Love can force us to defy our instincts, betray our character and sacrifice our principles. Such love brought me to the waiting room of Dr. Nancy Curran's Two Rivers Veterinary Clinic. The object of my love sits next to me, in a ventilated cardboard crate, yowling. This is my cat, Royal. He's 4 years old, gray, male and asthmatic. I've raised him since he was a kitten. Soon Royal will undergo his first round of acupuncture. And I will stare at the ceiling and wonder just what kind of person I've become.
Here's how I got to this point: Royal's asthma manifests itself as coughing fits. He pitifully bellies down to the floor. His diaphragm spasms and wheezing coughs rattle through his 12-pound frame. At this point, I or Brooke, my girlfriend, swoop him onto our laps like a human child and dose him with the AeroKat—a $40 albuterol steroid inhaler fitted with a padded mask that covers Royal's nose and mouth. Brooke is especially empathetic because she has asthma too. Their inhalers are the same prescription. Right now in fact, because I've neglected to refill Royal's prescription, Brooke's inhaler is fitted into the AeroKat.
At times when Royal's attacks have been especially frequent, three or four times a day, I've shelled out for $200 steroid shots. These quell his symptoms for months, but are very unhealthy in the long run. My vet recommended acupuncture.
I've never had acupuncture. And despite testimonials and the AMA's endorsement, I'm skeptical about the health benefits of stabbing someone with tiny needles. Muscle problems maybe, but how do pinpricks in everywhere but the lungs treat a chronic lung condition? True healing, I believe, comes from harsh drugs and sharp blades.
Even if I wholeheartedly embraced acupuncture, Royal hardly deserves this devoted effort. He is, frankly, a jerk. He's self-centered. He keeps erratic hours. He spent a summer covertly shredding the spines of my record collection. If chest X-rays hadn't confirmed his asthma, I'd suspect Royal was faking the whole thing for attention.
And yet here we are in the exam room. Free of his crate, a wide-eyed Royal systematically smells everything before curling up on my lap, his tail lashing.
Dr. Curran comes is—dark-rimmed glasses, brunet pixie cut, olive cargo pan—she's no New Age quack. No scented candles or pan flute music grace her office. A trained and licensed in Western veterinary medicine, she believes that holistic treatments, like diet, herbs and acupuncture, can work with standard treatments for cats and dogs suffering from everything from joint problems to head and spine trauma. More than a dozen other Portland-area vet clinics offer acupuncture. At the Audobon Society of Portland, Dr. Molly McCallister performs acupuncture on ailing wildlife, needling everything squirrels and rabbits to a red-tailed hawk with foot issues.
"I like to start with the top of the head," says Curran, opening a small wooden box to reveal a handful of fine, 2-inch needles. "It's a relaxation point." Stab a needle into a cat's head and it will relax. Makes sense. I just nod. Curran gently pinches the skin between Royal's ears and slides a needle in. Royal doesn't bat an eye. The needle's plastic handle sticks straight up from the middle of Royal's skull. It's both disturbing and adorable. With a few more deft movements from Curran, needles protrude from his chest and between his shoulder blades.
With faint disbelief, I'd read that animals undergoing acupuncture often fall asleep. Royal lies placidly on the exam table, staring at me through half-lidded eyes.
The needles must stay in for 10 or 15 minutes. Dr. Curran excuses herself and dims the lights. Royal yawns, lays his head on his paws and closes his eyes. I'm torn between violent humiliation at being the kind of person whose cat gets acupuncture, and swooning over how cute he looks with those pins in his handsome little kitty face. We sit in silence until Curran's assistant returns to remove the pins. A visibly relaxed Royal is crated up and hauled out to the waiting room. He doesn't yowl.
Whether acupuncture will help Royal's asthma remains to be seen. Curran recommends bi-monthly sessions for at least three months. The initial treatment is $150 and follow-ups are $80, making it doubtful I'll be back—especially since Curran freely admits that acupuncture won't cure the asthma. Best-case scenario, it'll reduce the frequency and intensity of his attacks. Whether it helps or not, I respect a woman who can stick a cat full of needles without needing medical treatment of her own.
My self-respect is another matter. I've long been someone who sings popular songs to his cat, rewriting the lyrics around "kitty." But now I'm someone whose cat gets acupuncture, which I feel is an order of magnitude more ridiculous. To comfort myself, I quote the reputable literature that draws a clear scientific line between these little needles and stuff like kitty psychics. It doesn't help. All I can do is mourn the respectable person I might have been, and move forward, kitty crate in hand.
Call for more info on acupuncture at Two Rivers Veterinary Clinic, 3808 N Williams Ave., Suite 129, 280-2000.