by Dr Barbara Fougere BSc BVMS (Hons) BHSc (Comp Med) MODT MHSc (Herb Med) CVA (IVAS), CVCP, CVBM.
As a young girl, acupuncture was the only treatment that helped prevent my Migraines. It was no surprise then, that when I was at vet school I took the opportunity to start my lifelong interest in veterinary acupuncture by taking on an elective in my final year. After graduating in 1986 I explored a number of complementary therapies and became a certified veterinary acupuncturist through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Association (IVAS) in 1997.
Along with herbal medicine, it’s probably one of the oldest forms of veterinary medicine in the world. Although pets have only recently been treated with acupuncture, in China, horses, cows, and pigs have been treated for well over 3000 years. Like acupuncture in people, Veterinary Acupuncture has come a long way since the early 1970s.
One of the most common concerns that people have about acupuncture on their pets is the ‘ouch’ factor. Cats and dogs can be a little apprehensive at first but they very quickly relax, becoming calm and even falling asleep. Most animals come back the next time, quite content to stand, lie down, or be held by their owner and be treated.
Similar to human acupuncture veterinary acupuncturists will check the pet’s smell, listen to any noise they make, examine the tongue color and coating, and check the pulse and specific acupuncture points. A TCM diagnosis helps with point selection but more often than not an intuitive approach, sensing the points and checking pulse changes determines the treatment.
Like disease in human TCM, in animals, there are external and internal causes, including emotional causes. It's no surprise to find out that dogs get “hot spots” in summer and Bi syndrome in winter, they suffer Blood deficiency (often when on poor diets) and cats suffer Spleen Qi deficiency and Kidney Yin deficiency very frequently. The challenge with animals is in interpreting their signs and behaviour to make a TCM diagnosis when you can’t ask them how they feel. Good palpation and observational skills as well as communicating with the owner help a great deal. Sometimes routine blood tests will pick up and confirm liver changes or kidney changes that just make sense!
Acupuncture works in much the same way it does in people. Acupuncture has also been shown to stimulate the release of numerous neurochemicals including endorphins and other pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory hormones into the bloodstream. From an energy perspective, it is likely (though not proven) that acupuncture also works by changing the electrical resistance of the acupuncture points, facilitating the flow of electromagnetic energy through the body. TCM views disease as stagnation or blockage of the vital life force or Qi, and that acupuncture serves to regulate the flow of Qi and remove blockages from the body.
Acupuncture is a very safe form of therapy if practised correctly and preferably by a trained veterinary acupuncturist. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) certifies qualified veterinarians.
Acupuncture is perhaps best known for its use in pain relief. It can be used as primary treatment, or in conjunction with conventional treatment. It is a real alternative where the risk for surgery or anaesthetic is high. Acupuncture relieves pain, reduces muscle spasms, improves circulation, reduces swelling and improves healing.
Dogs with disease that affects their spinal cord such as disc protrusions causing paralysis, partial paralysis or severe pain may benefit from acupuncture. Cats often suffer back pain in silence, you might not even know they have a problem, but a crouched walk or dislike of being touched are just two signs that back pain could be present.
Skin disorders that are poorly responsive to conventional treatment such as some allergies, chronic itching, lick granulomas, and skin disease due to disorders of the immune system or endocrine system may benefit from acupuncture. Acupuncture can also be used in conjunction with other therapies for skin disorders.
Besides pain relief, acupuncture normalises the movement in the gut and the secretions of digestive juices as well as improving blood flow.
Acupuncture has one of its greatest benefits in the treatment of shock, unconsciousness, or cardiac arrest. In an emergency you can stimulate a special point midway along the groove between the nose and the upper lip. This is Governing Vessel 26, a very powerful point that can be used to revive puppies, kittens, or dogs and cats of any age. The point can be stimulated with the nail, a pen tip or sharp needle, depending on what you have in the emergency situation, until you can reach a vet.
Heart failure can be improved with acupuncture along with conventional drugs such as diuretics and beta-blocker medications. The condition needs to be monitored very carefully when acupuncture is used, as the dosages of normal drugs usually need to be reduced as the condition responds. Heart rhythm problems may also benefit from acupuncture as acupuncture can have a direct effect on regulating the heartbeat.
One of the less known areas where acupuncture can help is in the treatment of behavioural disorders. Like humans, behavioural problems are associated with excessive emotion and what are called ‘Shen disturbances’. By treating specific points and harmonising the body, acupuncture can assist with:
Acupuncture has proven anti-inflammatory and immune stimulating effects. Certain points will also reduce allergy and stimulate different parts of the immune system. This is one of the reasons why pets, particularly older ones, benefit from regular ‘tune-ups’ of acupuncture to help keep them healthy. Any animal with an infection will benefit from acupuncture, by reducing the time it takes to recover. Any animal that is prone to infections can also receive preventive treatments to reduce the severity and number of times they get sick.
Acupuncture is a good adjunctive treatment for animals undergoing chemotherapy or other treatments for cancer. It helps reduce nausea, improves the sense of well-being, and regulates the immune system (especially when it is impaired with certain drugs used in cancer treatment). It may also be used to treat small growths, or where surgery and chemotherapy are not viable options due to age, poor prognosis, expense or other reasons.
Acupuncture can be used in females to help lack of cycling, irregular heat cycles, cystic ovaries and false pregnancies. It can also be used during labour and to help stimulate lactation. In males acupuncture can help increase sperm counts, and reduce any inflammation of the testicles or prostate gland.
Acupuncture can be used for a number of eye conditions including dry eye and chronic conjunctivitis. It can also be useful to alleviate age-related deafness.
People often ask me if acupuncture is good for fleas, I have always had great difficulty putting my needles in fleas, so I don’t really know.
If the problem is an acute, treatments may be required every couple of days until the desired result is seen. For more chronic conditions there are usually a couple of treatments 1 to 2 times a week, or weekly for a few weeks, followed by regular ‘top ups’ which might be monthly or six monthly or as needed.
If the problem is a recent one, a single acupuncture treatment should stimulate a quick response, although follow up treatments may be necessary to restore health fully. If the problem has been a long-standing one, sometimes there is no apparent change initially. A second treatment may show an improvement for three or four days, then the effect seems to wane, but follow up treatments seem to extend the effect more and more each time until the condition resolves. Occasionally the symptoms may actually appear to be worse for 12 to 24 hours, or alternatively your animal may simply sleep restfully for 12 to 24 hours.
There is often a change in your pet’s temperament; they can seem brighter and more relaxed. It is also important not to give up too early with treatments. Remember acupuncture is stimulating the body’s own internal healing mechanisms, sometimes it takes a while for it to wake up and start working!
In the hands of a qualified and experienced acupuncturist, treatment will usually bring about a marked improvement if not recovery for many complaints. By discussing the likely outcomes with your veterinarian you should plan a course of treatments, and a point at which you may choose not to continue, or the type of result that you want. For example this may be simply pain relief in an older animal, or full recovery in a younger one. Importantly acupuncture is a safe alternative or adjunctive therapy to drugs and surgery. However, it does not cure everything. More and more veterinarians are becoming qualified to use this time-tested therapy, and more and more animals will benefit from pain free lives.