GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - By the time Cleo showed up on Dr. Ron Carsten's examination table at Birch Tree Animal Hospital, she had already had a brush with death, though she didn't even know it.
Cleo was a 10-year-old Doberman pinscher dog with a run of bad luck: she had a bulging disc in her neck from playing Frisbee, and was fighting a serious form of nasal cancer. Following a cancer operation, several veterinarians had advised her owner, Olinda Nevonen of Rifle, to put Cleo down.
Nevonen had made a euthanasia appointment, only to lose her nerve and cancel at the last minute. She'd long been a believer in alternative health techniques like acupuncture and homeopathic medicine. If they could work for her, she figured, why couldn't they work for her dog? She decided to try one more veterinarian.
"She wasn't even walking when I went in there," said Nevonen, recalling the day she brought Cleo to Birch Tree Animal Hospital. "But you know how dogs can be, the love of your life."
"We were close to losing her," remembered Carsten, who said he quickly launched a treatment program of acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, and nutritional and herbal supplements to help Cleo recover.
For 22 years, Carsten has integrated western conventional medical techniques with a wide range of alternative approaches in his Glenwood Springs veterinary practice. He performs X-rays and surgeries like any other veterinarian, but he also has eastern medicine, osteopathic care (a form of gentle chiropractic adjustment) and herbal medicine in his bag of tricks, along with a line of whole food-based nutritional supplements of his own design.
"I started looking at alternative therapies because of my frustration with conventional medicine," said Carsten. "I kept being told that 'this is as good as it's going to be.'"
For pet owners who share Carsten's frustration, there's a range of alternative health options for animals in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Glenwood Veterinary Clinic also offers acupuncture and chiropractic care for dogs, cats and horses, and acupuncture is available at the Basalt Veterinary Clinic and Alpine Animal Hospital in Basalt.
In the case of the dog Cleo, Dr. Carsten's alternative therapies weren't ultimately able to save her life. Yet Nevonen said they did prolong it, and improve its quality.
"She was to the point where she actually looked relaxed during the treatments," said Nevonen. "I feel I had a good year with her that I wouldn't have had otherwise."
It may seem surprising that domesticated animals like dogs and cats would tolerate being poked with acupuncture needles or subjected to chiropractic adjustments. But vets and pet owners alike say that most animals take to the treatments surprisingly well.
"I thought, 'Oh great. We're going to take an active young cat and stick needles in him, and he's going to fling them all over the room,'" said Pat Conway of Glenwood Springs, who watched Dr. Carsten perform acupuncture treatment on her cat Wizard several times to treat his back pain.
"When the needles were inserted, he lay down on the table and purred, and just completely relaxed," she said. "I thought wow, can we just leave these in!?"
With so many alternative techniques at their disposal, veterinarians say a solid diagnosis is critical in deciding which therapies to use.
"I start with blood work, X-rays and a physical, and get a good history from the owner," said Carsten.
Animals can't speak for themselves, so a vet is left to rely on visual and tactile clues to evaluate whether a treatment has been successful.
"You can watch them move before you do anything, then when you treat them you can walk them again and look for differences in how they move," said Aaron Langley, a veterinarian at Glenwood Veterinary Clinic who practices veterinary chiropractic, acupuncture and other alternative treatments.
The effect of a successful chiropractic adjustment, Langley said, can sometimes last longer in an animal than it would in a person, since animals don't have many of the repetitive motion habits - like driving a car or sitting at a computer - that people do.
"Once you get an animal feeling better, then they change their movement, where with humans we have to do a lot of the same movements over and over again throughout the day," Langley said.
While seeking a bevy of alternative health treatments for a pet might seem excessive to some, it's often a good fit for those who view pets as family members.
And many are drawn to alternative approaches when they've exhausted conventional medical possibilities.
That was the case with Joe Shane, a Carbondale native who brought his Australian shepherd Honey to Carsten when the dog was battling cancer of the spleen. Using a range of treatments from blood transfusions to acupuncture, Carsten was able to add about seven good months to the dog's life, Shane said.
Carsten is not afraid to get out of the box, he said. "I've gotten another dog recently, and I won't send them to anyone but him."