Pet Corner

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By now, most of us are familiar with acupuncture, and many folks either have a pet that has been to an acupuncturist or know someone whose pet has been “needled.” In addition to herbal remedies and other treatment methods, acupuncturists insert hair-thin, specialized needles into roughly the same anatomic points identified by ancient practitioners. According to traditional acupuncturists, the needles activate and balance inner systems so the patient’s whole body returns to and is maintained in a healthy state.

Herbal remedies are used to further enhance the balance of the patient’s inner organs and systems (see “Favorite Oriental Medicine Herbs” below). A practitioner of Oriental Medicine tries to aid this body-balancing act by selecting herbs that enhance and balance what is known as the yin components of the body (cold, deep, dark, chronic, feminine, wet) or the yang components (hot, superficial, light, acute, masculine, dry).

In addition to balancing these primary yin/yang body components, herbs may be selected to balance one or more of what the Oriental perspective refers to as “organ systems” — liver, gallbladder, spleen, kidney, etc.

Finally, herbs and acupuncture needles may be directed toward enhancing the flow of qi, which is loosely translated as the vital energy, the breath of life, or the spirit of the animal.

Acupuncture practitioners might diagnose a problem as resulting from a yin deficiency, for example, or an excess of yang in the liver or as a blockage of qi (arthritis, for example, is thought of as a blockage of qi at the site of the painful, bony growth). Depending on the diagnosis derived from this Oriental system (which will not be equivalent to a Western medical diagnosis), herbs and acupuncture points are selected to re-balance the patient’s whole body.

Modern acupuncture practitioners generally have learned some of the ancient Oriental concepts which they have translated and integrated into concepts more aligned with Western medicine.

History of Acupuncture

Acupuncture has been used for at least 2,500 years as a part of the overall health maintenance system of Oriental Medicine. Early acupuncture practice in animals was used primarily for farm animals — oxen, pigs, chickens and horses, as would be expected in an agrarian society. Recently, practitioners have adapted the ancient methods to include our more popular pet animals: dogs, cats, birds and exotic pets.

While acupuncture has a centuries- long history of use in the East and several hundred years of use in Europe, interest in the United States really only began after President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, when one of the president’s entourage received acupuncture treatments during his emergency appendectomy.

In 1974, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society was created. Each year, hundreds of veterinarians now are being trained under the organization’s accrediting guidance. Acupuncture is used by several thousand veterinary practitioners in this country and internationally; practitioners either use it exclusively or integrate acupuncture therapy into a conventional Western medicine practice.

Personal Experiences

I have been using acupuncture in my holistic practice for more than a decade. I have seen a gradual transition from folks being amazed that such a “far-out” method was actually being used on pets, to today, when I rarely meet someone — even here in the Heartland — who isn’t acquainted with acupuncture for animals.

Most of my early clients already had tried Western medicines and came to me for acupuncture when that didn’t work. Nowadays, more and more folks are using the “alternatives” as their first choice.

I’ve found acupuncture extremely effective for a variety of diseases, especially musculoskeletal problems. In fact, I’ve had such good results, I tell my colleagues I think it is tantamount to malpractice if they don’t at least offer acupuncture as an option, especially for chronic skeletal problems, such as the arthritis case that hasn’t responded to other therapies.

About Safety and Effectiveness

Despite our growing familiarity with acupuncture, many people still wonder if it really works. It does. Acupuncture has been used effectively for hundreds of years. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health confirmed tradition and issued a consensus report on acupuncture that determined its effectiveness for a number of conditions.

While there is not a lot of definitive research data on animals, veterinarians report frequent beneficial results when treating conditions including arthritis, hip dysplasia, gastrointestinal ailments, skin problems, hormonal conditions, some cancers, and peripheral and central nervous system disorders.

For all intents and practical purposes, it is not as important to understand or believe Oriental Medicine concepts as it is to observe their results and decide if the treatments are doing any good for your pet.

Adverse reactions are extremely rare and generally are related to the needles: rarely an infection may occur at the needle site; a needle may break off and act as a benign foreign body that can eventually cause problems; or improperly placed needles may injure deep tissues. This is why it is extremely important to know that your veterinarian is a qualified practitioner (see “Finding a Veterinary Acupuncturist” below).

A Typical Acupuncture Treatment

After deriving a diagnosis, perhaps using a variety of methods, the acupuncture practitioner decides on a treatment protocol, usually consisting of placing the slender, sterile needles in anatomically specific sites. Additional stimulation may be added to the needle by applying heat or a mild electrical current. Since the 1960s, low-power laser treatments — applied to acupuncture points or directly to wound surfaces — have been used for wound healing, recovery from nerve damage and pain reduction.

Needles are left in place for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the condition being treated. After some initial concern with the needle entry, most animals tolerate the treatments well, and many actually appear to enjoy their therapy times.

It often takes several (four to 10) treatments before substantial results are seen, but some animals have excellent response after the first treatment. Initial treatments are spaced from several days to about two weeks apart.

Depending on the severity of the disease, animals often will benefit from repeat treatments throughout their lifetime, spaced anywhere from one to six or more months apart. Costs vary, but are usually $50 to $100 per treatment.

The most common benefit reported by human acupuncture patients is relief from pain. When pain subsides, an animal can return to a more normal gait, and although they can’t talk, critters often communicate pain relief by becoming calmer, sleeping better and many demonstrate an increased clarity of their eyes, losing the “fog” that was caused by pain. Besides pain, other observable disease symptoms should also ease or disappear with proper treatment.

Each animal patient is an individual, and as with any medical treatment, response will vary among individuals. Finally, look for the unexpected. Alternative medicines seem to have a habit of producing unexpected, beneficial results.

Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website,, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.

Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.

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