At first, it just seemed that Maggie wasn't "quite herself,"
Maryland biologist Lisa Pfeifer recalls about the sweet marmalade cat who, at the time, was her and her husband's only "child."
Then Maggie's gait got a bit wobbly and she developed a head tremor. Even more odd, when Maggie approached a corner of the house "it was almost like she got stuck. She couldn't turn her body to change direction."
The Pfeifers' regular veterinarian referred them to a veterinary neurologist, who did a "thorough examination. Our cat had a CAT scan," says Lisa, and what it showed startled even the specialist. "Basically, the ventricles in her brain were enlarged and filling with fluid, so that the brain matter itself was shrinking" - almost, said the vet, like a cat's form of Parkinson's disease.
The neurologist consulted with other experts in his field, but the condition was so unusual no one had any suggestions for treatment. He told the Pfeifers just "to keep Maggie happy, let her eat and do what she wanted. He thought she might have about six months to live."
Maggie's mysterious illness showed up at a time when Lisa herself was enjoying an unexpected bout of good health thanks, she says, to the acupuncture treatment she was receiving from Greta McVey.
"I first met Greta when she was working as the staff acupuncturist at the University of Maryland Health Center," says Lisa, who was a student laboring toward an eventual Ph.D. in biology. "I used to get strep throat and upper respiratory infections every fall and winter, and each time I'd be knocked out for weeks. I was definitely a skeptic at the outset, but medication wasn't helping and several friends who'd benefited from acupuncture encouraged me to try it."
Two years into her treatments, "I was the healthiest I'd ever been in my life," says Lisa. "And once I made the leap of faith to try it, and saw how good acupuncture made me feel, I thought it could probably offer something to my animals."
Supporting Hannah’s Theatrical Side
By this time, the Pfeifers had welcomed Hannah into their home - an older German shepherd mix adopted from the Montgomery County Humane Society. Because Greta is trained and licensed to treat both people and animals, Lisa felt comfortable turning to Greta as their family acupuncturist.
Hannah was an affable spirit who had begun showing signs of arthritic pain and other age-related symptoms. Lisa says that regular sessions with Greta helped ease those symptoms in a way that also supported Hannah's bright personality well into her elder years.
"My mother is an excellent seamstress and always made wonderful Halloween costumes for us growing up," says Lisa. "So before Jason and I had any kids, Mom decided she'd make costumes for our dog and cat. Maggie barely tolerated it, but Hannah just loved to dress up. She was a real ham."
There was the year she greeted trick-or-treaters as Rabbi Hannah Barkalot, complete with kippah and stole; another time, she wagged her way to the door in grass skirt and flower garland. "But I think she most enjoyed dressing up as Holly Golightly from the movie `Breakfast at Tiffany's'," says Lisa, laughing. "My mother made her a black evening gown and four long, white gloves for her legs. She also had a fake pearl necklace and a tiara with a chin strap."
For three hours, Hannah worked the door, enthusiastically posing for pictures with delighted children. "A few times I took the tiara off because I thought it might be too tight, but she'd pick it up and bring it to me to put back on. During lulls I'd shut the door and go watch TV, but she just sat there, waiting for the next set of visitors."
And watching over it all was Maggie: tottering and corner-challenged, but still very much alive.
The Main Difference: Acupuncture Treats the Whole Pet
After Maggie's first five acupuncture sessions, Lisa says, the pace of her cat's neurological decline noticeably slowed, leaving her able to enjoy a full life. Eventually both Maggie and Hannah were doing well on a maintenance schedule of visits to Greta every couple of months.
"It seemed to me the vet was treating different parts and different symptoms of their problems," says Lisa. "And Greta was treating them more as whole individuals. She would always ask not only how they'd been doing physically, but how their spirits had been. Had they been interacting with people in the house, did they seem - in Hannah's case - happy to go out on her walks, or was she just doing it to please us. Was Maggie coming over and wanting to get up on our laps. That sort of thing."
