By Nancy Scanlan, DVM, Executive Director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation
The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation (AHVMF) was excited to get a question from a Cornell University faculty member about funding a research project that explores using electroacupuncture for pain in dogs.
Electroacupuncture uses very small electrical currents to stimulate acupuncture points. Normal household current is measured in volts and amps, but the current for electroacupuncture is measured in units that are 1000 times smaller (millivolts and microamps). On your skin, it feels like a slight buzz.
Most dogs experience pain as they get older, so this research can be used to benefit most of the dogs a veterinarian sees, sooner or later.
Sometimes electroacupuncture can work better than plain acupuncture when used for pain or nerve damage. This application alone is enough to convince the foundation to try to find funding so that Cornell can do the research.
High Quality Veterinary Acupuncture Studies Are Scarce
Today, over 4,800 veterinarians are certified in acupuncture, and research like the study Cornell is proposing can help guide them in the best way to use these methods. It also demonstrates to other veterinarians the need to either get training in acupuncture, or to refer their patients to someone who does acupuncture.
Although there are over 23,000 research articles on acupuncture in people, there are only 371 studies in animals. Not all of them are about dogs. Although veterinarians who use acupuncture look at studies in humans, rabbits, etc. along with their own experience as evidence to support their decisions, many other veterinarians are waiting for more specific proof.
They are waiting for enough high quality studies of acupuncture on dogs and cats to be combined into a research review article before they will recommend its use. Unfortunately, not all of the 371 articles are of high quality.
Since some current acupuncture research has been criticized for not being up to top standards, this has been one reason that acupuncture is not taught to all veterinarians. The research project from Cornell is a gold-standard double blind study, which is the type that is relied upon for the best quality. In addition, Cornell University is famous for quality research.
The clinical study they are proposing is for dog patients that already have naturally occurring pain. The treatment they receive during the study will help them. No pain will be created, so this meets the AHVM Foundation's criteria for humane, cruelty-free research. We are anxious to raise enough money to get started.
Pain in Animals Is Difficult to Measure
To evaluate changes in pain and lameness, a good system of measurement is needed. The system needs to be one that measures lameness consistently, in a way that produces numbers for statistical analysis.
Without good measurements of pain and lameness, you can't adequately evaluate the test you are running. You can't directly compare studies of different types of pain control, and it can even be difficult to measure the degree of pain control in your own experiment.
Actual research on pain control in animals is difficult to evaluate, for a number of reasons. Research relies on the investigator and the pet owner to judge how much pain the dog is in. Owners interpret signs of pain differently, depending on their powers of observation and their bond with their dog.
There is a pain scale developed at Colorado State University that lists specific signs dogs show for different degrees of pain. The chart shows four widely separated degrees of pain, up to very extreme, and is useful to judge how much and how strong a painkiller to give hospitalized animals.
But the scale doesn't measure fine gradations of pain, which one needs when judging improvement in lameness. There is no good chart for pet owners to refer to when judging whether or not their dog's lameness is improving.
Dogs who are in pain show different signs, depending on the breed and the situation in which their pain signs are recorded. So the same signs of pain in two different breeds might indicate moderate pain in one dog and extreme pain in another. Just judging by signs is not objective enough to allow good statistical analysis of the results.
Sometimes improvement in lameness is measured by pressure plates that a dog walks on. Dogs put less pressure on a painful limb. If they begin improving, they will put more pressure on the same foot. The amount of pressure on the plate can be measured and a computer can analyze the differences.
Unfortunately, this equipment is expensive. Most veterinarians do not own pressure plates for this reason, and not all universities have them, either.
Because these signs are hard to measure when you're doing research, it is hard to convince the naysayers that acupuncture actually works. That is another reason the foundation really wants to fund this study – it is going to judge pain a different way, using thermography. If this approach is successful, we might even establish a new standard for judging pain.
A New Method for Measuring Your Dog's Pain
Thermography is the study of how much heat the body is giving off. Any area that is inflamed gives off more heat than when the same area is normal (not inflamed). When a dog is lame, he generally has one or more areas in a foot or leg that are inflamed.
Inflammation causes pain. If acupuncture immediately affects inflammation, there should be less heat in the treated area than in the untreated area. If an animal is improving from repeated treatments, the thermography camera will record the decreasing information.
So rather than trying to determine how much pain a dog is feeling, thermography measures one big cause of pain: inflammation. Instead of a reaction, it is measuring a cause. Best of all, the thermography camera produces an image that can be analyzed by computer.
The AHVM Foundation is very excited about this research because of its tremendous potential:
- It is about acupuncture (a popular type of treatment not accepted by all veterinarians)
- It is about pain (which will affect almost all dogs eventually)
- It measures a cause of pain instead of a reaction to the cause
- It is double blind (to increase acceptance by conventional veterinarians)
- It might set a new standard for measuring amount of pain and inflammation in lameness
This one study will help answer many questions. Help us find better answers for treating pain in your dog. Please donate to help support this study.
How You Can Help
To donate, go to the AHVMF website, click on Ways to Give on the top menu, and there you'll find a number of different ways to make a donation. If you're not comfortable donating online, scroll down to the bottom of the Ways to Give page, and you'll see a Ways to Donate Online and Offline link.
At AHVMF.org, you can also read amazing stories of animals who have been healed with holistic medicine, as well as stories of animal teachers. There's also a blog that reports on some of the projects the foundation is working on. If you have any questions while visiting the site, you can send the foundation an email at email@example.com.