred that I helped their dog so much – they sent them to me – hoping I can do the same.
Some people call our success stories “miracles,” but the real “magic” is about removing interference in the nervous system and allowing the body to heal itself! So, the body’s very own healing potential is what causes these “miracles.”
Success comes in various forms! Early in my practice I treated a little old man terrier that was having difficulty jumping up on the couch, was slow to rise, and grouchy. After treatment the owner took him out to take care of business. His wife was watching out the office window at them and suddenly cried out, “OH MY GOSH!” I was afraid something dreadful had happened outside until she said, ” That is the first time he has been able to lift his leg to pee in a year!”
I recently treated a dog at the animal hospital that had posterior paresis (hind paralysis) and the veterinarian called me in because she was discouraged that the dog had been on prednisone and crate rest for a while but still presented in pain. I treated the dog twice and saw no change. The morning after the third treatment, the vet tech opened the kennel and that hound didn’t walk out, she sprinted out.
Stories like this bring me so much joy and keep me doing what I do for our critters. I am always astounded, thrilled and grateful – maybe more than the owners, when patients respond so dramatically.
I had an owner come in a saying she would put the dog down the following day if my treatment didn’t get him to walk. No pressure! I really had little hope that I had helped him. We carried him out to the car and I whispered, ” Goodbye sweet boy.” I remembered how he looked at me for the last time and was filled with sadness for days. Six weeks later the owner called to make a follow up appointment. What? I thought he had passed! I had the privilege of helping this senior boy have real quality of life in his last year, month and day.