The Miracle of the Needle

How to help your pet feel better when traditional medicine is not enough.

acupuncture dog pug
Photograph by Elliott Erwitt

 

Dex, the schnauzer,    was having trouble walking. The eleven-year-old also had a history of liver problems, which made his owner, Sally Hinkle, wary of using traditional arthritis medication.

Sally Hinkle’s 11-year-old schnauzer Dex was having trouble walking and a long history of liver problems. Wary of using traditional arthritis medication, Hinkle turned to Dr. Terry Brockman, Nashville’s only certified veterinary acupuncturist.

Dr.Brockman placed a line of small needles at precise points along Dex’s back, just below the surface of his skin. The results were immediate and almost miraculous. “I’d see a difference the next day,” Hinkle says. “He’d be out trotting on our walks, keeping up, being alert.”

Almost a year later, Dex regularly returns for 30-minute “maintenance” sessions. While the white-topped needles quiver along his back, he stands on the examining table munching dog treats.

Dr. Brockman’s first use of acupuncture was in an emergency situation, when a dog hit by a car was brought into the local after-hours emergency clinic she helps to staff. After all the traditional shock treatments had failed, Dr. Brockman remembered her veterinary instructor mentioning that the center of the top lip was resuscitation point. “We didn’t have any acupuncture needles, so I stuck a hypodermic needle into the lip, and things turned around for him.”

What is acupuncture?

In ancient Chinese medical terms, disease is the result of an imbalance of “chi,” or energy, in the body. Acupuncture is believed to balance this energy by the insertion of needles along the meridians, or defined paths in the skin that correlate with different areas of the body.

Humans are generally considered to have 365 classical acupuncture points associated with major meridians. Domestic animals have acupuncture points, and most points vary from one and a half to three millimeters in diameter.

One scientific explanation is that acupuncture stimulates various sensory receptors, such as pain, temperature, and pressure. These receptors then stimulate nerves that  transmit impulses from the outer body to the central nervous system and then to the brain, which releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killing hormones.

It is a domino effect throughout the body that goes from increasing circulation to relieving muscle spasms and stimulating nerves and the body’s defense system.

As Dex demonstrated, the insertion of needles is virtually painless. The larger needles necessary for horses and cows may cause some discomfort as they pass through the skin. But with most animals, once the needles are in place, there should be very little or no pain.

According to IVAS, “Acupuncture is one of the safest veterinary therapies when practiced by a competent acupuncturist.” Possible side effects are a “rebound effect,” in which an animal’s condition seems to worsen for up to forty hours after a treatment. Some animals may become sleepy or lethargic for twenty-four hours after treatment, Brockman says. These effects are often followed by an improvement in the animal’s condition.

 

Acupuncture is not performed only with dry needles. Other methods of stimulating the acupoints include:

•  Electroacupuncture, which uses low-voltage electricity to revive paralysed or damaged nerves.

•  Aquapuncture, in which a small volume of sterile liquid, such as vitamin B12, is injected into acupuncture points when a period of prolonged stimulation is required. Aquapuncture is particularly effective with birds, which are not good at staying still for the seconds or minutes a needle is required to induce its effect.

•  Moxibustion, use of the needle heated with the smoke of burnt herbs such as Artimis Bulgara.

•  Laser stimulation, which treats painlessly and without danger of infection.

•  Gold implants, in which very small sterile gold or silver beads are surgically implanted in the acupuncture site.

•  Acupressure, or manual stimulation of the points.

 

From China to the US

While the Chinese have been using acupuncture on animals and humans for at least 3,000 years, the procedure has only recently taken off in the United States. And although it is not widely embraced in veterinary medical circles yet, acupuncture and other holistic medical practices are gaining popularity.

The needle-based therapy is used to treat conditions as diverse as back pain in horses and asthma in cats. “What you’re seeing is a mimicking of our society,” says Dr. Ed Boldt, executive director of the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS).  “As people look for alternative or complementary health care for themselves, they also start to look for alternative ways of treating their pets.” The Longmont, Colorado-based association has about 900 certified vets in its worldwide directory, up from about eight vets twenty-five years ago. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) considers the use of alternative and complementary modalities to be a part of the practice of veterinary medicine.

