New tricks  for old dogs

Veterinarian turns to acupuncture to help ailing patients

Dr. Larry McCaskill is no stranger to big decisions.

He gave up playing football at LSU to go to Vietnam with the Air Force. Instead of choosing between careers in aviation and veterinary medicine, he did both for 29 years before finally giving up his airline job in 2007.

Then, in 2008, McCaskill attended a seminar on veterinary acupuncture by Dr. Shen Huisheng Xie of the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine that showed how Chinese techniques worked in ways that his own knowledge could not.

“I’m sitting there going, ‘I can’t do anything more for these patients. There’s nothing I can do Western-wise that’s going to help these patients,’” McCaskill said. “Yet, he’s able to take Chinese medicine of acupuncture and herbal medicine and … Chinese massage and food therapy, and their quality of life totally changes.”

McCaskill’s veterinary practice changed, too.

McCaskill completed his certifications in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine in 2009. Since then, he has added those techniques to his practice at Jefferson Animal Hospital in Baton Rouge and Dodge City Veterinary Hospital in Denham Springs. McCaskill said he is the only veterinarian in the Baton Rouge area and one of few in Louisiana who has such a small-animal practice. He accepts patients by referral.

“Normally, when you see me I’m the last resort,” he said. “Everybody else has tried to do what they can do. … If the Western medicine works, you don’t need me. I’m not going to go to a Chinese doctor when I get sick. I’m going to the doctor that I’m used to. But if it’s not working, let’s go outside the box and see if there’s any tools.

“Very, very challenging, one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, and also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s been fun watching the other veterinarians watch the results, and watch their reactions to it because they don’t understand it, but they do know the results speak.”

Much of McCaskill’s work involves osteoarthritis and rear-end weakness where the patient can’t walk. McCaskill has a video of a dachshund he treated that lost the use of its rear legs. After one treatment session, the dachshund could remain upright when helped into a standing position. After further treatment, the dog walked on its own.

“I get cases where the animal has seizures, and they’re on so much medicine, and a lot of times we’re able to get that medicine weaned back,” McCaskill said. “Behavior problems: They get feelings of anxiety real bad. We’re able to take our acupuncture and herbal medicine and help those patients. We have a lot of patients, their bones are old. They have trouble walking. They use the bathroom and fall down. I’m able to rebuild some strength and get their quality of life better. I can’t make you a new dog, but it’s all about … the quality of life.

The quality of McCaskill’s own life has been enviable. A football star at Central High School, he earned a scholarship to play at LSU in the 1960s, and became a starting offensive tackle in an era when it was possible for a normal-sized person to do so. He was listed as weighing 225 pounds (100 pounds less than the smallest starting LSU tackle today) but that included his uniform.

“My naked weight for four years was 210 pounds, and I played offensive tackle,” McCaskill said.

He did so for teams that won two postseason bowl games, including, in 1968, the inaugural Peach Bowl — a forerunner to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in which LSU will play on Dec. 31. He was eligible to play in 1969. But, McCaskill was about to get his undergraduate degree in physical geography, and flying had fascinated him since childhood. He had remained in the Air Force ROTC (military training was mandatory at the time for able-bodied LSU freshman and sophomore men, optional thereafter) with hopes of becoming a military aviator.

“He agonized over it. ‘Do I stay and play my senior year? I really love doing this, but if something happens, if I got injured, I wouldn’t be able to fly,’” said Dr. Frederic Michaelson, McCaskill’s college teammate and roommate and now a colleague at Jefferson Veterinary Hospital. “I remember sitting in the dorm talking. I said, ‘Larry, you’ve wanted to be a pilot all your life. You’ve been accepted to flight school. How are you going to pass it up? You don’t have interest in taking your football career any further.’ So, that’s what he decided to do.”

McCaskill was sent to Vietnam in 1972, where he flew 166 missions in a year and earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses piloting the Air Force OV-10 Bronco. His work as a forward air controller had him flying over enemy targets so that he could identify them for fighter-bombers to attack. He’d hang around to make sure the targets were destroyed, subjecting himself to ground fire for extended periods.

“Where they would come in and spend 15 minutes in the target area, I’m out there about four hours, 31/2 hours or so,” he said. “It was a very challenging mission back then.

“One guy … said, ‘I don’t want to fly with you guys. I’ve never seen anybody get shot at as much as y’all got shot at.’”

McCaskill left the Air Force in 1977, enrolled a week later at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and opened McCaskill Veterinary Hospital in New Roads in 1981.

He also joined the Air Force Reserve and, in 1991, became a pilot for United Air Lines, flying mostly international routes.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, McCaskill’s reserve unit was activated, and he found himself in combat again. This time, he flew an A-10 Warthog attacking Iraqi ground targets as directed by a forward air controller flying an OV-10.

“If you think that wasn’t déjà vu …,” McCaskill said. “Having experience was very important. ... When he said, ‘OK, I’m fixing to mark the target,’ I told my wing man, ‘Get ready, because it’s fixing to crank up.’ We had nobody shooting at us until that smoke went in, and then they knew where we were going and where we were going to be, and it was just like I had experienced before. Here we go. Experience is worth a lot.”

McCaskill’s experience as an airline pilot took him to China many times. He made a point of trying to learn some of the local language where he flew, which paid unexpected benefits when he discovered traditional Chinese veterinary medicine.

“Five years ago, if you would have told me I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I’d have looked at you a little bit funny,” he said. “If you’d told me I’d be going to China to help teach American students at a Chinese veterinary school their first course in acupuncture, and then tell me I’m going to go and speak at an international conference where they’ve got 11 or 12 different countries represented and talk about what I did here in the United States using traditional Chinese veterinary medicine, I’d say, ‘I think you’ve lost it.’”