Acupuncture Breathes New Life Into Aging Penguin

african penguin

Story at-a-glance -

  • Ernie, a 36-year-old African penguin who lives at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, suffers from arthritis, which made it difficult for Ernie to swim
  • After a 10-minute acupuncture session, Ernie took to the water like a much-younger bird, according to his handler of nearly 20 years
  • Acupuncture led to remarkable improvements for Ernie, including no longer favoring his right leg, not stumbling and tucking his legs underneath his body while he swam, as penguins typically do (previously, Ernie’s legs would drag behind him while swimming)
  • Western medicine suggests acupuncture may work by stimulating nerves, increasing blood circulation, relieving muscle spasms and releasing hormones such as endorphins and cortisol

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Ernie, a 36-year-old African penguin who lives at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, is a celebrity of sorts in the world of penguins. For starters, he’s the third-oldest penguin in captivity. His old age brought with it a host of health problems, from blindness in one eye to arthritis, which made it difficult for Ernie to swim. Which brings me to his latest claim to fame: a remarkable recovery courtesy of acupuncture.

Only a handful of people perform acupuncture on penguins in zoos, but a chance meeting brought together veterinarian and acupuncturist Cyndi Benbow and Audubon’s associate veterinarian Jamie Torres. Torres shared Ernie’s troubles with Benbow, and she agreed to perform the procedure, with outstanding results.1 Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into specific body points in order to stimulate blood circulation and promote healing.

Used in Chinese medicine since ancient times, modern research suggests acupuncture stimulates various physiologic processes via neural signaling,2 and while its use is still emerging in animals, many success stories have been recorded — including Ernie’s.

Acupuncture Gave Ernie His Groove Back

After a 10-minute acupuncture session, Ernie took to the water like a much-younger bird, according to his handler of nearly 20 years, Tom Dyer, who is also an Audubon senior aviculturist. “Watching his feet in a better position and watching him walk better and watching his life become more comfortable means the world, you know,” Dyer told The Advocate.

Torres also noticed improvements, like no longer favoring his right leg, not stumbling and tucking his legs underneath his body while he swam, as penguins typically do (previously, Ernie’s legs would drag behind him while swimming).3 Further, while Ernie used to sleep right through mealtimes if his handlers didn’t wake him, after the second acupuncture treatment he began eagerly anticipating mealtime and swimming more, showing improvements in energy.

While such benefits are not unusual after acupuncture treatment, little research has been done on veterinary acupuncture and although some human doctors remain firmly entrenched in their beliefs that results from acupuncture are psychosomatic, results in animals (and cases like Ernie’s) make the placebo argument null and void. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) states acupuncture may be successfully used to treat a variety of conditions among small animals, including:4

  • Musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis or intervertebral disk disease
  • Respiratory problems, such as feline asthma
  • Skin problems, such as lick granulomas and allergic dermatitis
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea
  • Certain reproductive problems

Is There Science to Support Veterinary Acupuncture?

Yes, albeit limited (as is the case for most nontoxic modalities, as there’s no proprietary product for companies to profit from). In 2006, when researchers searched for studies to include in a systematic review, they were only able to find 14 randomized controlled trials and 17 nonrandomized controlled trails to meet their criteria.

Even then, they revealed “encouraging evidence” that acupuncture was effective for cutaneous pain and diarrhea, as well as some evidence that it may work for spinal cord injury, Cushing's syndrome, lung function, hepatitis and rumen acidosis (a metabolic disease of cattle).5

It’s also shown promise for pain relief, including from arthritis. In a study of chimpanzees with osteoarthritis, researchers used three acupuncture points known to stifle pain and inflammation when stimulated in humans. Those with the most severe osteoarthritis had significant improvements in mobility after the acupuncture treatments. “Acupuncture is an innovative treatment technique that our data show to be safe, inexpensive, and, most importantly, effective for chimpanzees,” the researchers noted.6

Of course, the outcome of the treatment depends largely on the skillset of the person administering it, especially since it can be challenging to identify proper acupuncture points across different species.

“[W]hile human acupuncture point locations have remained largely consistent over time, the veterinary versions remain imprecise and variable,” wrote veterinarian Narda Robinson of the Colorado State University Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine. “If researchers choose points that activate different nerves in one species than in another, unpredictable outcomes may occur.”7

Many conventional veterinarians are still skeptical of the value of acupuncture for animals, despite the fact that it’s a readily available and sought-after treatment by many clients of integrative veterinarians. If you’re considering acupuncture for your pet, my advice is to find an acupuncturist you are comfortable with who has received formal training and is licensed (this is extremely important).

Acupuncture for Dogs and Cats

It’s not only exotic animals like penguins and chimpanzees who can benefit from acupuncture. Your dog or cat may, also. The traditional explanation for why acupuncture works is that it allows for the free flow of Qi (pronounced “chee”), which is the body’s vital energy (aka biologic electricity) that flows along specific meridians (nerve pathways). Western medicine suggests acupuncture may work by stimulating nerves, increasing blood circulation, relieving muscle spasms and releasing hormones such as endorphins and cortisol.8

Why might you seek acupuncture for your pet? Seizures would be one reason. In a study of five dogs with epilepsy that was not responsive even to high levels of anticonvulsant drugs, acupuncture led to changes in seizure patterns following treatment. Two of the dogs had a decrease in seizure frequency that lasted for five months, while the other three dogs continued to have decreased numbers of seizures and were able to reduce their dosage of drugs.9

Pain relief would be another indication. In a study comparing electroacupuncture to morphine for pain control in dogs that underwent surgery, the acupuncture reduced the need for pain relievers and promoted satisfactory pain relief.10 (Electroacupuncture involves stimulating acupuncture needles with an electrical current.) Mobility issues may also benefit from acupuncture, including intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), which has been found to respond better to electroacupuncture than surgery.11

Dogs with cancer or those experiencing discomfort of any kind may also be candidates. Some veterinarians even use acupuncture to support well-being and improve quality of life in dogs and cats in hospice care near the end of their lives. Remember that the success of acupuncture depends on the skill level of the practitioner as well as the number and duration of treatments.

While simple, acute issues, like a sprain, may need only one treatment, chronic or recurrent issues may require ongoing sessions. Veterinary acupuncturists should be licensed professionals and they should have received formal training in veterinary acupuncture.12 IVAS has a list of IVAS-certified veterinary acupuncturists if you’d like to find one in your area.