For Kennett Square vet, ancient and modern medicines work in tandem to help animals
● By Richard Gaw
By John Chambless, Staff Writer
"I've always loved animals," Elizabeth McKinstry said with a smile. "I got my first cat when I was 4, and got my first pony when I was 5. When I was in the sixth grade, I decided I wanted to be a vet."
McKinstry lives in the home her grandparents bought in the 1930s. It sits next door to the home where she grew up, on a large plot of land where there are now four horses, two dogs and four cats in residence. Clients find their way to McKinstry's home-based veterinary practice on School House Road in Kennett Square several days a week. She also runs a busy practice in Philadelphia, where she mostly treats cats.
But what makes McKinstry's practice distinctive is her use of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, along with western medicine.
"I got interested in acupuncture about five years ago because one of my technicians was going to school in New York to become a human acupuncturist," McKinstry said. "She asked me if I hurt anywhere, and being a toughie, I said, 'No, I don't hurt.' She said, 'Let me do just one point.'"
The tech put a needle into the top of McKinstry's foot, a spot that is linked to energy in Chinese medicine.
"She left it in for 10 minutes, and I didn't feel anything different," McKinstry said. "The next day, I went swimming at the Y, and what normally took me an hour to do, I did in 45 minutes. I just had so much more energy. I thought I didn't have pain, but I actually had all these knots up and down my leg that I was so used to I didn't know they were there. But I noticed when they went away."
Intrigued, McKinstry began investigating the long, rich history of acupucture and herbal remedies that are based on centuries of tradition.
"You have to be a vet to get certified in veterinary acupuncture, but you can be certified in about five months," she said. "I love the herbal medicines. For the herbal courses, I took all those online. I finished in about three years. But I'm learning all the time."
McKinstry took her first acupuncture module in 2009 in Atlantic City, after having been a vet since 1983. She has delved deeper into what acupuncture can do in treating animals which may not have responded favorably to western veterinary medicines and methods, which McKinstry also uses.
"It's nice to have a lot more options," she said. "The nice thing about herbal medicine is that, even if there's no traditional treatment, you can always try something. There's thousands of herbal remedies, and you mix them.
"They're formulas," she said of the medicines. "Some of them are more modern, but many of them are thousands of years old. They use little bits of different herbs that act synergystically. These have stood the test of time, too. They've been around so long that, if they were dangerous, it would have been discovered by now."
McKinstry has plenty of case studies in which Chinese medicine made a difference.
"I had this patient cat, Libby, whose hind legs were dragging and she couldn't walk," she said. "I ususally do the lab work and try western medicine first. The allergist said there was nothing that could be done for the condition. So I gave her some acupuncture and herbal medieines. The cat was walking normally in a few months.
"You see a lot of animals where they say you can't help -- and sometimes you can't -- but it's worth a try," McKinstry said.
Acupuncture isn't a permanent, immediate cure for chronic conditions, but repeated treatments that are properly timed can bring dramatic relief and healing, McKinstry said. Acute problems can usually be alleviated in one or two treatments. "It doesn't fix everything," she said, "but it can help with myriad conditions."
Some pet owners turn to acupuncture and herbal treatments when other options have been exhausted, but some people are wary of the claims made for the treatments. McKinstry has a long record of success, though. Animals can't be fooled into thinking they're feeling better. The proof is that they lead healthier lives after the treatments.
"Most of what I do in Philly is all western medicine," she said. "But when I give injections, I give them at acupuncture points, so I get a twofer -- the medicine and the acupuncture."
At her home practice, McKinstry does more alternative medicine.
"I belong to a couple of riding clubs, and one woman I know had a horse that used to buck whenever her daughter got on the horse," she said. "I could tell where it was sore on the back, and also on a front foot. So I did some acupuncture, and after that, she was really good and didn't buck."
In the case of Gabe, a 14-year-old German Shepherd that had become so weak he couldn't climb stairs, McKinstry said the owner had been offered a surgery option that would have cost some $10,000 – or the acupuncture and herbal alternative. "The owner called me and I did some acupuncture on the dog," McKinstry said. "Within three days, he was able to walk up the steps and was doing a lot better. I do a treatment on him about every three weeks as maintenance."
McKinstry said she likes working with cats because their bodies are more easily examined by hand. "Cats are easy," she said, smiling. "I've been doing them for so long. Plus, you can feel everything when you do a physical on them."
As she was talking, a clinent came in with a small pet carrier. Inside was Little A, a kitten that had been brought to Castaway Cats, a rescue organization. McKinstry gently examined the meowing kitten, taking a firm hand when shots were required, but also taking time to stroke its tiny ears and gently reassure her when the treatment was done.
In her treatment area, there is a wall full of herbal remedies that McKinstry can explain in detail. Her encyclopedic knowledge of them dovetails perfectly with her use of western medicine.
"Oh, I love what I do," she said. "And I love doing the Chinese medicine, too. It's really fun, and there's always something to learn."
Elizabeth McKinstry's home office is at 550 School House Road in Kennett Square. Call 610-368-3387 or 610-444-2287 for more information.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.