BRATTLEBORO—Humans are no longer the only ones who have health care options beyond the allopathic approach. A number of options exist for the four-legged set utilizing so-called “alternative” modalities such as massage and acupuncture.
In the last year, two new practitioners, Dr. Amy Plavin and Megan MacArthur Littlehales, have brought their services to help dogs, cats, and farm animals in the Brattleboro area live longer and more comfortably, often in combination with Western veterinary medicine.
In mid-November, Plavin opened her Brattleboro practice, Hemlock Ridge Integrative Veterinary Care.
In a news release, Plavin explained the “integrative” aspect of her profession. “[It] refers to my approach of viewing an animal in its entirety, rather than focusing only on a set of problems or signs and symptoms. I use conventional medical therapies — pharmaceuticals and surgical modalities — or complementary therapies like acupuncture, nutritional therapy, chiropractic, herbs. And sometimes, I use both."
Although Plavin is a newcomer to Brattleboro, veterinary medicine has been a part of her life for decades. She graduated from veterinary school in 1989, worked in Norwich for awhile, and in 1998, opened her own practice in Montague, Mass.
Plavin moved to Bellows Falls in 2008, and after six years of a long commute, she decided to work closer to home. So she sold the Montague practice and looked around for a community she thought would support her veterinary approach. Plavin chose Brattleboro.
Her interest in holistic medicine began when she was fresh out of vet school, Plavin told The Commons.
“I got increasingly frustrated with treating all these sick animals, and there was nothing I could do,” Plavin said, noting veterinary medicine offered few solutions for certain chronic illnesses, and trained vets simply to prepare owners for their animals’ deaths.
Seeking a way to extend and improve an animal’s quality of life, even with a chronic illness diagnosis like cancer, Plavin earned certificates in herbal medicine, spinal manipulation therapy (which Plavin said lay-people call chiropractic therapy), and acupuncture.
She continues her education, she said, by attending holistic health conferences and learning more about Eastern and Western herbs. “It’s a continual learning process,” she said.
Now, “I have all this information in my head, I can’t keep it to myself,” she said.
She said the integrative approach helps many animals, especially older animals, or those with agility issues, like dogs and performance horses. These two animals, and cats, constitute most of Plavin’s patient base.
“I will do everything I can to relieve an animal from pain or illness. At the same time, our overall goal at the clinic is disease prevention,” Plavin wrote in a news release.
An example Plavin gave of her approach to integrative medicine is how she uses vaccines.
“Vaccines are good,” she said, “and I give them on a case-by-case basis,” rather than giving an animal an automatic round of boosters every year. She said veterinary medicine is finally catching up and utilizing titers — indicators in the blood that a vaccination’s antibody is present to a therapeutic level.
“Many vaccines last longer than three years,” she said.
One of Plavin’s specialties is chronic illnesses, such as kidney disease and cancer.
She said she has a particular interest in the latter, and in her oncology practice, Plavin treats animals receiving chemotherapy from other vets by administering a combination of herbs, nutrition, and supplements.
“I’ll never throw Western medicine away,” Plavin said, stressing her practice is integrative. She offered her own dog, who has cancer, as an example.
“My own dog is on two drugs — and piles of supplements,” she said.
Littlehales, whose Marlboro-based practice is called “Lady Moon Healing Hands,” offers therapeutic and sports massage and Reiki to dogs, especially athletic or elderly canines, or those recovering from illness or surgery. Littlehales said these practices also contribute to the animals’ general health and well-being.
She began practicing this past year after earning her certification from the Rocky Mountain School for Animal Acupressure and Massage. “I’m now wrapping up the final level of my education, and then I’m headed for more senior animal massage training,” Littlehales told The Commons.
Littlehales said she has been “a huge animal lover” since she was a child.
“I always had a dog, guinea pigs, a horse, rabbits,” she said.
Then, as an adult, “reality set in: a mortgage, bills. So, I sold my horse and did other things.”
One of those other things was working with Nurse Linda Rice at the Marlboro College Health Center for over a decade.
Although Littlehales said she enjoyed working there, she “was really getting anxious to do something different, so I reverted back to what I’ve always loved. I love working with my hands, and I really love animals."
So, she began Reiki training for humans and canines, and massage therapy training for dogs.
Although her primary massage focus is on dogs, Littlehales also works on a few cats. When asked what other animals she has treated, Littlehales said she has performed Reiki on horses, sheep, and chickens, a mountain lion in a wildlife rescue preserve, and a two-foot-long bald python with an upper respiratory infection.
While she loves horses, she doesn’t massage them “because it’s too hard on my body."
While Littlehales said she has seen the positive effects her therapy has on animals, she is clear that these modalities are complementary to veterinary care.
Sometimes her work is applied when a pet is recovering from surgery.
She gave the example of a dog that had a tumor removed from its leg and began walking to favor the other three to avoid putting pressure on the injured leg. Littlehales’ work involved breaking up the scar tissue on the adhesions so the dog could walk more comfortably on all fours again.
Some of Littlehales’ work may not have obvious medical solutions, such as animals she treats who have separation anxiety and other behavioral challenges. Littlehales said one of the rewards of her work is when she helps an animal “reconnect with her inner trust and safety, and find calmness,” especially for rescue dogs who may need help integrating into their “forever homes."
When asked about the challenges of working with a being that cannot communicate their ills the same way a human can, Littlehales shared her strategies.
An important technique Littlehales uses to build trust with her patients is a simple one: she visits the animals in their homes.
Then, “I start with the guardian,” she said, noting she listens carefully to what the person has to say about what’s wrong with their animal companion. She often consults with the animal’s veterinarian “about tricky things and contraindications."
Sometimes, Littlehales said, establishing trust with the patient takes awhile.
“Who are you and why are you touching me?” is the message she may get in the beginning of a therapeutic relationship. “Sometimes you have to stop and come back, or start with chit-chat with the guardian until the animal gets to know you,” she said, noting one dog required five visits before it would lie down and receive massage from Littlehales.
Littlehales also watches how the animals move before she begins working on them.
“One of the blessed things is having good animal communication skills,” Littlehales said, mentioning she looks for physical cues in the animals, such as stiffness in movement, panting and other changes in breathing, and what is happening with their eyes.
“It’s a skill to be able to understand what they’re telling you,” she said.