When Danny, a 6-year-old English springer spaniel, suddenly pulled up lame last April, he was rushed to his regular veterinarian. As a member of the West Jersey Canine Search and Rescue squad in the Delaware Water Gap area of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Danny combs the wilds looking for lost or injured hikers. Danny's owner, Katrine Johnson, knew the park needed her dog back in action as soon as possible, so when the vet found no broken bones and suggested a course of steroids and the canine equivalent of bed rest, Johnson called Sue Ann Lesser, a veterinarian and certified chiropractic veterinarian whose practice is in South Huntington, N.Y.
That's right, a chiropractic veterinarian. As chiropractors do with humans, Lesser uses her hands to correct misalignments in the spines of animals. Her practice consists mostly of show horses and show dogs whose owners hope to see improvement in their animals' ability to jump, race, look lovely or, as in Danny's case, simply do their jobs.
Lesser visited Danny at a clinic near Morristown, N.J., and saw that the dog was unable to use his left front leg. She examined him with her hands, starting with his rear end. She placed her fingers on his lower spine, gently moving his vertebrae into alignment until she found the cause of Danny's lameness—a twisted medial humerus (the bone that rotates in the shoulder socket). She manipulated the bone back into place. For Lesser, who considers most of her chiropractic therapies "fine tuning," this was like a transmission overhaul.
"Chiropractic is considered one of the tools in the toolbox for good care," says Lesser, "but for me it's really the only tool." Yet despite her own—and her clients'—unwavering belief in chiropractic, there are skeptics. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has addressed the issue of "alternative" treatments only since 1988, the year in which it required all chiropractic practitioners to be licensed by appropriate teaching bodies. And according to Michael Walters, the AVMA's director of public information, his organization has "no position on the efficacy of other modalities." That's because no scientific studies have been published, says Mary Rose Paradis, a doctor of veterinary medicine who teaches at Tufts University's School of Veterinary Medicine near Boston. But Tufts, she adds, has "formed a nucleus of people to investigate a few areas of alternative modalities. This would never have been considered 10 years ago."
Even without the benefit of scientific substantiation, Johnson knows that chiropractic therapy works. Immediately after Lesser's treatment, Danny stopped limping. Instead of insisting that Danny rest, Lesser told Johnson to let the dog do whatever he wanted. A couple of days later a teenage boy was reported lost in Worthington State Park by two friends who had been with him earlier. The three had climbed a ridge, taken a hallucinogenic drug and become disoriented. As the sun began to set and the temperature dropped, concern grew for the missing boy. Danny was pressed into service to find him. A short time later the dog began running and barking. He scrambled into a deep ravine and found the boy sitting on a rock, convinced that he was a block from home. He was suffering from hypothermia, and according to Carl Merchant, a park ranger, the boy probably wouldn't have lasted another 12 hours outdoors.
While the results of Lesser's work aren't usually as dramatic, Danny's case helps explain why she became a chiropractic veterinarian. At the age of 12, after reading a book on horses, she knew she wanted to be a vet. She received her B.S. from Cornell in 1974, earned an M.S. in physiology from Penn State in 1976 and returned to Cornell for four years for her D.V.M. from the university's New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. But after practicing conventional veterinary medicine for 10 years—starting in Albuquerque in 1981 and ending in Huntington with her own equine practice—she was frustrated.
Too often, Lesser says, she felt she was taking horses that had sore backs and treating them with "benign scientific neglect." She would put them in stalls so they could rest for a couple of weeks, and she would pump them with anti-inflammatory drugs. The horses would recover, but inevitably the soreness would return. One day in the fall of 1989, unable to break this cycle in a show horse named Pants Afire, Lesser scrutinized the mare for a clue that would help her heal the soreness once and for all. Lesser noted that the horse's legs worked properly but that her trunk was moving asymmetrically. "Suddenly it dawned on me," Lesser says. "I have a crooked back, so why couldn't she?"
Lesser stood the horse against a wall. On it she marked the height of the horse's hip. She turned the horse around and marked the height on the other side. There was a two-inch difference in the height of Pants Afire's hips. Lesser, whose own back problems had been solved by a chiropractor, was able to persuade the same doctor to work on Pants Afire. The horse's soreness never reappeared.
A few months later Lesser was in Orlando attending a symposium on alternative treatment at the Eastern States Veterinary Conference. She was so impressed by a lecture given by Sharon Willoughby, a vet and chiropractic veterinarian who helped found the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) in 1989, that several months later Lesser put her practice on hold to attend the AVCA's 120-hour instructional course at its school in Port Byron, Ill. So far the school has certified 250 chiropractic vets. Lesser joined the AVCA's board and teaching staff after receiving her own certification in February 1991.
At first she worked only on horses, but that was before she met Suzanne Clothier, who lives in Frenchtown, N.J. The author of a popular canine training manual, The Clothier Natural Jumping Method, Clothier breeds German shepherds and is producing a series of instructional videos, The Canine Athlete. Clothier also owns three horses, and it was her equine dentist who suggested that she have Lesser examine her mare, Augusta, who was stiff and in pain. After Lesser treated Augusta successfully. Clothier asked her to work on her German shepherds. Two months later Clothier, who runs clinics and gives lectures for dog owners, was helping Lesser set up her own clinics throughout four states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania—so that she could demonstrate the benefits of chiropractic care.