We all encounter things in our lives that leave us enlightened and amazed. The work of Dr. Emily McLeod does both; she is an animal chiropractor. And just to clarify, yes, animal chiropractic is a real thing; and yes, it requires special training. She loves her work so much, that she left her human practice behind in 2013 to work exclusively with animals.
McLeod’s profession is appropriate because it is something that is deeply rooted in who she is. During her youth, she was always the one helping stray dogs, bunnies, and baby birds — whatever she encountered. And growing up, her family home was a haven for creatures of all kinds. The presence of animals was simply a way of life for her. She believed she was destined to become a veterinarian.
The great irony of her situation is that, after a long hiatus, McLeod is finally taking care of animals again, just as she did as a child. Sometimes the journey is a bit longer when you follow your heart. But that doesn’t matter if once you arrive, it feels like you’re where you should’ve been all along.
A native of Canada, Emily McLeod spent her formative years north of the border. When her family came to the United States, they moved frequently for her dad’s work as an engineer. She began her post-secondary education at a bible college in the mountains of Colorado, but after moving to Kansas City, she focused on a degree in secondary education. Her plan was to become a high school teacher.
However, a chance meeting with a chiropractor altered those plans. The woman worked for Cleveland University-Kansas City (CUKC), and asked McLeod if she had ever considered becoming a doctor of chiropractic, and she said, “I’ve always wanted to be a chiropractor!” McLeod still doesn’t know why she answered in the affirmative, it was just an impulse response. Although she had received chiropractic care before, she had never considered it to be a career option for her…at least not yet.
McLeod saved the woman’s business card but didn’t contact her for nearly a year. She decided to give chiropractic one trimester and move on if she didn’t like it. But she did like it, so she stayed. And her career direction was set.
In 2000, McLeod completed her Doctor of Chiropractic degree at CUKC. Over the next four years, she built a thriving family wellness practice and was content with the direction of her career. Then, she learned about a program in Texas that taught animal chiropractic. She enrolled in the course and discovered that chiropractic can be the same powerful, healing force for animals that it is for humans. And that’s when her animal chiropractic story began.
When she began her animal chiropractic coursework, McLeod had planned to devote Friday afternoons to treat family pets and other small animals after she became certified. That plan changed quickly when she was informed by her instructor that she and her fellow students would also be conducting equine adjustments. As she was unfamiliar with horses, McLeod had to rely on friends who were.
“I called a couple of my patients who were full-time horse trainers, and I said, ‘You guys, I have to learn a lot about horses, fast!’” McLeod said. “So, I started taking horsemanship lessons and riding lessons with them in exchange for practicing what I was learning.”
By the time McLeod was animal chiropractic certified in 2004 and began incorporating animals into her practice, she was very familiar with equine adjusting. During the year she provided care to the horses trained by her friends, the condition of the animals improved. As the word spread among the equine community, her services became more in demand.
After having similar success with small animals, McLeod found herself working 80-hour weeks serving patients with two legs, and those with four. Although she loved what she was doing each day, such a rigorous schedule simply wasn’t sustainable. She had to make a change.
“For the first several years, I maintained a full-time human practice and just saw animals, kind of on the side,” McLeod said. “Very organically, my animal practice grew and grew just through word of mouth and referrals. In 2013 I made the very difficult decision to leave my phenomenal family practice and pursue animal chiropractic full-time.”
When she shares her occupation with others, McLeod is often met with curiosity. The most frequent response is, “That’s a thing?” And although she is surprised by those who are unfamiliar with it, McLeod stays positive and uses those moments to inform people about the value of chiropractic care for their pets.
“It’s amazing to me that in 2019, people still don’t know that animal chiropractic is a thing, that it’s actually a certified profession!” McLeod said.
Since McLeod did extensive work with infants and young children in her human practice, she was skilled at assessing the needs of non-verbal patients. If the source of discomfort could not be vocalized, she had to rely heavily on her hands to locate the problem. She consulted with the parents about the recent health history, and would then examine the child, monitoring their movements for visual clues.
