What Exactly Can “Rolfing” Do For You?

rolfdfuBad back? Aching muscles? When your pet is in pain, an alternative treatment–massage, acupuncture, Rolfing–may be just the right prescription.

When Lyndon Burnett of Deer Trail, Colorado, climbed into his pickup truck to run an errand in August 1999, he didn’t realize that the family’s tabby cat, Juju, was snoozing beneath the engine. Until the rancher turned the key. The fan belt hit the cat, and a yowling Juju flew out from under the truck, raced behind a shed, then collapsed. Lyndon’s wife, Amy, and their daughters, Anne, 12, and Lila, 8, drove the cat to the vet, where she was placed in intensive care for a compression fracture in her shoulder that had pinched a nerve and disabled her front leg.

The Burnetts had a choice: amputate or euthanize.

Amy doubted that a three-legged cat would survive on the ranch. And surgery would be very expensive. As the family members agonized, their vet, Michelle Behrendt, D.V.M., suggested a relatively new technique called veterinary orthopedic manipulation (VOM). Using a chiropractic tool to send an impulse to the nerves, she would relax Juju’s muscles, relieving the pain and allowing the bones to shift back to their natural position.

Because she considered VOM experimental, Behrendt offered to amputate for free if it didn’t work. The girls pleaded with their mom to give it a try, and she agreed. A month later, after the third session, Juju was putting some weight on her leg. By the fifth session, she was nearly back to her old self. “She limps some,” Amy says. “But she isn’t a three-legged cat.”

A Time to Heal

During the last five years, more and more pet owners have started seeking vets educated in alternative therapies, says Craig Smith, D.V.M., of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “There’s been a big increase in calls from vets who want training.”

What’s behind the trend? Some people introduce their pets to alternative care after they’ve tried it themselves. Others run out of conventional options and can’t face losing a beloved family member. Therapies such as acupuncture and massage can relieve aches–whether your pet has been injured or he’s just an old-timer–and may speed recovery after surgery. Some vets turn to such methods to treat behavioral problems. (A small dog that bites whenever he’s picked up, for instance, may suffer from back problems–not just moodiness.) All the following therapies are considered safe, but it’s important to choose the right practitioner and to continue regular vet checkups (see “ABC’S of Alternative Care”).


Approved by the National Institutes of Health for humans and the AVMA for animals, this ancient Chinese therapy involves inserting tiny needles into pressure points along the length of the animal to stimulate the body’s healing “life force” (its qi, pronounced chee). Acupuncture triggers the release of pain-killing endorphins and boosts the immune system. Georgette Meyerowitz of Sleepy Hollow, New York, is a believer. During the last ten years, her golden retriever, Sherlock, often received acupuncture treatments for the rare autoimmune disease he has had since he was a puppy. Despite battling fur loss, arthritis, breathing problems, and muscle tremors, Sherlock (who used to have the energy to provide companionship to sick children and adults) is now a happy, easygoing 13-year-old.

Cost $50 to $120 per session, as needed.

Chiropractic Care

“A chiropractor looks for changes in the normal motion in the spine,” explains San Francisco veterinarian Richard Spickard, D.V.M. “Any decrease in normal motion can be corrected by adjustment.” Some vets combine chiropractic therapy with acupuncture to relieve muscle spasms.

Chiropractic was a winner for Freude, a five-year-old German shepherd who was having trouble jumping into her owner’s Jeep. “She’d shiver and cry and circle around,” recalls Tatiana Firkusny of Rhinebeck, New York. X rays showed a weakness in Freude’s spine, but more than two years after treatment, the shepherd is jumping like a champ.

Asthmatic cats may require less medication after adjustments. Some epileptic dogs have fewer seizures. After Sharon Willoughby, D.V.M., D.C., president of the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA), treated one boxer, he stopped having accidents in the house.

For pets that won’t tolerate the physical pushing involved with traditional chiropractic, the veterinary orthopedic manipulation that worked so well for Juju is another option. By applying, a tool (which sends impulses to the nerves) to your pet s spine, a vet can treat back problems and many other types of pain.

Cost $35 to $70 per session. Pets need at least two sessions, and regular tune-ups are recommended.


A step beyond rubbing your dog’s belly, massage–either Swedish (which encompasses the whole body) or shiatsu (a Japanese technique that focuses on pressure points)–can calm your cat or dog, relax his muscles, increase mobility, and stimulate circulation and immune function.

Therapists say pet owners can learn basic massage themselves, although it takes practice. “Sometimes the animal will `ask’ you for it,” says Patricia Whalen-Shaw, author of the forthcoming book and video Canine Massage. “Then they’ll stretch and come back for more.”

Massage can also help to heal major ailments. Matthew Oller’s 12-year-old rottweiler, Satin, had osteoporosis and such severe arthritis that her hind legs dragged behind her when she walked. Oller took the dog to his sister Carolanne’s shiatsu practice in Boston for weekly massages. Within a few months, Satin was running around on all fours again.

Cost $30 to $50 per session, as needed.

Finding a practitioner Contact the AHVMA.


Part of the massage family, Rolfing focuses on fascia–soft tissue that connects the body’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints–by moving the tissue into alignment to restore range of motion. Around since the 1940s, the technique has only recently become an option for animals, largely at the request of pet owners who’ve been Rolfed themselves.

That’s why Deborah Dowden of Minneapolis (she was Rolfed after a car accident) decided to put her eight-year-old pit bull/rottweiler, Sherman, on the table. “The dog inherited bad knees, and he would limp a lot,” Dowden says. Sherman was due for a knee operation. “She wanted to make sure the surgery went well,” remembers Briah Anson, the certified advanced Rolfer in St. Paul who treated the dog. Sherman recovered faster, and a year later the dog is able to join Dowden for a jog.

Be aware that Rolfing, like chiropractic, can be uncomfortable for some pets (cats especially), so it’s important to choose a good practitioner.

Cost $75 to $100 per session, as needed.

abc’s of alternative care

1. Keep your vet in the loop Body treatments should never replace routine vet care. What looks like stiffness could actually indicate calcium deposits in the joints, or be an early sign of rabies, notes the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Craig Smith, D.V.M.

2. Know the limits None of these therapies should ever be used for a fever, infection, bleeding wounds, or shock, or immediately after a serious accident.

3. Check credentials Some practitioners take a weekend training course, then hang out a shingle. “Everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon,” warns Allen Schoen, D.V.M., author of Love, Miracles, and Animal Healing. Ask whether the vet passed the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association’s training program or if she’s a certified acupuncturist or licensed massage therapist. One possible exception: An experienced certified practitioner who works with a vet.

4. Be patient Alternative therapies often take a while to work; they may require multiple visits.

5. Listen to your pet Some pets are more tolerant than others. If yours is at all uncomfortable, stop.

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