It has yet to be recognized as a board specialty, though.

“I wish more vets in town would take both approaches,” Dex’s owner says. “I think it takes both Western and alternative medicine to treat animals.”

That is precisely what Dr. Brockman attempts to do by combining acupuncture with her conventional veterinary practice. “If we give medicine for vomiting, we inject it in an acupuncture point,” she explains.

 

A Success Story

“Not one form of medicine has all the answers,” says Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM director of Veterinary Acupuncture and Alternative Therapies in Sherman,Connecticut, who has practiced veterinary acupuncture for eighteen years.

“The key to the success of acupuncture is choosing the conditions that you are treating,” says Schoen, who lectures internationally on the subject and is the author of Veterinary Acupuncture-Ancient Art to Modern Medicine (Amber Publishing Inc., 1994). “When patients are chosen appropriately, the success rate is quite high: around seventy to eighty percent of patients improve significantly,” he explains.

The highest success rates are reported with chronic back conditions; facial nerve paralysis; chronic diarrhea; asthma; allergic disorders’ and emergencies, such as cardiac arrest.

Acupuncture has its limitations and there are always exceptions.  It is not recommended for pregnant animals as it could stimulate labor. Animals with high fevers are not candidates, as bacterial infections need to be treated with antibiotics. It is also not considered a primary therapy for cancer or malignancies.

Photograph by Elliott Erwitt
Photograph by Elliott Erwitt

Seeing is Believing…

Dr. Schoen readily admits that many of his vet colleagues remain skeptical about acupuncture and other alternative treatments. But after years of treating every type of animal, from ferrets to goats to camels, his belief in the treatment remains unshaken.

“The main concern is that there is insufficient research,” Dr. Schoen says. “Actually, there is a great deal of research, but it has been done in foreign countries and not in English.” Dr. Boldt echoes these sentiments. “Some veterinary procedures have not been through the rigorous trials that critics want veterinary acupuncture to go through,” he says. “It’s hard to argue with something that has survived several thousands of years.” AVMA recommends that those veterinarians utilizing veterinary acupuncture have appropriate training, currently available only from the non-profit International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. Only licensed veterinarians are eligible for the society’s formal 200-hour training program, which is held once a year throughout the country in four five-day sessions.

“It’s intense,” says Dr. Brockman, who was certified in 1993. “It’s like going back to vet school because the language is so different.” The certification course is limited to a hundred students and is followed by a written exam, a canine and equine practical exam, a peer-review case exam, and a forty-hour internship with a certified acupuncturist.

 

Down to the Nitty Gritty

Acupuncture fees vary depending on the animal, but for a dog or cat a ballpark fee is roughly sixty-five to a hundred dollars for an initial visit, then thirty-five to sixty-five dollars for subsequent thirty-minute sessions.  Although every animal is different, Dr. Brockman often sees an animal once a week for six weeks in the early treatment phase.  Follow-up visits usually occur every six to eight weeks.

“It’s so time intensive, I could make a lot more money using drugs,” Dr.Brockman says. Acupuncture makes up less than five percent of her practice’s monthly revenue. And because of skepticism about this type treatment, not many non-certified vets offer referrals. “Other vets seem to be threatened by it,” says Dr. Brockman. “Mostly clients seek you on their own after they’ve tried all the traditional methods.”

But Dr. Schoen believes attitudes are changing. “I think acupuncture will continue to grow in popularity as both veterinarians and the public see where it can be of benefit,” says Schoen. “The key to the future is that acupuncture is performed in a professional manner by appropriately trained veterinarians.”

For Dr. Brockman, using this age-old technique and seeing the results for a dog like Dex gets to the heart of why she became a vet.  “I do it because it makes me feel more like a healer,” she says.

 

By Lisa Benavides Waddle

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