Veterinary Acupuncture

Author: Brook Bolen

By all accounts, Americans adore their pets. Even in a stagnant economy, pet-centric businesses, novelties, and health care continue to thrive. As acceptance and popularity in alternative or Eastern health care among people has grown, so too has its application in veterinary medicine; chief among the emerging holistic veterinary services offered is veterinary acupuncture. 

Dog Receiving AcupunctureWhile acupuncture is among the oldest medical treatments in the world, it has only recently begun to receive mainstream acceptance as a valid treatment for a multitude of ailments affecting both humans and their companion animals. Veterinary acupuncture has been practiced for more than 3000 years in China and India, but did not receive institutional recognition in America until 1974, when the first and foremost professional society on veterinary acupuncture, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS), was established. In veterinary medicine, acupuncture can be used to treat many of the same conditions that affect humans. According to the IVAS, these include, but are not limited to, musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis, cancer, and incontinence, as well as reproductive, skin, gastrointestinal and respiratory afflictions.

Broadly speaking, acupuncture involves the application and insertion of tiny needles into the skin along strategic points referred to as meridians; additionally, it often includes herbal medicine and moxibustion, the burning of the mugwart herb, which can be used indirectly on acupuncture needles or directly on a patient’s skin.  

The practice of acupuncture is unusual by Western standards, yet just as unique is the philosophy which drives it. Acupuncture is a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which views good health as the harmonious balance between body, heart, mind, and spirit, and illness as imbalance. Specifically, these imbalances exist in the body’s energy or life force, which TCM refers to as Qi. Hence, maladies and afflictions are considered to be the result of an imbalance, or blockage, in patients’ Qi.

In contrast to Western medicine, TCM sees the body as having inherent self-healing properties and mechanisms.  Acupuncture functions to stimulate and support these properties within the body. While acupuncturists assess and diagnose the imbalances in patients’ life force and, through treatment, remove them and enables healing and balance, the emphasis is on prevention. As such, it is a holistic philosophy and practice and promotes healing on multiple levels. Conversely, medicine in the West primarily treats the symptom, whereas TCM seeks to treat that which causes the malady.

There are a number of resources pet owners can utilize in order to find reputable a veterinary acupuncturist. In most states, only licensed veterinary acupuncturists can practice acupuncture on pets. Traditional veterinarians (DVM) may be able to refer clients to a veterinarians who practice acupuncture. While many veterinary texts and manuals offer information on veterinary medicine today, a reputable CVA will have completed extensive training through a certified training institute. There are also resources online, such as the Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine website, which lists licensed CVA by state; the IVAS also offers assistance for those seeking veterinary acupuncturists.

An owner’s decision to pursue veterinary acupuncture is case specific and depends on the individual pet and its health problems. Acupuncture is well-suited for clients who are open to the idea, or for whom Western medicine is not working or causing undesirable side effects for their dog(s). Dogs who need surgery, for instance, but are not eligible because they have conditions that would make anesthesia too risky would likely benefit from acupuncture.

Dog owner Deirdre Franklin credits acupuncture with helping her dog, seventeen year old pit bull mix Carla Lou, recover from a number of illnesses. Her veterinarian, whose holistic practice utilizes both Western and Eastern techniques, suggested acupuncture in conjunction with steroids and antibiotics to treat the Lyme Disease which caused Carla Lou great pain and lameness in her back leg. While Franklin acknowledges that the pharmaceutical helped Carla Lou, she also attests that she saw immediate and long-lasting results with acupuncture. “She wasn’t using her back leg at all,” Franklin recalls, “but she was so energized and spirited following the acupuncture that I was shocked. She was so achy and in so much pain, almost like she had arthritis, but afterwards, she was like a wild child. Then, after twenty minutes or so of her doing her ‘happy dance,’ she was calm and peaceful.”

Charles Brown believes acupuncture helped significantly reduce pain and increase the quality of life for his ailing cattle dog, Jester. Jester suffered from a number of health problems and was on so much medication he was unable to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which typical Western veterinary medicine uses to treat pain. Brown recalls the dramatic effect Jester’s acupuncture treatments had on him, stating “He hobbled into the office for his treatment, and afterwards, I was amazed that he walked normally, almost the way he walked before he was ever diagnosed with arthritis.”

While many pet owners wholeheartedly endorse and support veterinary acupuncture, the research supporting its efficacy, particularly when compared to Western veterinary medicine, is equivocal. According to Dr. Erin Ringstrom, a veterinarian practicing both Western and Eastern veterinary medicine in Atlanta, many of the patients who request veterinary acupuncture have already experienced its positive effects for themselves and wish to see if it will benefit their pets. She notes that acupuncture can promote immune function, enhance performance, and help prevent diseases. Dr. Karen Ellis, a veterinarian based in Milton, Georgia, corroborates this and asserts that acupuncture is particularly useful for the treatment of arthritic conditions because it releases chemical mediators that help minimize pain and bolster the immune system. In her practice, she finds acupuncture to be particularly effective in treating hip dysplasia and other musculoskeletal disorders.

Acupuncture is not, however, applicable or successful in all cases. It can take longer to see results with acupuncture than with Western medicine and can require more and longer treatments; furthermore, some dogs are not cooperative and do not allow the needles to be placed. While solid, unbiased research on veterinary acupuncture has increased dramatically over the years, both Dr. Ringstrom and Ellis acknowledge that many unanswered questions on veterinary acupuncture’s efficacy remain; as further research is conducted, veterinarians will be able to use it more effectively and continue their mission to assist and prolong animals’ health and wellness.

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