Animal Alignment: Chiropractic Care for Pets

by Tara Caimi for Pawsitively Pets magazine ~

When chiropractor Kevin McCarthy’s dog got hurt, he did what he knew how to do, a hands-on adjustment to align the bones and muscles and relieve the pressure on the animal’s nervous system. It was then that McCarthy realized his knowledge of human chiropractic care would take him only so far in the animal world. He enrolled in a certification program to become an animal chiropractor.

Chiropractic care is based on the principle that the body has an innate intelligence and can self heal with correct skeletal alignment and proper nervous system functioning. For the past year, McCarthy has been treating dogs, cats, horses, “and even one bunny” as a certified animal chiropractor in association with Metzgar Animal Hospital.

He splits his time between his chiropractic and applied kinesiology practice, Hands in Health, and his animal chiropractic work. Each Tuesday and Thursday evening, McCarthy makes the short walk from his office to Metzgar Animal Hospital, where he dons a new shirt as one of the Metzger crew and works on animals who need his expertise.

McCarthy can help animals recover after a surgical procedure or after an injury sustained in an accident. He also treats animals with arthritis, joint stiffness, and other chronic pain. “Usually within one or two visits you’ll be able to tell if chiropractic care is going to help your animal,” he says.

Chiropractic care can reduce the risk of injury in addition to aiding in recovery. Dave Smolensky, better known to his patients as “Dr. Dave,” had been a chiropractor for about nine years when some patients asked if he’d consider treating their animals. He looked into the option and earned his advanced certification through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) in 1996.

Smolensky now runs a full-time human chiropractic business and a full-time animal chiropractic business, Mars Family Chiropractic Center, just outside of Pittsburgh. Though Smolensky works on various animals, including birds, his primary clients are agility dogs. He admits these dogs are physically fit, but “they’re doing things the average dog normally wouldn’t do.” This makes them prime candidates for the type of care Smolensky offers.

He calls it wellness maintenance, and the frequency of care depends on the activity level of the animal. “Once you correct the problem, you should bring your pets in periodically from once every couple months to once a year because it’s preventative,” he says, likening the process to dentistry. “You don’t want to wait until you have a cavity to go get your teeth checked.”

Smolensky’s favorite work is with geriatrics. “It’s about improving their quality of life,” he says. “People are always shocked that the animals like it so much. They (animals) know the moment you put your hands on them that you are trying to help them. They are dragging their owners into the office by the second or third adjustment.”

One such case stands out in his mind. A couple had a 12-year-old Akita that couldn’t stand on its hind legs. They were going to have the dog euthanized when a friend suggested they contact “Dr. Dave.” During their visit, the owners held the dog’s back end up with a towel as Smolensky worked.

Several days later, the couple was scheduled to return for another appointment. When the woman entered the office alone, Smolensky thought they’d lost their dog. As he opened his mouth to ask the dreaded question, the door flew open, and in ran the Akita on all four legs. “It walked right up to me and turned around for its second treatment,” Smolensky says. “That dog lived for another full year.”

While veterinary medicine is the primary care when it comes to animals, chiropractic care can complement traditional medical practices. “It’s not chiropractic versus medicine; its chiropractic in addition to medicine,” says Smolensky.

McCarthy would agree, emphasizing that collaboration and teamwork are what make the process so effective. He says the types of conditions that can be treated with chiropractic care are numerous, but there are some cues that indicate an animal could benefit from a trip to the chiropractor.

“The most common identifier in a dog,” says Smolensky, “is the lazy sit—the dog that sits to one side rather than sitting square. Even in a puppy, this can indicate that their pelvis is already misaligned.”

The inability to go up stairs or a hill can indicate a lower back injury, according to Smolensky, while the inability to go down typically has to do with a neck problem. “When dogs are sidewinders—their front end is off to the side of their back end when they run—it’s an indication they are out of alignment.”

Another concern is an upward curvature in an animal’s spine. Barring certain dog breeds such as greyhounds and whippets, the average dog’s, cat’s, and even horse’s spine should be flat or slanted slightly downward.

“All these indicate a specific issue,” says Smolensky, pointing out that the most common cause of injury in small dogs is jumping down, and the second most common cause is jumping on hind legs. The third most common cause of injury is the way an owner picks a dog up, which can “pull the spine and rotate the rib cage out of place,” Smolensky says. “A lot of small dogs get snippy when they get older, but it’s because they’re in pain.”

While Smolensky promotes the benefits of animal chiropractic care, he emphasizes the importance of seeing someone properly trained. In order to become certified as an animal chiropractor, one must already be a licensed chiropractor or veterinarian. He recommends checking with the AVCA for an up-to-date list of certified animal chiropractors.

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