Baby, a 16-year-old tomcat with a stern, handsome face and stiff hind legs, is about to be turned into a yowling pincushion.

At least, that’s what I—someone who has never seen acupuncture in action—expect. But veterinarian and trained animal acupuncturist Deanne Strat-Zenoni assures me that's not the case, and she’s right: The procedure is totally clinical, like watching people get their teeth cleaned. Both I and Baby watch calmly as the vet gently pinches her way along his spine to divine just the right spot. Then, she takes thumbtack-length needles from a sterilized kit and presses them into his skin.

The only indication that he’s being treated at all is the constellation of little red tabs peeping up through his long, orange fur.

At his old age, Baby’s lost a lot of mobility; five months ago, he was barely able to move. A session with Strat-Zenoni every few weeks keeps him—if not agile—able to walk around without discomfort. Like most animal acupuncture patients with chronic problems (musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, and even neurological ailments), it takes time and patience.

Baby the cat enjoying another acupuncture session. Photo: John Hardberger

Believe it or not, Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital is not unusual for performing acupuncture on animals: Half a dozen facilities in the Chicago area are equipped to treat your cat or dog. But Strat-Zenoni regularly treats critters most vets will rarely see in-house. She’s “acu’d” rabbits, guinea pigs, iguanas, parrots, and tortoises. She’s also an animal chiropractor, and has done adjustments on everything from rats to horses. On one occasion, through spinal manipulation, she helped a severely impacted blood python relieve itself for the first time in who knows how long. 

Her greatest challenge, she says, was giving acupuncture to a box turtle, whose shell covered most of its poke-able points. The easiest was her boss’s late dog, Mr. Stinky, who slept through most of his sessions. (“I joked that it was job security,” she says, “Because her dog had to see me every week, she couldn’t fire me.”)

That boss—Susan Horton, who owns and runs the Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital in Skokie—became a believer in animal acupuncture as she watched Mr. Stinky’s comeback from near-immobility. A self-described skeptic, she teasingly calls a lot of Strat-Zenoni’s techniques “voodoo.” But Horton understands that there’s a lot of unexplored territory when it comes to veterinary medicine—and she knows a thing or two about blazing trails.

Horton always wanted to work with exotic pets, she says. Her parents let her keep everything from parakeets to free-roaming iguanas in the house as a kid. After getting a degree in marine ecology, she worked at several clinics with exotic clientele, always emphasizing owner-education in addition to patient care. It paid off: Eventually, her side-practice grew into Chicago Exotics, a full-time, exotics-only operation.

“A lot of people told me there was no way a vet could survive without a dog-and-cat base,” she says. “We’re living proof that you can.”

Strat-Zenoni, on the other hand, originally wanted to be a zoo vet, but she missed the bond that comes with caring for pets. “There’s a lot of procedure with zoo animals,” she says. “Because many of them are wild, you can’t handle them—and you don’t develop the same relationships.”

After a stint at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, she fell into the rehab world when her dog, an English Mastiff named Koda, tore her CCL (the canine equivalent of an ACL). She took Koda to the rehab clinic at Grayslake Animal Hospital and, by virtue of her past experience and interest in the treatment, was offered a job. She became certified in animal acupuncture and chiropractic treatment. However, her education was primarily focused on—you guessed it—cats and dogs.

“None of the traditional animal acupuncture certifications really apply to exotics,” she says. “I had to extrapolate a bit and learn as I went along.”

When she began to take on atypical pets as patients, she regularly reached out to Horton for advice. These days, Strat-Zenoni splits her time between Chicago Exotics and Integrative Pet Care, a veterinary rehab center in the city. In the last 10 years, she says, animal acupuncture has become a more widely accepted form of treatment. She now sees between 30 and 50 patients per week—a menagerie that is, to her, an exciting challenge.

“The procedure varies so much from creature to creature,” she says. “Not just species to species, but between individual animals.”

She uses extra-dainty needles on birds—on account of their thin skin and narrow blood vessels—while reptiles require a hardier point to get through their tough scales. For jittery critters, like small birds and rabbits, Strat-Zenoni typically employs “aquapuncture” (quick homeopathic injections) instead of the traditional dry-needle approach, which takes longer and requires the patient to sit still.

There have been numerous studies on the efficacy of acupuncture, and the science is relatively sound. Still, it has a struggled to receive widespread acceptance as a medical treatment in the West due to its associations with Eastern Medicine.

“If you read about acupuncture, you’ll see lots of stuff about chi, and yin and yang,” says Strat-Zenoni. “When explaining it to people, I try to stick to repeatable, proven effects.”

There are plenty of skeptics out there, which is why a lot of exotic pet owners don't reach out until traditional options have failed, become unfeasible, or proven too expensive. When potential patients (or, rather, their owners) doubt her ability to help, she makes them an offer: “Give me 3 to 5 sessions.”

On rare occasions, the improvement is instantaneous. But, more likely, it takes weeks or months of slow improvement to heal an animal—and convince a skeptical owner. It’s rehabilitation, she says, and that can be tedious work. And at $50 a session, it's more affordable than surgery or other pricey treatments.

For pet owners like Horton who are thoroughly convinced, it may seem like Strat-Zenoni is indeed working magic on the animals. But sadly, she can’t perform any of her treatments on people. That would constitute practicing medicine without a license—though that hasn't kept her clients (the human ones) from asking.