A short, fat, brown dog was panting heavily in the examining room of the animal clinic. Her owner was with her. Fine stainless steel needles punctured the dog’s skin, yet the dog didn’t try to remove them. She made no attempt to bite the slightly-built, brown-haired veterinarian in charge. She was as unconcerned as any dog could be in a veterinarian’s office.
Dinga the corgi was being given an acupuncture treatment by one of Austin’s few holistic veterinarians, Kathryn Van Winkle, DVM.
Holistic medicine is the umbrella term for a number of forms of medicine that focus on strengthening the body’s own defenses, rather than on fighting specific diseases.
Acupuncture treatments, such as the 6 year-old Dinga was receiving, are only one type of alternative medicine that Van Winkle, 45, performs. She also treats patients using Chinese herbs, chiropractic care, and homeopathic medicine. She is a member of the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, an American association founded in 1974 with approximately 1400 members.
Dinga’s acupuncture treatments were administered according to the belief that there is a life force called the Qi (pronounced chee) that runs throughout the body. The tenets of acupuncture hold that the body’s internal organs can be stimulated through manipulation of different points on the skin. The needles are just one way to stimulate these points. The needles can be left in anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes.
For the corgi Dinga, the needles were stimulating Dinga’s Qi for about two minutes. Van Winkle was treating Dinga for complications she had with a sedative the previous week.
A decade ago, Van Winkle wouldn’t have been performing this acupuncture treatment on a dog such as Dinga. While she has been a licensed veterinarian since her graduation from Texas A&M in 1978, Van Winkle has only been practicing holistic veterinary medicine for the last five years.
Van Winkle started her holistic medical career with the study of acupuncture. Two friends had strongly urged her to study the field. She doesn’t credit any specific turning point in her decision to study holistic medicine. Her practice includes dogs, cats and horses. The small animals come to her clinic, but she makes barn calls for horses.
Van Winkle has gradually integrated the holistic medicine into her traditional veterinary practice. Van Winkle said that none of her clients from before she started working with holistic medicine have fled in terror. She said that she always gives patients the option of receiving either western or non-western medicine.
Apart from her training in acupuncture, Van Winkle is certified by the American Veterinary and Chiropractic Association. The association, founded in 1988, lists approximately 800 doctors in various stages of chiropractic training. Chiropractic care is a medical therapy promoting the idea that proper spinal alignment is the key to proper health.
Homeopathic medicine is also one of Van Winkle’s specialties. Homeopathic medicines are plant extracts that been shaken and precisely diluted. Van Winkle said that because homeopathy is poorly understood by the general public, that she seldom uses the therapy in her practice.
While it may appear that Van Winkle practices every form of holistic medicine, she doesn’t. Van Winkle doesn’t practice aromatherapy nor does she work with South American rain forest herbs, or with magnets.
“Animals would probably eat them,” Van Winkle said about the magnets.
While some contest the effectiveness of holistic medicine, it is interesting to note that many of Van Winkle’s patients have come to see her because she was suggested by their primary care veterinarians. Usually Van Winkle is working with the primary veterinarian, not taking over the case. Acupuncture and the other types of holistic medicine are used in conjunction with the treatments the pets are already following.
Van Winkle caters to four-legged senior citizens suffering from the assorted discomforts of old age. She has a lot of elderly patients that she isn’t trying to cure. She’s only trying to relieve their symptoms.
“It’s a quality of life issue,” said Van Winkle about some of her older patients.
Many of Van Winkle’s patients come for the treatment of arthritis. She claims a 60% success rate in the reduction of arthritic symptoms, depending on where the problems are located. She says she doesn’t have much luck with pain located specifically in the knees and elbows.
Van Winkle’s office, the Barton Creek Animal Clinic is located in a small strip mall next door to Westlake Hills High School.
Westlake Hills is one of Austin’s most affluent suburbs. From the address, you might expect Van Winkle’s clinic to be posh and trendy. It isn’t. There are no double latte’s in the waiting area. The clinic even appears a little run down in some of the less public areas. Visitors to the clinic’s bathroom are asked not to open any drawers, as that is where the clinic stores undeveloped X-Ray film. The film is later developed in that same bathroom.
In the surgery theater, the operating table, when not in use, was pushed up against one wall, and propped up with two copies of the Southwestern Bell yellow pages.
Van Winkle’s partner in the practice, a traditional veterinarian, had used the operating table just that morning. Dr. Steve Reynolds had amputated the tumorous left leg of Rusty, 12 year-old cat. Afterwards, the leg was left on the grooming platform (a raised bathtub) for examination by the two veterinarians. The veterinarians looked at the leg to make sure that they had removed the entire tumor. Their conclusion was that they had, and thus that the surgery had been successful. Two feet away, the orange and white Rusty received intravenous painkillers, and shook as his anesthesia wore off.
One of the problems that complicate Van Winkle’s holistic animal practice is the misunderstanding about what holistic medicine can treat. Improper urination and defecation are two common problems misdirected to Van Winkle.
“A lot of people come to me with behavioral problems. Those kinds of problems are a training issue,” said Van Winkle.
Conversely, some of the problems that people do not usually bring their pets in for might greatly benefit from holistic treatment. Van Winkle explains that what is seen as a behavioral issue might really be a physical problem. Take for example an “unfriendly” cat.
“A cat that doesn’t want to be petted may have a spine that is out of alignment. That is painful to touch,” said Van Winkle, making a familiar petting motion in the air.
The entire field of holistic animal health is a disputed one, but one that Dr. Van Winkle firmly believes in. She thinks that there needs to be more scientific testing of alternative medicines. When asked if there had been scientific studies about the benefits of holistic medicine, she had a quick answer.
“Not enough, there need to be more clinical trials,” said Van Winkle.
Despite the controversy surrounding the field, Van Winkle appears to have carved out a niche for herself in Austin’s veterinary community.
She even has one client who drives in from Lubbock.