In this Q+A series, we’ll hear from SFVS’s Ella Woods, DAOM, Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Dr. Woods has been part of the hospital’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine department since 2005. Thank you so much, Dr. Woods, for taking the time to fill us in on the world of CAM for pets! (Check back soon for the next installment.)
1. Tell us about your path to becoming a holistic practitioner for pets.
Tess the Terrible brought me to holistic medicine.
Tess and her mom, Anna, were feral cats (no friendly contact with humans) before coming to live with me. Tess eventually began having problems with diarrhea and weight loss. I spent a great deal of money and committed an inestimable amount of time pursuing a diagnosis and treatment protocol. It was during this long process that Tess was given her nickname: “Tess the Terrible.”
She hated the visits for veterinary exams and procedures, she resisted with full measure, and she could make the toughest veterinary nurse nervous. We never found the cause of her illness. She was diagnosed with “idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease” – meaning “IBD with no known cause.” And we never found a treatment that worked for a long time, until we found acupuncture.
Acupuncture worked for Tess. Her diarrhea stopped, her appetite returned, she gained weight, and she lived another six years (died at the old age of 18.5 of multiple organ failure). And she had a high quality life until just a couple of weeks before her death. She took no drugs whatsoever during the last six years of her life. Acupuncture was her sole medication. Once her condition was stabilized, she was given an acupuncture treatment every six weeks from April through October and once a month during the winter.
My career was in the biotech industry, one that is rooted in proving theories, producing supporting data, proving how a therapy works (“mechanism of action”). The efficacy of acupuncture being proved so close to home truly unsettled my belief system about health and medicine.
Eventually, I left the biotech industry to study Oriental medicine, including acupuncture and herbal medicine. I completed seven years of formal study including a residency at Yue Yang Hospital in Shanghai, China, to earn my doctorate in acupuncture and Oriental medicine.
San Francisco Veterinary Specialists provided the space and framework for me to apprentice in the application of this knowledge to veterinary patients. So SFVS was the natural place for me to practice. I have been here since 2005.
2. What types of treatments do you employ most frequently at SFVS?
I LOVE acupuncture! If I had my way, every patient coming in these doors would get acupuncture before they leave. It can be amazingly powerful and effective and there is almost no downside risk. It is actually difficult to do anything harmful with those tiny, filiform acupuncture needles. And everyone feels better after an acupuncture treatment.
Studies have shown that acupuncture generates endorphins, the body’s natural “feel-good” compounds that also serve to decrease pain. It is also believed that by causing micro-traumas in the tissues, the needles stimulate the body’s immune system to launch the healing process. Acupuncture is an integral part of most of my treatment plans.
Chinese herbal formulas also take an important position in my treatment plans. The beauty of these formulas is that they can be customized to fit each patient. If a patient has borderline renal failure as well as a sensitive GI tract, I can formulate one herbal formula to treat both. The trick is finding effective ways for the patient’s family to administer the herbs, and my patients teach me new approaches every day. Sometimes they show me a new way, sometimes they just show me that my old way is not acceptable and I have to come up with a new way.
Oriental medicine also places great stock in food as medicine. The theory is that if food can make you sick, certainly more appropriate choices of food can also make you well. And you take in food 2-3 times a day, 365 days a year, so it can be a very consistent therapy. Certain foods are beneficial to certain organs, and certain foods can remedy specific imbalances in the body. Some foods have temperature qualities that can be used therapeutically. Some foods have energetic qualities that can be brought to bear on the patient. Rethinking the patient’s diet and including foods for therapeutic effect is an important part of the well thought out treatment plan.
3. How do you get an animal to sit still for acupuncture? Any special tricks of the trade?
Here is where the issue of trust comes into play. Whether the patient is human or animal, their comfort with me, their ability to trust me to not harm them is very important.
Animals do communicate vocally, and they have a very large vocabulary of non-verbal expressions. I am a lifelong student of this non-verbal field of communication. Animals have taught me a great deal and I believe that what I have learned in this area has made me a better clinician with humans as well as with cats and dogs.
Because these four-legged patients have been brought to me, sometimes against their will, I do my best to gain their trust. One of the first things I do is to engage with the patient. I sit on the floor with them while I go over the chart and intake form with their person. I give them a chance to sniff me (from behind, if they are shy) and check me out, find the treats in my pocket, enjoy a few chin-scratches from me so that they feel that they know me a little before I begin to take liberties with them and their bodies. In essence, I seek to get an emotional “consent to treat” from the animal-patient before proceeding.
Of course I also know a few acupuncture tricks for relaxing the patients, certain points that “calm the spirit.” I place needles in those points first.
Editor’s Note: We’ll continue our conversation with Dr. Woods later this week!