IDAHO FALLS Saying Connie Bowcutt cares about her horses is like calling Mother Teresa humble.
So when her 13-year-old horse, Jett, tore his groin six years ago while backing out of his trailer, Bowcutt was concerned.
"He did quite a bit of damage to himself," she said. "I knew I had 24 to 48 hours (to seek treatment) before he was severely lame."
Enter Jerry Gardner, an Idaho Falls-based acupuncturist who treats cats, dogs and horses in addition to his human clientele. Over the course of several treatment sessions, Jett's muscles unknotted and eventually healed.
Now, Bowcutt swears by Gardner's work and uses him to treat the 11 horses and two mules she owns, in addition to herself, whenever maladies arise.
"Western medicine's approach to pain is cutting it out or giving you a pill," Gardner said. "We can do things with pain that they can't deal with very well. A lot of times I can prevent unnecessary surgeries, too."
Although veterinarians in the United States have practiced acupuncture since President Nixon's groundbreaking trip to China in the 1970s, the demand for acupuncture services has increased over the past decade.
In fact, Gardner now performs his services on 10 to 15 animals per weekend, in addition to the human clients he works on four days a week a substantial increase from the 10 clients per week, human or otherwise, he started out with.
Pet owners who struggle to get their animals into carriers for a trip to a vet, or even take a pill, might be skeptical that their pets would sit still while someone sticks needles in their flesh.
Yet most animals are very tolerant of acupuncture, said Gardner, who runs an Alternative Health Clinic with his wife, Chris.
Often, animals fall asleep in the midst of a treatment session, which generally lasts 30 minutes to an hour.
The basic principles of acupuncture, which can trace its roots back more than 3,000 years, are the same in animals as with humans.
Traditional Chinese medicine says disease is the result of a blockage in energy flow along pathways in the body called meridians. Inserting needles into these pathways unblocks the energy called qi (pronounced "chee") and restores health.
Vets most commonly apply acupuncture to cats, dogs, cows and horses, but they also can treat birds, ferrets and rabbits.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that acupuncture is an effective treatment for a host of ailments in animals from hip dysplasia and chronic degenerative joint disease to respiratory, gastrointestinal, neurological and urinary tract disorders.
But researchers do not fully understand how this alternative therapy works, said Narda Robinson, a faculty member in the veterinary program at Colorado State University who researches alternative medicine.
Some researchers think needles stimulate endorphins, the hormones in the brain that reduce pain, Robinson said. Other studies have shown stimulation in certain parts of the brain when needles are applied to specific body points.
Whatever is happening, the therapy seems to work. Studies have shown that acupuncture can increase blood flow, lower heart rates and improve immune function.
And in 1997, the National Institutes of Health released a statement saying acupuncture was a "useful" treatment for a laundry list of disorders.
John Coplin, a veterinarian at Willowcreek Animal Hospital who has worked with Gardner in the past, said acupuncture has been particularly effective in treating musculoskeletal problems.
"I don't entirely understand acupuncture, but I've seen great results with it," he said.
Although Coplin praises some of the therapy's aspects, he advises pet owners to use acupuncture in conjunction with typical veterinary medicine, not as a replacement.
"I think of it as a complement to our treatment," Coplin said. "There are some things acupuncture won't fix. I just view it as another tool in our toolbox."
Gardner never makes diagnoses on animals, leaving that to the professionals. "If I see (an animal with) something really bad, I won't even treat it," Gardner said.
Gardner said he sees Eastern and Western medicine as two sides of the same coin, because "nobody has all the answers."
As for convincing the skeptics, Gardner said it's all about results.
"Some are skeptical until you help them," he said. "Then they're your friend."