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Canine ICU 

Canine rehabilitation and alternative therapies are part of a growing trend in advanced pet health care.

Dag's House staff use all sorts of sophisticated rehabilitation therapies to help animals recover their health. Photo by Skip Bolen For New Orleanians attuned to trends in local dog culture, there's a certain wobbly-legged canine in Marrero who has become a legend. Dagnabit, or Dag for short, is the founding canine of Dag's House, a rehabilitation facility for special-needs dogs established by Dag's owner, Kim Dudek, founder of Belladonna Day Spa. Since the facility opened in late January, Dag, a 6-year-old pit bull terrier, has shared the inspirational tale of his recovery from a difficult spinal surgery with other special-needs dogs and their owners and seems to have gotten quite used to posing for local paparazzi along the way.

The core mission of Dag's House is to help dogs recover from major surgery or other physical trauma and to improve their quality of life. The facility does this by providing post-operative surgery and rehabilitation evaluations, exercise programs, massage, acupuncture and other physical therapies. These types of treatment, along with holistic therapies (including chiropractic and homeopathic medicine), enabled Dag to walk again after being wheelchair bound for many months.

The New Orleans Canine Rehabilitation Group, headed by Dr. Karen Graci, staffs Dag's House, which also offers boarding and daycare with 24-hour supervision.

Today's pet owners increasingly prefer more extensive medical and surgical care, rehabilitation and physical therapies, as well as the use of alternative medicines in treating pets for a wide variety of ailments, according to local veterinarians. The trend speaks not only to the advances that have been made in veterinary care, but also to the unique relationships New Orleans pet owners have with their animals.

When Dag was released from the hospital after his spinal surgery, he was incontinent. Working through that difficult time — learning to care for Dag in rehab and get his body back on schedule and in control — Dudek began to wonder what it was like for other pet owners in similar situations. "I said, "What are other people doing?' And sadly, the answer was putting them down," she says. "There has to be some options, because not everybody wants to put their dog down and I felt like we could be that bridge for people to get them through that tough part."

Local pet owners have begun to realize there are options for dogs who need physical therapy and rehabilitation. "Canine rehab is so new," Dudek says. "The surgeries have gotten better, [and] consumers have gotten more educated about what's out there."

The equipment and therapy aren't cheap, she adds, but she and her staff hope to make it more accessible by teaching people how to massage, exercise and continue a dog's rehab routine at home. If you can give a dog an outlet for exercise and fun and allow it to regain independence after a surgery or trauma, the recovery process is very similar to human rehabilitation, says Dudek. The advantage for dogs is that they don't hold onto emotional trauma, as do humans.

The various treatments at Dag's House fall under the umbrella of holistic medicine, says Graci, treating an animal as a whole rather than just addressing the problematic part. There are differences between the types of treatment, though. Homeopathy and chiropractic may be used more often to treat a specific problem rather than as a part of physical rehabilitation, which primarily means getting dogs back into physical shape to help them function as best they can.

Graci's specialty is veterinary acupuncture, which has been widely used in the U.S. for more than 20 years, she says. According to the Chinese philosophy, acupuncture is believed to restore the balance of energy in the body and return it to a healthy state. Veterinary acupuncturists use hypodermic needles, massage, heat and sometimes low-power lasers or electrostimulation to stimulate acupuncture points, of which there are more than 350 in the body. Surprisingly, most pets enjoy the treatment and usually behave very well throughout the procedure, says Graci.

Typically, acupuncture is used in cases involving paralysis, noninfectious inflammation and pain; musculoskeletal problems such as arthritis; skin problems or respiratory problems such as asthma; to relieve post-operative pain and discomfort; and for gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea and vomiting. The length and number of treatments for a pet vary greatly depending on what is being treated.

Homeopathy, another popular alternative medicine, is based on the concept of "treating like with like."

'[It's] the science of treating disease and treating disease symptoms with small amounts of a substance that, given in large amounts, would cause the same symptoms of the disease," explains Dr. Adriana Sagrera of Natural Pet Health. The practice of treating animals homeopathically uses naturally derived substances that are diluted several times, depending on the problem they're meant to treat.

Homeopathy can be used to treat major ailments such as diabetes or liver failure or minor afflictions such as ear infections, skin problems, bumps, bruises and even insect bites. It is also used in conjunction with a pet's diet, because "no treatment you give an animal is going to help them unless you give them the nutritional building blocks they need to fix themselves," she adds. "Nutrition is a big part of any kind of treatment, regular medicine or homeopathy." Typically, these regimens are individually tailored to a pet's specific needs in consultation with the doctor, Sagrera says.

Graci says she wouldn't substitute acupuncture or other complementary medicines for traditional Western medicine, rather she uses them in combination with general medicine. There's no strict boundary between complementary treatments such as acupuncture or homeopathy and traditional medicine or surgery, agrees Dr. Scott Gernon of Magazine Street Animal Clinic. The prevailing view among veterinarians is that it's great to be able to mix those modalities, he says. "It best services the patient and the client if you can find what works best for that particular situation, regardless of whether it's conventional or Western medicine or whether it's more of the complementary medicine," says Gernon.

As pets age or incur athletic injuries, they often require back, knee and hip surgeries. Afterward, Gernon often refers patients to complementary or rehab services. Of course, the most important practices in maintaining a pet's health from day one are proper nutrition, routine vaccinations, and regular heartworm prevention and flea control, he adds. He also notes that as pets live longer, owners and veterinarians must think more about treating chronic disease.

'Now that we take better care of our pets and they're living longer, we get into things like heart failure, kidney failure, liver problems and cancers," agrees Dr. Stephen Bryan of Audubon Veterinary Practice. "The technology has been there and we're trained every bit as well as human doctors but it comes down to the culture of people. They're willing to spend more money on their pets, their pets are now a part of the family, and they're not going to be put to sleep just because they have a cancer. Removal, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, those are all things that are being done now."

A variety of trends might explain a change in how people view their pets, Bryan says, such as wider availability of procedures, the amount of money people have, and decisions such as prolonging or foregoing having children, which makes pets a more central part of owners' lives.

'Pet owners here are unique," Gernon says. "I've lived in different parts of Louisiana all my life and I would say that in New Orleans they love their pets here, not like anywhere else I've seen. [They're] like their children. It's a wonderful place to be a dog owner, and it's a more wonderful place to be in the healthcare field for animals. It's very gratifying."

Dag's House is located at 5316 August Ave., Marrero, 218-7271, www.dagshouse.com.

click to enlarge Dag's House is named for Dagnabit, a pit bull terrier that recovered from a difficult spinal surgery. - SKIP BOLEN
  • Skip Bolen
  • Dag's House is named for Dagnabit, a pit bull terrier that recovered from a difficult spinal surgery.
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