Good Life

The healing touch: Chiropractor Kevin McCarthy works to make all patients — animal as well as human — feel better

COLLEGE TOWNSHIP Not many chiropractors start sessions by sitting on the floor and letting their patients smell their hands.

Kevin McCarthy thought nothing of it.

How else was he going to relax Ariel? A bundle of nerves masquerading as a fox terrier mix, she shook while starting her appointment at Metzger Animal Hospital. McCarthy persisted. Slowly, she drew closer for a sniff.

But it wasn't until McCarthy cut away the cone shielding her from her surgically-repaired kneecap that the visit could begin in earnest.

"Now we're buddies," he said.

Putting animals at ease before making them feel better is McCarthy's specialty. He's an internationally board-certified animal chiropractor, among the few in the state. Throughout Pennsylvania, he said, only 24 others practice at his level, all in the Pittsburgh or Philadelphia areas.

McCarthy, 33, also treats two-legged patients in the chiropractic clinic, Hands on Health, that he and his wife, Kelli Datres, run a few doors down from the hospital.

That's his main business, but for two years, he has straightened lopsided dogs and loosened stiff horses through his side venture, McCarthy Animal Chiropractic.

"I've always loved animals," he said.

But despite that, while growing up in Canada, McCarthy never wanted to be a veterinarian.

"I think because even though you can save their life I don't really like seeing them in life or death situations," he said.

"Becoming a licensed animal chiropractor is a great way to bridge the gap and help animals get back to their old selves without seeing them in a lot of pain."

Now, he works with veterinarians at the hospital, complementing traditional medical procedures and treatments.

"You're still helping, but it's less stressful," he said.

He sets out to identify disruptions in the "closed feedback loop" between animals' brains and their muscles, joints and organs - breaks that can lead to dysfunction and disease. Among the causes can be repetitive movements or trauma.

Once he figures out the cause of muscle tightness or imbalance, McCarthy works to fix the weak links in neural connections, using some of the same applied kinesiology techniques he employs with people: gentle pressure and manipulations that remove stressors on the nervous system and allow bodies to heal themselves.

Though licensed to treat any animals, he mainly works with dogs and horses. Ariel came to him with trouble walking after surgery on her back right leg.

Her owner, Beth Spiegelmyer, was new to animal chiropractic treatment, so McCarthy explained his initial plan for Ariel.

"I'm trying to get it so I can get rid of all the problems that would cause her to slowly heal," he told Spiegelmyer.

"Later on, we'll play with that knee, but right now, it's too early."

An eye for body language

He relies on his observations and sense of touch.

Unlike in his other practice, McCarthy can't consult his animal patients. But they still communicate with him beyond occasional growls or snorts. By now, he has a keen eye for body language, for telltale movements in gaits that indicate an animal is compensating for tightness or pain, or protecting a sensitive spot.

Then he lets his fingers go to work.

He has yet to be bitten while probing for knots or massaging tight spots, though he's "not going to take it personally when it eventually happens." Over time, he has learned to trust his senses, to know when to proceed and when to back off and give an animal space.

With most animals, he said, it's not an issue after a few minutes.

"They realize you're trying to help them, and they relax with you," McCarthy said.

He got his fondness for animals from visiting his grandparents' farm every weekend, riding around on a tractor and playing with pigs and cows. His interest in physiology and neurology stems from when he needed medical care - urgently.

When he was 12, a garbage truck struck him near his house in the small town of Jarvis, Ontario, not far from Lake Erie. The impact pitched him 20 feet, landing him in intensive care for six weeks.

"I broke everything except my heart and brain," he said.

Every day, his family drove an hour to visit him in the hospital. Against all odds, he recovered and gained not only his strength, but also an appreciation for the human body.

"They said I wasn't supposed to make it," McCarthy said. "Ever since I was 12, I was curious about how the body could restore itself."

At Western University in London, Ontario, he set out to be a teacher. But a week before school started, he had an epiphany while thumbing through a dull education textbook in the school bookstore.

He put down the book, walked to the registrar's office, tapped into his childhood interest and decided to major in kinesiology.

"Something switched on in my head," he said.

Another injury, a pulled groin sustained playing college soccer, drew him to his profession. A chiropractor fixed him in one visit, impressing McCarthy enough to consider becoming one himself.

He enrolled in the New York Chiropractic School in the Finger Lakes region, where he studied for four years and met his wife, a Williamsport native who went to Penn State. Together, they worked for a chiropractor for three years before starting their own practice about 14 months ago.

McCarthy branched out further because of a lame dachshund.

Disc herniation prevented the dog from using its back legs. Its owners, friends of the family, called him and asked if there was anything he could do. An anti-inflammatory prescription just wasn't working.

McCarthy paid the dog a visit.

