STURTEVANT — Oliver, a yellow Labrador retriever, settled onto a large dog bed on the floor as his owner, Debby Gault, explained how he lost a hind leg.
Oliver’s right rear leg was amputated in 2005 after he blew out first one rear knee, then the other. The last of several unsuccessful surgeries was a full amputation.
Before you could say “red Rover, red Rover, let Jimmy come over,” veterinarian Rebecca McCracken had inserted the first needle into Oliver. It jutted from the top of his head — and look, a couple more needles protruded from other spots on his skin.
Besides her vet license,
McCracken is certified in animal acupuncture. Oliver was getting his weekly session with her at her holistic rehabilitation practice, PawsAbilities Veterinary Rehabilitation, 3011 90th St. here.
“He loves this, if you can’t tell,” said Gault, 53, of Waterford, a health care lobbyist. “He lives for this every week. By the end of the week (before his treatment), he hurts.”
The dog did indeed look plenty relaxed. During most acupuncture sessions, he snores loudly, Gault said.
Besides hobbling on three legs, 12-year-old Oliver has a bad spinal disk, so he comes in first for acupuncture and then a spinal adjustment — what in people would be called chiropractic — by McCracken.
His sessions include electric acupuncture. After McCracken inserted 22 needles — two of them to relax Oliver — she connected five pairs to a device that ran a small electric current between them, in pairs.
“Some (acupuncture) points are very superficial; some are very deep,” she explained.
We left Oliver, who would drowse with his needles for the next 30 minutes.
At PawsAbilities, acupuncture is just one holistic arrow in McCracken’s rehab quiver. It also includes water therapy, land treadmill and therapeutic exercise, massage and stretching, ultrasound, electronic stimulation, laser, nutritional counseling, carts and herbal medicines.
McCracken, 53, of Salem didn’t always use that arsenal of holistic approaches. She started as a conventional veterinarian in the mid-1980s, doing house calls and equine practice.
As with many drastic changes in life, hers began with a personal situation: health problems in one of her own dogs. Her female greyhound, Tuffy, had bad arthritis in her back, and McCracken wasn’t able to help her much.
In her search for solutions, she took Tuffy to the renowned TOPS (Training, Obedience, Protection, Service) Veterinary Rehabilitation in Grayslake, Ill.
Tuffy’s first session there included acupuncture and Chinese herbs, and McCracken said the results were dramatic. “She literally limped in and danced out.”
She was hooked on holistic rehabilitation techniques.
“I was tremendously impressed, because I had tried everything in my toolbox of conventional medicine,” McCracken said.
“You lay awake at night and think about the failures — not your successes,” she remarked. McCracken wondered if holistic methods would have worked better than the ones she learned in veterinary school.
McCracken made a bold move: She sold her practice and dove into learning alternative therapies — which are called “complementary” or “integrated” when paired with conventional practice.
She trained for four years at TOPS with Laurie McCauley as her mentor, who McCracken considers a pioneer in holistic veterinary medicine.
She augmented that on-the-job training by getting certified in animal acupuncture and animal chiropractic and is now training in Chinese herbal medicines.
In 2008, she started offering holistic rehab at her Sturtevant clinic — just two half-days per week. “I wasn’t sure what the interest would be,” McCracken said.
By February 2009, she already had a full-time holistic rehab practice.
There’s no danger of McCracken’s clients switching from their regular vets to her, because she doesn’t do any conventional vet work. For example, she will not give shots or trim nails because she wants the animals to have only pleasant experiences there.
She said, “(The dogs) drag their owners in.”
With all of McCracken’s therapies, “the goal is to try to help the body heal itself,” she said.
An outdoor yard at PawsAbilities is set up as a dog agility course where both performance dogs and ordinary pets can be evaluated for problems in gait that tell McCracken what therapy may be called for.
About one-third of her clients have performance dogs, about one-third get post-operative rehab, and another third are geriatric dogs and cancer patients. (She can treat cats also, but nearly all of her patients are dogs.)
McCracken said her clients often come to PawsAbilities as a last resort. “I can’t tell you the number of times someone comes in and says, ‘My vet said the only option is euthanasia,’ ” she said. “It happens on a weekly basis.”
There certainly could be times for euthanasia, she said, such as with a life-threatening illness like terminal cancer. But since she started her business, she said, “I have not seen a single case where we couldn’t improve the quality of life.”