Acupuncture comes from the Latin words acus (needle) and puncture (to prick). Simply, acupuncture means pricking the skin with a needle.
This ancient Chinese healing art has been around 5,000 years for use in people. The earliest animal acupuncture charts – for horses – were from 136 A.D. So the technique has been used with animals for quite awhile as well.
Animal acupuncture has been popular in the U.S. for about 35 years and its popularity continues to grow. As one of my colleagues at Cornell University points out, people are becoming more interested all the time in finding non-surgical, non-drug modalities to help their pets heal.
Explaining Acupuncture: Eastern and Western Perspectives
There’s a slight difference in the way Eastern and Western medicine explains how acupuncture works.
The Western viewpoint is that we are electrical beings – our brains and spinal cords are wired with electrical or nerve-based synapses. The nerves are connected by nerve bundles, which are used as acupuncture points.
The bioelectricity that zips through the nerves that wire your entire body can be modulated (acted upon) by inserting a metal needle into nerve bundles. (Metal conducts electricity.)
Insertion of an acupuncture needle into a nerve bundle is the equivalent of plugging into an electrical outlet in your home to route electricity to a specific appliance or electronic gadget. Acupuncture has the ability to reroute bioelectricity to different parts of the body, allowing for modulation of an animal’s neuro-electrical system with a metal needle.
The Eastern perspective on acupuncture is that this bioelectricity, called chi (pronounced ‘chee’), is the body’s vital energy force. Chi flows along nerve pathways called meridians. In Eastern medicine there are 12 major meridians in the body and 365 acupuncture points (nerve bundles).
By modulating (acting upon) the flow of chi or energy around the body through the use of metal needles, acupuncturists can help reduce inflammation, block pain, improve organ function, and balance the body’s energy systems.
How Acupuncture is Used in Veterinary Medicine
Animal acupuncture is beneficial for small animals like dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets. The technique is also becoming quite popular in large animal medicine for use with cows, horses – even exotics and zoo animals like camels and elephants are receiving its benefits.
The American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture lists the following conditions as among the most responsive to acupuncture:
- Hip dysplasia
- Degenerative joint disease
- Degenerative myelopathy
- Urinary tract infections
- Inflammation (systemic inflammatory conditions)
In my practice, we use the technique frequently. My colleague, Dr. King, and I are both licensed animal acupuncturists. We treat a lot of traumatic nerve injuries, lick granulomas, degenerative joint disease, arthritis, musculoskeletal problems, epilepsy, and allergic skin conditions.
Dr. King also treats thoroughbred race horses, not just for tendon and ligament injuries, but also for reproductive problems and endocrine disorders involving the adrenal and thyroid glands.
Needless to say, acupuncture has a lot of applications in veterinary medicine.
Types of Acupuncture
The dry metal needle method is the traditional form of acupuncture, but there are more recent variations on that technique that are proving quite successful as well, including:
- Electro-acupuncture, which involves attaching a microcurrent of electricity to the metal needle to stimulate the body’s electrical flow.
- Laser acupuncture is the use of lasers rather than needles on acupuncture points. This variation can be beneficial for really wiggly pets or animals that object strenuously to being pricked with needles.
- Aqua-puncture is the placement of drops of sterile fluid under the skin at acupuncture points. Some animals simply won’t sit still for a period of time with needles in them, so aqua-puncture can be a workable alternative. In my practice we injectvitamin B12 at the acupuncture points. A treatment takes about five minutes from start to finish and the animal can be taken home.
The pressure of the fluid at the acupuncture points provides continued stimulation at the acupuncture point and beneficial effects.
- Moxibustion is a technique that involves heating the acupuncture needles using mugwort, a dried, rolled herbal incense. This can be an excellent alternative for use in older animals with low body temps that are sore and stiff, with tight muscles and joints. It’s a great technique for warming the body. In my practice we use it primarily for older arthritic animals.
Determining the Success of Acupuncture Treatments for Your Pet
There are as many different acupuncture techniques as there are acupuncturists.
The amount of time acupuncture needles are left in your pet’s body, the needling technique, and the acupuncture points used should be based on your animal’s specific condition.
My advice to pet owners is to find an acupuncturist they are comfortable with who has received formal training, and is licensed (this is extremely important).
The success of acupuncture depends on a few factors, including:
- The practitioner’s expertise
- The duration and intensity of the condition being treated
- The number, length and consistency of treatments
Statistically, about 25 percent of patients have an amazing response to acupuncture, with major improvement shown to the point of fully curing the condition.
Another 50 percent of animals experience dramatic improvement, but there are still some symptoms present.
The remaining 25 percent have no response at all.
What these results highlight is the fact that the art of medicine -- matching up the type of treatment needed to successfully unlock a healing response in your pet -- is an important part of deciding what modality to pick.
Sometimes a certain technique works immediately and dramatically.
More often there is a period of trying different methods of healing to determine what procedure or combination of procedures provides the most benefit for the animal.
Acupuncture is a great alternative healing technique that has the potential to help your pet avoid the traditional drugs and/or surgery approach.