During the acupuncture sessions, says Lisa, "Greta didn't just immediately start sticking needles into them. She spent a lot of time talking to me about how they were eating, sleeping, peeing and pooping. She'd get down on the floor with them and spend time touching and smelling their coats, looking at their eyes, their nail beds. She'd look at and feel their tongues, she'd feel the inside of their ears - were they warm, were they cold."
At first Lisa thought, "wow, that's kind of wacky, what can you figure out from that?" But Greta would always "tell me why she was doing it, and what she was feeling and smelling or seeing. And I started being able to do that myself at home. For example, when I'd call to make an appointment, I'd be able to say, `Maggie's fur is feeling really dry and she's got that hot spot between her ears, do you think I should come in earlier?'"
Both Hannah and Maggie became "very relaxed during their treatments," says Lisa. "Sometimes Maggie actually fell asleep. She'd stick out her tongue and purr away, a very Zen expression on her face." The animals even seemed to look forward to their treatments. "When we'd get to Greta's door, Hannah would start wagging her tail, and as soon as she saw Greta her whole body would do the happy dance because she knew Greta was going to help make her feel better."
As for Maggie, "for some reason she was able to tell when I put her in the carrier to go to Greta's. She'd just lie down and let me zip her up, whereas if we were heading to the vet's she'd butt her head out and try to stop the zipper with her paw."
Maggie ended up living "with basically half a brain" for seven years after her initial six-month prognosis, says Lisa. "Taking her to Greta definitely prolonged her life and made her functional for a longer time than we or any of our vets would ever have suspected." In fact, it came as a surprise when Hannah, and not Maggie, was the first to take a turn for the worse.
Care and Comfort Through the Last Days
Not long after the Pfeifers' first son was born, Hannah began having trouble keeping her food down. A check-up at the vet's revealed sudden renal failure.
"She'd had no other symptoms, so this came as a real shock," says Lisa. The vet stabilized Hannah with IV fluids, prescribed various medications and a special low-protein diet, and told the Pfeifers that she probably had a few months to live. To make Hannah more comfortable, the vet also showed Lisa how to administer fluids at home every other day. "It caused Hannah a lot of pain for me to put in the IV needle," says Lisa. "I would cry every time I had to do it."
Greta showed Lisa how to massage several acupressure points on Hannah's body while she was giving Hannah the fluids. "That was really useful," says Lisa. "It really helped to calm Hannah down." Greta also continued to treat Hannah with acupuncture, which helped Hannah "eat better and just seem more like her old self."
One muggy week in early July, however, Lisa feared Hannah's time had come. "She hadn't been eating, she was barely drinking, and she was in a lot of pain when I'd administer the fluids. I was considering stopping it all together."
Greta offered to examine and treat Hannah at the Pfeifers' home. "Greta said this could be one of two things," says Lisa. "She's either ready to go or she's trying to process something that's sort of a healing crisis. She said, `I'm not going to treat her to make her better; I'm going to treat her so she knows that she can do whatever she needs to do.'"
Lisa immediately understood that Greta "was really giving Hannah the option: do you want to stay or do you want to go?"
Thinking that Hannah would die during the night, Lisa chose to sleep on the floor next to her. But within two days "Hannah had made an amazing recovery," says Lisa. Not a full recovery of kidney function, but "she was Hannah as the best she ever was after she got sick. August, September, and October were wonderful for her. And when she finally died in November, it was after a very quick decline."
Something about the final decline "was just different to me than what had happened in July," says Lisa. "I knew it was time for her to go. But she'd been able to have almost four months longer with our family - good months - and I really attribute a lot of that to Greta."
Three years after Hannah died, Maggie's condition worsened to the point where the Pfeifers made the difficult decision to put her down. Thanks to acupuncture, says Lisa, it had been a longer and better journey than anyone had expected.
"The proof is in the pudding," says Lisa. "I would bet that the majority of people who go into acupuncture with an open mind will notice a lot of the same things that I've noticed."