Acupuncture for animals: Veterinarian brings alternative medicine to mutts in Manitoba

When you step into Dr. Linda Hamilton's medical office in Winnipeg, you won't find any metal tables or white coats.

"This is the best treatment in the world because we hang out with our patients either on the couch or on the floor," says Hamilton.

That's because Hamilton is a veterinarian who provides alternative medicine services for animals.

That's right — it's acupuncture for animals, among other services.

Hamilton opened Natural Healing Veterinary Care in November of 2006. She is a Western-trained veterinarian but she has been interested in holistic medicine since 2002. 

She is Manitoba's first veterinarian to become certified in animal chiropractic and the first Manitoba veterinarian to gain certification as a canine rehabilitation therapist.

Treatments she provides include acupuncture, chiropractic, physiotherapy, tui na (a Chinese form of deep tissue massage) and TCM, or traditional Chinese medicine.

"The body has an amazing capacity to heal. We're getting back to the basics of science and anatomy," Hamilton explains. "People are wanting more from a natural perspective."

Hamilton — who worked as a veterinarian at Selkirk Animal Hospital for almost 20 years — initially did not believe in alternative medicine. In fact, she attended a veterinarians' conference several years ago about acupuncture so she could tell her clients that it was nonsense. Instead, she fell passionately in love with it. 

"Funny thing happened," Hamilton says. "The veterinarians giving the presentation approached it from a scientific point of view. I went from being a non-believer to being completely enthralled."

Acupuncturists insert small needles into various pressure points on the body to stimulate nerve activity, increase circulation, and relieve pain.

Hamilton says these techniques work the same on animals as they do on people. 

Veterinary acupuncture is used to treat several conditions, such as paresis (muscular weakness caused by nerve damage), hip dysplasia, arthritis, neurologic disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, paralysis and muscle injuries. 

In Western veterinary medicine, Hamilton says, doctors hit a brick wall — there's only so much it can do. 

"Acupuncture can go beyond that brick wall," Hamilton says. "I get patients who say that veterinarians have no other suggestions other than to put the dog to sleep or get a cart for the dog if it's paralyzed."

It's often at that point that patients will see Dr. Hamilton. And 80 to 85 per cent of the time, she says, the treatment will produce a good response.

"Acupuncture stimulates the body to heal itself," she says. "I don't like using the word 'cure,' I like to use the word 'heal.'"

Hamilton has thousands of patients and typically treats between eight and 10 animals on any given day. 

'A huge recovery'

Laura O'Byrne has been bringing her 11-year-old South African mastiff, Oxbow, to Hamilton for almost six months.

In August of 2016, Oxbow collapsed at O'Byrne's lake property in Riding Mountain from overexertion and was suddenly left with paralysis in his back end.

O'Byrne saw a total of three veterinarians, hoping they could help Oxbow. All three said the same thing — put Oxbow on bed rest. That's what she did for two months.

It was also recommended that Oxbow have an invasive surgery. After O'Byrne conducted further research, she found the surgery had a success rate of approximately 50 per cent.

"To me, that was absolutely ridiculous, given we hadn't had an MRI and we didn't know what we were dealing with," O'Byrne said.

"It was a best-guess scenario, and that wasn't okay with me. At that point, I decided to see Dr. Hamilton."

O'Byrne brought Oxbow to Hamilton in November of 2016 and by December, Oxbow was able to get up and walk without falling.

Hamilton has been performing acupuncture and tui na on Oxbow on a pulsed magnetic therapy bed.

"This bed stimulates the cells in the body to activate faster to get nutrition in and pump out the waste products, so it actually stimulates healing," Hamilton said.

O'Byrne couldn't be happier with the treatment. "Now, he's running, not just standing up, which is incredible," she says. "And he's a senior guy so for him, that's a huge recovery."

An initial hour-long visit with Hamilton, which includes acupuncture, chiropractic and physio-rehab treatment, costs $200 and followup half-hour visits are $110.

"Nowadays, people are spending thousands of dollars just on diagnostics tests, and I think an MRI costs two or three thousand," she says. "How I charge is by time — when the patients come in, I do whatever I have to do to help."

To skeptics, Hamilton says give it a try or talk to someone who has tried it.

"People have come in here saying they don't believe in it," she said. "I then treat their animals. Once those animals improve or heal, owners are left gobsmacked."

Acupuncture can also be used to treat elderly animals and those suffering from a terminal illness. In those situations, Hamilton is realistic and says she understands she can't save them all. 

"When I treat patients with cancer, I tell animal owners, 'I'm not curing cancer, I'm doing palliative care,'" she said. "What I'm focused on is helping them have the best quality of life while they're here."

'Always going to be doubters'

Not all veterinarians believe in acupuncture, but Hamilton encourages her fellow vets to consider alternative medicine, since surgery is not always an option and not everyone can get their animal to an MRI machine. The closest one for animals is in Saskatoon.

"With all due respect to my colleagues, why not give this a try? Maybe we can get these animals up and walking," Hamilton said.

"It's 40 years old to say that animals should be kept still for eight to 12 weeks. There has been no science behind that. We all know, if you don't use it, you lose it."

Hamilton is confident that, eventually, alternative medicine for animals will be commonplace.

"There is always going to be doubters," Hamilton said. "Once upon a time, we said the world was flat and everyone believed the world was flat, and guess what? The world isn't flat."