On pins and needles

“I’ll do it on any quadruped that won’t kill me first,” Dr. Emily Harrison says. “I never say (animal) acupuncture is not worth trying.”

Francesca was getting old.

But after her weekly in-home wellness sessions, she seemed
rejuvenated. The treatments were relaxing. Sometimes, she would even fall asleep during her appointment.

Her energy flow — or qi (pronounced CHEE) — was more balanced thanks to the acupuncture she’d been receiving. The whisker-thin needles, placed at blockage points along her body’s meridian lines, didn’t seem to bother her and helped support and stimulate her immune system as she aged. 

To chronicle these restorative visits, lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart wrote about Francesca — her beloved French Bulldog — in a blog post featuring her veterinarian, Dr. Emily Harrison.  

Harrison, a Katonah resident, is owner of Visiting Veterinary Services, a full-service practice that visits animals in the comfort of their own home environment. She specializes in Chinese medicine and herbal therapy in her treatment of dogs, cats, horses and farm animals. 

There’s the Standard Poodle with a thunderstorm phobia. “He’s my superstar in terms of behavioral responses,” she says. He used to need her for every single storm and now she sees him once a month “for a tune-up.”

Then there’s the horse with sore shoulders that resulted from pulling a cart. He loved every minute of his visit with Harrison. “He would have stood there forever with (the needles) in if I didn’t cut him off,” she says. “Horses can be real acupuncture junkies.”

She visited a handsome black-and-white cat named Basil Taylor twice a month during the last year of his life. Basil had spinal and hind-end arthritis. Each session, as Harrison gently worked on him, “he purred through the entire process.” 

More often, however, cats like to play a different role during her treatments. “Cats love watching me do this to dogs,” she says. “Or they walk through my supplies and knock needles out (of position).” 

(Our cat-parent readers are nodding understandably.)

Sometimes Harrison’s methods are a solution for those who have exhausted everything Western medicine has to offer. She’s helped dogs with a herniated disc avoid back surgery. She’s provided cancer support and helped stop seizures. 

Mostly, though, Harrison sees her dog patients for age-related problems. About 70 percent of her dog clients have hip arthritis, some so severe they’ve stopped going up stairs or getting into the car.

She says it’s so gratifying when she gets a call from a client saying: “You won’t believe this, but I found the dog upstairs.”

Her horse patients, instead, are usually in the active athletic part of their career and her therapies offer performance enhancement. Some of her clients are high-level jumpers and acupuncture is a legal way to enhance their performance.

Though these therapies dominate Harrison’s practice, she also integrates a classical Western approach when the situation dictates. 

Recently, she was called to examine a 200-pound goat that wasn’t able to stand up. She discovered he was lame in the left front leg. “For him, I put my Western hat on,” she says.

With small ruminants (goats and sheep) and camelids (llamas and alpacas), the use of herbal therapy is utilized less often. Their digestive system is different. “They need six times the dose. It’s cost prohibitive.” 

At each acupuncture session, Harrison first performs a Chinese physical exam called bian zheng. During the exam, she checks things like tongue color and back temperature. This helps her decide which points on the animal need manipulating on any given day. 

Depending on the job, Harrison arrives to her patients with tools like a battery-powered, electroacupuncture machine or digital radiology and ultrasonography equipment. 

Her decision to veer toward acupuncture in her practice derived from her own experience with it when other therapies failed. 

Several years into her career, after receiving degrees from Brown University (in biology) and Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Harrison was thrown from a horse. 

“No matter what I did, my post-concussion headaches refused to go away,” she says. 

Eventually she tried acupuncture. After only eight sessions over the course of a month, her headaches disappeared. It was then she decided to add traditional Chinese veterinary medicine to her arsenal and went on to study at the world-class Chi Institute in Reddick, Florida. 

“I’ve had my own business for six years,” she says. “And I’ve never had to advertise.” All of Harrison’s business has come from referrals. She travels between stables, farms and private homes throughout Westchester and Putnam counties as well as parts of Greenwich. “I’m a party of one and I like it that way. I never have two days that are the same.”

Harrison adds that coaxing animals into accepting the needles without sedation is easier than many owners expect. “They all notice (it’s happening).” 

“But it’s very common for people to be absolutely convinced their dog won’t let me do it. And 99 percent of the time they’re wrong.” 

On average, more horses enjoy the therapy than don’t. “And some horses actively enjoy it,” she says. The smaller the dog, the harder it is to needle and they also like to be on their owner’s laps. But if the late Francesca is any indication, Harrison usually makes it work to great success.

When needed, she’ll use Elizabethan collars so the dog can’t whip his head around and bite, and owners can still feed them. “I see a 7-pound Chihuahua who always wears her party hat.”

Living in northern Westchester, Harrison’s work naturally takes her through the bucolic, tony areas that attract the likes of Stewart.

“I do have a decent celebrity clientele,” Harrison acknowledges. She becomes close to the families she works with and confidentiality is a given.

I see (these families) intensely until their dog passes,” she says. “I get attached to the animal and attached to the people.” When her work is done, separation is hard. “I get a call from families saying, ‘I miss you. You want to come for dinner?’” 

She wouldn’t have it any other way. “I wanted to be a vet my entire life,” says  Harrison. She traces the moment back to when she was a 20-year-old girl in pigtails, growing up in Chappaqua when she dressed up for her father’s 40th birthday party as a vet. 

Back then, acupuncture wasn’t on her radar. But now,  “I’ll do it on any quadruped that won’t kill me first,” she jokes. “I never say acupuncture is not worth trying.”

For more, visit visitingvetservices.com.

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