This non-pharmacological form of treatment, rooted in Eastern medicine, can help with a variety of conditions
Tabitha, an 18-year-old sweet-tempered feline, was struggling to move around the house comfortably. Her owner had exhausted many available options to help ease the pain she was experiencing from her arthritic joints. Acupuncture was suggested to Tabitha’s owner, and although she was slightly skeptical of the true benefits this treatment might offer, she scheduled an initial acupuncture appointment for Tabitha.
Tabitha was a very cooperative patient and seemed to enjoy her acupuncture visits. After about 6 sessions, Tabitha’s owner noticed a little pep in her step and improved movement with less stiffness. Treatments continued over the year and the owner observed that Tabitha’s daily life improved as she began to groom herself better, sleep more comfortably, navigate the litter box more easily and have an increased appetite. Amazingly, Tabitha didn’t need any painkillers during her acupuncture treatments and she was able to celebrate her 22nd birthday. Tabitha was a demonstrator of the true benefits that acupuncture could bring to our furry companions.
What is acupuncture ?
Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years. This treatment originated in China, and traditional Chinese veterinary medicine includes not only the practice of acupuncture but also herbal medicine, dietary therapy, and Tui na (medical manipulation). About 173 acupuncture points exist in animals and 361 in humans. Acupuncture generally involves the insertion of thin, sterile needles into discrete, specific points on the body to induce a therapeutic effect. There are other methods used to enhance the effects of acupuncture, including electrical stimulation and moxibustion. Moxibustion uses dried plant material called moxa, which is burned near the surface of the skin to help treat certain conditions. Electroacupuncture uses a light, gentle electrical current to pass between placed needles, causing stimulation to help improve the effects of acupuncture for certain conditions.
Helping patients with acupuncture
In terms of the effectiveness of acupuncture, several studies have shown that stimulation of acupuncture points results in the release of β-endorphins, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Studies have further indicated that acupuncture can help relieve pain, promote tissue healing processes, regulate gastrointestinal motility, immunoregulation, anti-inflammatory effects, and hormonal regulation.
The best part about acupuncture therapy is that the treatment is extremely safe and rarely causes any adverse effects. Some results can be seen immediately, but others will require multiple treatments. Most animals handle acupuncture needles very well and often even show a relaxing effect from the placement of certain points. The body has many interconnecting channels that can be stimulated by acupuncture therapy. Many veterinarians who practice acupuncture can use these channels to help multiple areas of the body, with just a few acupuncture points.
Practicing veterinary care with acupuncture
To become a certified veterinary acupuncturist, a practicing veterinarian must undergo extensive training to understand the history of acupuncture, the correct diagnosis of a patient, and the channels and meridians used in acupuncture therapy. There are several tests that these trained professionals must pass to become competent and certified.
In practice, I will often ask owners to offer an animal’s favorite treat or meal to make it a positive experience during acupuncture sessions. Most sessions will last between 15 and 30 minutes. Some of the most common conditions for which acupuncture is used in animals include musculoskeletal and neurological injuries, gastrointestinal disorders, allergic dermatitis, lick granulomas, epilepsy, and chronic pain.
For those wishing to pursue this treatment for a pet, I would recommend finding a certified veterinary acupuncturist nearby. They will want to review your pet’s complete medical history and perform a thorough examination before any acupuncture treatment. The acupuncturist may also suggest dietary changes or herbal remedies to address your pet’s underlying issues.
I have found the most success with an integrative approach to treating my patients using elements of traditional Western medicine (eg x-rays, ultrasounds, antibiotics) and Eastern medicine (eg acupuncture, herbs). We are fortunate to have many options available today to help our pets live longer and more comfortably.
Dana Koch, VMD, CVA, MLAS is medical director of HousePaws Hospital in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, which provides acupuncture services. She received her veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in laboratory animal medicine from Drexel University, both located in Philadelphia.