The same methodology applies to her care for animals. It requires a practitioner to be equally tactile and instinctive and to seek supplemental information from its owner involving the activity of the animal. Has there been a fall or an accident? Any unusual changes in diet or activity? How long ago did their demeanor change? The patient assessment is very similar, and also involves watching for physical signs that the animal is experiencing pain or discomfort.
“I think to be a great animal chiropractor you do have to be somewhat empathic, and you have to be able to look beyond the obvious and look for the little, tiny changes in the squint of an eye, or the wrinkle of a lip, or a nose, or the twitch of an ear,” McLeod said.
Even then, that’s no guarantee that the information she receives about the animal from their human will be helpful or even accurate. It’s in those instances when she can be of the most service to the animals. Often, McLeod says owners are “completely oblivious” to what she notices immediately about their four-legged companion. She might be told the animal hurt its back a month ago, and during her exam, she may determine the pet has likely been in pain for much longer. It is then she can become a voice for animals who otherwise wouldn’t have an advocate.
“So, I do tend to have a little more compassion for animals who don’t always have the opportunity to choose what’s best for themselves,” McLeod said. “People can choose to be compliant with home care instructions; animals are reliant on their owners to keep them on a leash, or to limit jumping, or to limit rough play, and to keep them safe.
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Her work with animals has allowed McLeod to do things some find hard to believe. Even those who have witnessed the power of animal chiropractic may not be able to explain it, but they appreciate it, and they tell others. Such was the case with “Ruede,” a Rottweiler whose life was changed dramatically by McLeod.
Ruede’s back legs had become paralyzed, and he was facing back surgery or euthanasia. His owner had a chance meeting with a man whose cows had been treated by McLeod. He suggested they contact her. The first appointment, Ruede was carried in on a makeshift stretcher.
The initial adjustment provided little improvement, but by his third visit, Ruede was able to walk in on his own. His surgery was canceled, and he received regular treatment from McLeod until he passed away four years later. Her ability to impact the lives of people through their pets is felt every day. Ruede was a textbook example of a dog whose life and body were made whole again through animal chiropractic. And as a result, his human family had Ruede with them for an additional four years.
“I’ve had multiple paralyzed dogs come into my practice, full paraparesis in the hind limbs – some without any bladder or bowel control – and within a handful of adjustments, they’re walking again,” McLeod said. “So, chiropractic for animals is phenomenal, and as a chiropractor, I continue to be amazed at how a body and a nervous system can respond to chiropractic and be better.”
The days McLeod spends as an animal chiropractor are extremely gratifying for her. She loves it that she still gets to adjust all day, “it’s just the bodies I adjust are different.” And those differences make it even more appealing for her.
“The success of animal chiropractic is amazing, and part of that is because of the mechanics of the quadruped,” McLeod said. “A quadruped spine with four feet on the ground is much more stable than a human (biped) spine with two feet on the ground and poor posture, so on a good day if an animal has four good, well-working, comfortable legs and feet on the ground, they maintain spinal alignment better than humans ever do.”
In addition, the follow-up care for animals is unlike that of humans. When adjusting a human patient, McLeod would usually see them again within the next 24-36 hours. For animals, the next treatment may not be necessary until 12-14 days later. But the results are equally as impressive.
McLeod has been treating the equine and canine members of the Kansas City Missouri Police Department for nearly a decade. Sgt. Joey Roberts is the head of the Kansas City Mounted Patrol, which uses eight horses to patrol around the city. After overcoming his initial skepticism about animal chiropractic, Roberts is now certain that what McLeod does is crucial to the health of his animal colleagues.
“The care that Dr. McLeod has provided our horses has been vitally important just as a preventative measure as much as for treatment of things that pop up,” Roberts said. “I would say for any mounted police agency, they’d be crazy not to have chiropractic care.