"I adjusted the dog, then placed it back on the mat where it had been laying," he said. "After 20 minutes, the dog scooted across the mat. I was completely shocked."

Spurred by the experience, he attended the Veterinary Chiropractic Learning Centre in Brantford, Ontario - one of the few schools of its kind in North America and open to only chiropractors or veterinarians. Most of his class of 17 were vets.

"I wanted to know if (the dachshund's recovery) was 100 percent fluke or if there was something to it," he said.

"Valuable addition" to hospital

Five months of rigorous training later, he had his certification from the College of Animal Chiropractors.

That mattered to Fred Metzger.

When McCarthy approached him about doing chiropractic work and said it could make a difference at the hospital, Metzger was receptive to the idea. He has been moving toward an integrative, more holistic approach to treating animals, adding alternative medicine to traditional care, and chiropractic sounded like it would fit right in.

"I think the older I get, the more I have an open mind," Metzger said.

But the fact that McCarthy was getting instruction from veterinarians, by one of Metzger's former Purdue University classmates no less, sealed the deal.

"My big thing is you have to have people who are certified and have had advanced training," Metzger said.

He also liked McCarthy's focus on applied kinesiology techniques, rather than more typical chiropractic adjustments.

"An animal can't say, 'Ow, that really hurts,' " Metzger said. "If you're going to adjust them, that flips me out."

McCarthy, he said, has become a valuable addition to the hospital. Metzger appreciates the different perspective that McCarthy brings. He admires his professionalism, innovation and "natural bedside manner."

But most importantly, Metzger is pleased with the results.

"I think we've seen some big successes, and I think we're going to see more," he said.

With Ariel, the fox terrier mutt, McCarthy saw quick results.

As the dog leaned against her owner's stomach, McCarthy felt along her back legs, hips and spine.

"I don't know if you can tell, but she's tighter on this side than that side," he told the dog's owner.

He worked his way up the dog's spine with small squeezes, then pressed his thumb down on a ligament near the base of her tail, releasing tense myofascial tissue along her tight side. Normally when that happens, dogs shudder as if shaking off water - a sign of relief.

Ariel was too nervous for that, but McCarthy could tell by how she stood and moved that the treatment had worked.

"That'll keep her even while she's healing up," he said.

Generally, McCarthy sees four categories of patients: animals compensating after surgery, geriatric animals with arthritic issues, performance or show animals whose owners want to maximize their performance and animals injured in accidents.

Abby, a Yorkie, definitely suffered from old age.

She walked unevenly, legs bowing, back dipping. Consulting with a hospital orthopedic surgeon, Abby's owner and a local veterinary acupuncturist who has worked on the dog, McCarthy gingerly pressed on Abby's hips with one hand while cupping her belly. He lightly kneaded her shoulders.

In the end, Abby still had a lot of work ahead of her, but McCarthy noticed her topline looked straighter as she ambled around the hospital, checking out ankles.

"It looks like she's sagging less," he said.

His next patient, a Corgi/terrier mix named Lucy, was even older - 19. Since she fell down basement stairs last year, McCarthy has been regularly treating her.

"Hello, Lucy," McCarthy said as the dog shuffled into the room.

On this day, owner Sue Seybert briefed McCarthy that Lucy kept turning to her left. With the information, McCarthy began examining the gray-muzzled dog. Seybert looked on, a true believer.

From the chiropractic treatments, she said, Lucy has gotten stronger, risen better and fallen down less.

"Had we not been able to do this work, she would not have been here," Seybert said. "She was having real mobility issues. So it's magical."

"Friends for life"

McCarthy loves his two practices equally, but he finds animals "awesome to work with because their recovery rate is so much faster than an adult human."

"I get excited waking up on Tuesdays and Thursdays because I know that I'll be going into Metzger's (hospital) to help some animals get back to their old selves again," he said.

But he also makes house calls.

Recently, he drove to a College Township stable to work on Jesse, a genial thoroughbred and a rescued race horse.

Jesse suffered from a knotted muscle in his neck and other stiffness. McCarthy could see that when owner Danna Antoine trotted him in a circle clockwise, then at McCarthy's request, the other way.

The first time Jesse moved smoothly; the second, less so.

McCarthy knew what to do.

Standing on a foam box, the small talk over and his face set in concentration, he worked out tension in Jesse's neck, hips, shoulders, spine, forehead and knees. He used the same ligament release technique as with Ariel the dog.

At one point, he nudged the horse's misaligned jaw back into place, prompting a noisy exhalation of pure pleasure.

Then came the real test. Jesse trotted in circles again, faster and more fluidly than before, both times. He seemed perkier.

"He's already feeling better. See his neck? That's awesome," McCarthy said, another patient helped. "We're friends for life."