In honor of the Chinese New Year, Animal Fair investigates the medical potential of veterinary acupuncture.
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. So Hinkle turned to Dr. Terry Brockman, a vet with over 20 years of experience and Nashville’s only certified veterinary acupuncturist. Dr. Brockman placed a line of small needles just below the surface of the skin at precise points along Dex’s back. “I’d see a difference the next day,” Hinkle says. “He’d be out trotting on our walks, and keeping up, being real alert.”
Almost a year later, Dex regularly returns for “maintenance” sessions of about thirty minutes each. While the white-topped needles quiver along his back, he stands on the examining table munching dog treats. “You have to figure out what the root problem is,” says Dr. Brockman, who has treated cats, birds and iguanas from her private practice. “If you treat the underlying problem, not just the symptom, acupuncture works.”
Veterinary acupuncture has taken off in the United States only fairly recently, but the Chinese have been using the procedure on animals as long as they’ve been using it on humans – at least 3,000 years. Although acupuncture is not yet widely embraced in veterinary medical circles, it and other holistic medical practices are gaining in popularity. Acupuncture 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. “As people look for alternative or complementary health care for themselves, they start to look for their pets as well.” 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 legitimate part of veterinary medical practice, despite the fact that it has yet to be recognized as a board specialty. “No 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 veterinary acupuncture and is the author of Veterinary Acupuncture: Ancient Art to Modern Medicine.
The highest success rates are reported with musculo-skeletal problems, such as chronic back conditions in dogs and horses; certain neurological conditions, such as facial nerve paralysis in horses; gastrointestinal problems, such as chronic diarrhea; respiratory problems, such as bronchial asthma; allergic disorders and emergencies, such as cardiac arrest.
“When patients are chosen appropriately, the success rate is quite high. Around seventy to eighty percent of patients improve significantly,” says Dr. Schoen.
“The first time I used acupuncture was in an emergency situation,” Dr. Brockman explains. A dog that had been hit by a car was brought in to the local after-hours emergency clinic she helps staff. After all the traditional shock treatments had failed, Dr. Brockman remembered her veterinary instructor mentioning that the center of the top lip was a resuscitation point. “We didn’t have any acupuncture needles, so I stuck a hypodermic needle into the lip and things turned around for him,” Dr. Brockman says.
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, since bacterial infections need to be treated with antibiotics. It is also not considered a primary therapy for cancer or malignancies.
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 also have acupuncture points, most of which vary from one and a half to three millimeters in diameter.
One scientific explanation for its success 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. These substances cause subsequent domino effects throughout the body, from increasing circulation to relieving muscle spasms and stimulating nerves and the body’s defense system. The insertion of needles is virtually painless though the larger needles necessary for horses and cows may cause some discomfort as they pass through the skin. But in the case of most animals, once the needles are in place, there should be very little or no pain.
“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.” Dr. Brockman regularly combines acupuncture with her conventional veterinary practice. “If we give medicine for vomiting, we inject it in an acupuncture point,” she explains.
According to the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, “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.
• 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, since they have trouble remaining still for the seconds or minutes a needle is required to induce its effect.
• Moxibustion, or the use of heat.
• 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.
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.”
The AVMA recommends that 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.
Acupuncture fees vary depending on the animal, but an initial visit for a dog or cat ranges from $65 to $100. All subsequent 30-minute sessions generally cost between $35 and $65. 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 acupuncture, very few non-certified veterinarians offer referrals. “Other vets seem to be threatened by it,” says Dr. Brockman. “Mostly clients seek you on their own. They’ve tried all the traditional methods.”
Dr. Schoen believes attitudes are changing. “I think acupuncture will continue to grow in popularity as both veterinarians and the public see how beneficial it can be,” says Schoen. “The key to the future is that acupuncture is performed in a professional manner by appropriately trained veterinarians.” For Dr. Brockman, using acupuncture and seeing the results for a dog like Dex gets to the heart of why she became a veterinarian. She says, “I do it because it makes me feel more like a healer.”