WINTER PARK, FL
Her future was grim at best.
Rescued from an apparent dog fighting ring in Bartow at 2 weeks old, Gretel was a runt — a paralyzed runt. She barely ate. She was neglected by her mother and the rest of the nursing litter. Dragging her lower back and hind legs, she pulled herself along. Her lack of bladder control left a trail of urine wherever she went.
Some thought it best to euthanize her.
Dr. Mitsie Vargas thought otherwise.
"She was brought to me, to us, (wondering) if it was OK to euthanize — if it would be the best option to end her suffering," Vargas, a veterinarian and owner of Orchid Springs Animal Hospital, said. "I just couldn't give up. If we would have put her down then they (Gretel's former owners) would have won.
"They said, 'Oh, but she can't walk.'
"I said, 'Not yet.'?"
Vargas was confident that combining her knowledge of Western and Eastern medicines she could make that dog walk.
That is precisely what she did.
Gretel is one of 69 pit bulls seized by the Polk County Sheriff's Office in October from an apparent dog fighting ring in October. Hewitt Grant II, 47, of Bartow, and his girlfriend, Nickie Sanders, 44, have been charged with animal cruelty and owning animals to fight, among other charges, an arrest report states.
Twelve of the dogs were newborn puppies only 2 to 3 weeks old.
Animal control, housing about 450 animals, was overwhelmed and the Humane Society of Polk County intervened.
"We have a very large kennel population anyway," Craig Burke, animal control director, said. "Whenever you have these large-scale confiscations, that just adds to an already overpopulated shelter."
Lisa Baker, executive director of the Humane Society of Polk County, asked Vargas and her staff whether they might be able to help with the puppies. The Humane Society took 27 of the dogs — including the 12 puppies, many of which were malnourished and needed care.
Vargas has a reputation for successful, but unorthodox methods of treatment.
She has been a veterinarian for 20 years. Five years ago, she became a certified acupuncturist through the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville.
To achieve the best results, she said, you've got to be open to methods that have worked for other cultures. "I've been working for 20 years," Vargas said. "The last five years have been the most rewarding of my career by practicing integrative medicine."
Gretel was too young for the chemicals involved in Western medicinal practices so Vargas immediately started treating her with acupuncture.
Acupuncture is a medical procedure dating back to ancient China. Short, thin needles are inserted into the skin at specific "acupoints" that connect energy pathways called meridians. So far, 165 acupoints have been identified in dogs. Many of the meridians used in acupuncture follow motor nerves that control the functionality of muscles by creating energy channels that connect the brain, spinal cord and musculoskeletal system. The motor nerves also help deliver lymphatics and blood to the musculoskeletal system, so muscles can thrive and move.
Sometimes, Vargas said, those pathways can be distorted or disrupted. One of the goals of acupuncture is to re-establish that connection.
Gretel's pathways were distorted when, Vargas speculates, another dog in the fighting ring bit into her lower half severing the communication between her lower extremities and brain. That's what the puncture-like scars on Gretel's back, pelvis and hind legs told Vargas.
"We're trying to establish communication, energetic-wise," Vargas said. "Imagine that your body is a Christmas light with 165 points. (If a) bulb isn't working then that energy isn't going through. That's the premise. Somewhere along there was a point where the energy stopped."
On larger animals, Vargas might use electro-acupuncture. She uses a C battery to send small jolts of electricity through the meridians. The energy moves forward and tells the brain the muscle is there so the brain can, once again, communicate with that part of the body.
Gretel was too small for electricity so Vargas subbed an electric charge for vibrations from an electric toothbrush. Gretel was also too small for the needles Vargas would normally use. Instead she used hand needles, some of the thinnest needles used in acupuncture. Vargas also used Tui-na, a form of Chinese manipulative therapy similar to chiropractic massage. The massages help bring the blood supply to the affected area and stimulate everything to move, Vargas said.
In humans and animals alike, the efficacy of acupuncture has been debated. Earlier this year, science and medicine writer Brian Palmer wrote an article for slate.com titled ''If Your Veterinarian Offers Acupuncture, Find a Different Vet.'' In it, he cites a placebo effect among pet owners as being a possible reason for reported results of veterinary acupuncture.
"An owner who thinks his dog has been treated is more likely to say that the dog's health has improved," Palmer wrote.
A 2006 systematic review of clinical trials for veterinary acupuncture by the National Center for Biotechnology Information came to more inconclusive results.
"On the basis of the findings of this systematic review, there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals," the review said. "Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials."
Vargas said she hopes Gretel's case can serve as one of those independent trials. Gretel responded to acupuncture and massage right away. She arrived on a Wednesday and by Monday her atrophied hind legs were beginning to move. Now she runs to the arms of Vargas and Dr. Laura Moisa, associate veterinarian, like any other excited puppy.
"A lot of people think that acupuncture is a placebo effect in people, but you can't fake the placebo effect on a dog," Vargas said. "It's a very convincing piece of evidence that this therapy is a valid and useful tool in healing."
In 20 years of practice, Vargas has seen her share of dire situations. Gretel's, she says, is one of the worst. However, Gretel fills her with hope; hope for the tenacity of spirit and the perception of a misunderstood breed.
Pit bulls have a stigma attached to them, but Vargas and Moisa say they think that has to do more with how a dog is raised than the breed.
"They only see the ones that are raised poorly," Moisa said. "It's breed discrimination."
"We have plenty of pit bulls that aren't violent," Vargas added. "For each ugly thing that you hear in the media there are thousands of lovely pit bulls that are just misunderstood."
Vargas said she has seen that a dog's character is developed more through nurturing and love than it is through genetics.
"There are a lot of people that think the pit bull breed is the scourge of the earth and needs to be eradicated," Vargas said. "I believe that every single dog has the potential to bite and inflict pain, but every single dog has the potential to be a smart and loving companion. It all depends on how they are raised. I think Gretel could be that beacon of hope for this situation and this breed."
Gretel and the other pups will be available for adoption soon. If interested, call the Humane Society of Polk County at 863-324-5227.
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