The time and dedication McLeod has given to her practice for nearly 20 years has been positive in a multitude of ways. She’s had great success treating humans as well as animals. Proud of what she’s accomplished, she remains humble and is not one to take her profession for granted.
“I look at these (hands), and I just think what powerful tools these are,” McLeod said. “Have hands, will travel. You know, I’m in a barn today, a small animal clinic tomorrow, I was in Africa several months ago with these (hands). I just need these and a table, and lives can be changed. And that’s amazing to me, it’s profound. And it’s such a privilege to have a profession that goes with me all the time.”
And where she goes is sometimes a global event. International mission trips are a passion for McLeod. They touch her heart in ways almost beyond words. They serve as a reminder that her life in the United States is far removed from the daily struggles endured by those in other parts of the world.
Trips to Guatemala, Malawi, Ghana, and Uganda have provided a host of memories, some more difficult than others. In Uganda, she treated children ages two to 18 who were imprisoned for offenses such as stealing, begging, or simply for being homeless. Young girls who had been raped and were pregnant were also incarcerated. In some instances, they were held in the same jail as their attacker. Children dealing with such adult issues left an indelible impression on McLeod.
“We take for granted the freedoms we have here to live and do, and work, and be, and our kids are complaining that they don’t have the latest iPhone,” McLeod said. “And I’m putting my hands on a two-year-old that gets one meal every other day provided by the prison.”
McLeod struggles to be a part of two worlds that are so unbelievably different. However, it allows her to keep things in perspective regarding who she is and what she’s about, and it motivates her to do what she can to help. And providing chiropractic care both here and abroad is the best way for her to do that.
“So here, I am taking care of pets that have more clothes and better food than some people in Africa do, and yet it’s very clear to me I do what I do here, so I can fund what I do over there,” McLeod said.
It’s true she has enjoyed professional success, but it goes deeper than that. Her success means she’s been able to bring happiness to thousands of people during the last two decades. For animals in need, McLeod has been a blessing. Her healing hands have granted an extension to their lives of work, love, and play with their human companions.
“I don’t know if I fully grasp the bigness of what I get to do every day, except I see the animals benefiting, and for years I saw the kids and the people under my care living better lives because they were feeling and functioning better,” McLeod said. “I think I’m just lucky to get to be a chiropractor…and an animal chiropractor.”
The satisfaction for McLeod is heightened when she is able to watch the animals enjoy a better quality of life through chiropractic, just as many humans have done. You need not be a philosopher or a scholar to know that when a creature is able to move without difficulty, or romp and play again just as they did before, it’s something special.
McLeod has an appreciation for this because her own pets fill her life with warmth and joy. She and her husband have two Mastiffs, two cats, nine chickens, and a pig. So, as a pet owner, she knows the importance of a healthy four-legged friend, because not only are they part of her family, they are a part of her heart.
“I’m sure one day there will be a time in my life when I don’t have animals again, but I think they just make life feel a little bit more complete,” McLeod said. “There’s something about a wagging tail and a happy greeting at the door every day – regardless of your day – that just makes coming home better.”
Just as she loves her own pets, she has a soft spot for all animals she treats. But with animal chiropractic, it’s not enough to simply have the skills, you must have the heart and commitment to care for a four-legged creature on the same level as you would a human being. It takes a special kind of person to help those who can’t help themselves. She treats them with the same kindness and compassion that she would want if she were being treated.
So, with animal chiropractic, the same basic principles apply for McLeod. Whether a patient has two legs or four, she’s still helping those in need. Although the switch from a human to an animal practice was a hard choice to make, she wouldn’t have it any other way. It was a long journey from rescuing animals as a child, to helping them as an animal chiropractor, but she’s right where she wants to be…right where she needs to be.
“I can’t imagine doing anything but chiropractic, and being a chiropractor is not just a job for me, it’s who I am,” McLeod said. “It’s part of my being. So, I am a chiropractor, I don’t just do chiropractic.”
Catch Dr. McLeod’s “One Big Thing” in this 30-second clip