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Aromatherapy for dogs

Amy Williams Delong conducts a dog aromatherapy session with her client, Julie Northenscole, and her dog, Izzy. The dog will select the scent he likes, and she'll mix a fragrance for him. 

Brinks wasn’t eating. Although green beans are among his favorite foods, he turned his nose up at two bowls of them placed around the Minnetonka, Minn., house where the yellow Lab lives.

To help, canine massage therapist Heidi Hesse rubbed Brinks in a specific spot on his ankle, an acupressure point, to soothe his lower back, bladder and kidneys. After an hour of massage with Hesse, Brinks regained his appetite and chowed down on a bowl of the veggies.

Massage is just one of a growing body of alternative therapies that Mary Kelley and Mark Falstad, Brinks’ owners, employ to ease the 10-year-old dog’s stiff joints, jump-start his appetite, and soothe his ailing liver. Acupuncture is another.

As people increasingly take a holistic approach to their health, they’re also looking to alternatives to conventional medical care for their nonhuman family members. That’s why a new breed of wellness services for dogs — ranging from chiropractic and aromatherapy to Chinese herbs and psychic communication — is springing up across the country.

“It stems from human stuff,” said Dr. Cathy Sinning of Lake Harriet Veterinary in Minneapolis. “There’s more mainstreaming now because of people learning how it can help themselves.”

When Sinning and her husband, Jim, began practicing in south Minneapolis 20 years ago, they were among the few veterinarians in the area integrating chiropractic and herbal medicine into standard care. These days, Sinning said, “most clinics have someone on staff doing acupuncture.”

Courses for veterinarians to learn additional “modalities” have been booming over the past 15 years, said Dr. Barbara Hodges, a holistic veterinarian and veterinary adviser for the California-based Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

Hodges doesn’t view the interest in alternative therapies as a rejection of traditional veterinarian medicine, just a complement to it.

“It’s simply enlarging your horizons and the array of things you can offer to your patients,” she said.

For example, a drug that can help a dog with an ailment might also cause serious side effects, so some vets might recommend an herbal remedy or a diet-and-exercise plan to mitigate those effects.

Practitioners say alternative treatments can improve circulation or digestion, ease muscle and joint pain, help animals recover from injury or surgery, and calm a host of behavioral issues.

Amy Williams DeLong, a certified aromatherapist who specializes in working with animals, says aromatherapy can provide all of those benefits. Oils of herbs and roots that are known to ease pain travel by scent, and in a dog “are absorbed into the brain and bloodstream in less than a second,” she said.

At a recent appointment, DeLong let 8 1/2-year-old German shepherd Izzy sniff a canvas tote filled with small bottles of essential oils. Izzy seemed to choose cinnamon and ginger by repeatedly licking the caps of the bottles. DeLong said those scents indicated that Izzy wanted a “warming” fragrance to help with circulation.

Izzy’s owner, Julie Northenscold, was looking for something to alleviate her dog’s arthritis.

On DeLong’s instructions, Northenscold sprays a custom scent in her home or rubs it into her hands and then onto Izzy’s coat. Northenscold said that the scents have proved more effective than other medicines.

Training and certification for holistic pet practitioners vary widely. Some are veterinarians, such as animal acupuncturists, who in Minnesota are required to have a veterinary degree. Pet massage therapists don’t need any certification in Minnesota. But Hesse, Brinks’ massage therapist, trained at the Chicago School of Canine Massage. Her work requires a deep understanding of dog anatomy, she said.

Still, most practitioners caution pet owners to work with trained professionals and not to try DIY remedies found on the internet.

In addition to more familiar treatments, there are other, less common pet care methods available.

For instance, with animal communicator Lena Swanson, people describe their pets during a phone call and explain their concerns. Swanson places them on hold while she communicates telepathically with the animal. She charges $2.75 per minute for her services (lenaswanson.com).

“It sounds so outlandish,” Swanson said, but she said she believes that animal communication is an important skill many people can learn to tap into.

“A lot of people don’t hear words; they just get a gut sense of knowing what animals say,” Swanson said. “It’s the hardest thing to trust.”

Not all pets come to holistic care through their owners; sometimes it works the other way.

After seeing the reviving effects of acupuncture and massage on Brinks, Kelley and Falstad are considering trying it themselves. Kelley has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair to get around (Brinks is her service dog).

Meanwhile, they’ll continue to give their pets every option they can to live comfortably, from mainstream veterinary medicine to the hands-on healing that practitioners such as Hesse offer.

“People might think this is frivolous, but they’re a part of our family,” Kelley said. “They’ve given us so much. We can give something back.”

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