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Acupuncturists Bring Pain Relief to Pets

MANHATTAN — One of acupuncturist Dr. Jeffrey Levy's favorite patients walks with the assistance of a specially crafted wheelchair that rolls behind him to help him go long distances.

Named Beau Bakal, the brave little guy has needles put in his ears, hips and shoulders up to once a week. At the ripe age of 13, Beau suffers from an undefined problem with his spinal cord, which the doctor suspects is orthopedic. The acupuncturist claims his pricks help ease his pain.

Although he's a very expressive flower-sniffer and animal-chaser, Beau couldn't tell you about the procedure.

His doctor is a licensed veterinarian and Beau — well, Beau is a dog.

The Upper West Side Boston Terrier is one of the city's hundreds of animals seen over the last few years by Levy, who has devoted his practice exclusively to the homeopathic treatment of New York's dogs, cats and even tiny birds.

A few acupuncture points highlighted on a dog.
A few acupuncture points highlighted on a dog.
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DNAinfo/Dora Sinha

"He just grabs your heart when you meet him," Levy said about Beau, who greeted him with a slobbery kiss as he scurried along on his wheels before a session last Wednesday. "He's the best little spirit you'll ever meet with a wagging tail."

Levy, who is the official veterinary acupuncturist of the International Cat Show and an official veterinarian of the Westminster Kennel Club Show, said he loves working on his feline and canine patients.

He feels it's his life's mission to treat animals like Beau holistically with acupuncture, or the "harmonization of the body's own energy flow and balance, or chi."

"After a number of years in practice I realized that I can do wonderful things in traditional medicine, but I'm doing acupuncture because there's something here that fulfills my quest to provide even more services for cats and dogs," Levy said.

He added that acupuncture is so rewarding because it works as a painkiller on a neurological level, rather than on a pharmalogical one.

"It's based on constructs that take on a sort of different world view," he added.

It's a good thing he enjoys it, because he sees his patients a lot. Amid the city's surging demand for holistic pet care — which includes acupuncture, Chinese medicine and herbal supplements and chiropractic care —  demand for Levy's services have risen by 15 to 20 percent in the past year alone.

The well-referred doctor sees up to eight pet patients a day in specialized home-care visits that cost up to $185 for the first session. The price includes a vet's examination and a treatment that's tailored to the pet's individual needs and personality.

Although the practice may seem odd to onlookers, Levy insists that his patients and their owners are usually less dubious than expected.

"They're not as surprised as you may think," Levy explained before a recent session. "Many of my clients already know what they're looking for when the call me. Plus they tend to be sophisticated and well-read."

Dr. Levy isn't the only one who's noticed an upsurge in pets salivating over the ancient Chinese therapy that requires poking needles into different areas of the body in order to increase blood flow and improve the body's various elements, including heat, fire, wind and dampness.

Pup and cat owners at Dogster.com, Organic Pet Digest and other animal social networks and blogs have also crowed over their acupuncture treatments, administered for symptoms ranging from arthritis to incontinence.

"I always thought acupuncture was total nonsense. A friend said she had her dog on it and my immediate response was that she was nuts," the owner of a dog named "Byron" testified on Dogster.

The owner had a change of heart, however, when she saw positive reactions from putting her dog on a raw diet. After seeing a change in her dog's health from one form of holistic medicine, she decided to give acupuncture a try for Byron's arthritis. 

"He showed improvement after the first treatment," the post added. "By the third treatment he could jump around and play with his much-younger buddy. He'll never be a puppy again, which is fine, but he seems to be pain-free now."

Beau goes into an almost meditative state after an acupuncture session.
Beau goes into an almost meditative state after an acupuncture session.
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DNAinfo/Della Hasselle

Even some non-holistic vets send their own pets to see acupuncturists, in the hopes that there's something to the practice.

The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society and the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture, a trade association, list hundreds of trained veterinary acupuncturists that practice in the state of New York. Although the IVAS has been around since 1974, The American Veterinary Medical Association still does not recognize the practice as one the 30 medical services  mentioned on its website.

Many vets have expressed concern over the practice — not because it's harmful, but because it could be a very expensive placebo.

"There are many explanations for how a placebo-like effect might be explained in animals," said David Ramney in a Science-Based Medicine journal post on acupuncture and veterinary medicine.

"Take an 'alternative' example, it has been shown that a single acupuncture treatment is as effective as petting a horse, when it comes to relief of signs of chronic airway disease; that is, there’s no demonstrable effect of acupuncture beyond simple handling."

But even if acupuncture can't replace Western medicine, it's still worth a try, according to Dr. Amy Attas, a licensed vet in New York who sent her dog to Dr. Levy.

"From my point of view there are a lot of conditions where acupuncture enhances therapy," she said. "It probably didn't make his problem a ton better, but you could see how much better he felt after."

Beau's owner couldn't agree more.

"He's an amazing dog, and I'd do anything for him," pianist and dog-lover Shirley Bakal said.

"He has to have his acupuncture," she added. "It keeps up his spirits and his will to live."