Acupuncture for Pets
by Tari Kern DVM, CCRP, CVMA, CVSMT
Acupuncture is widely believed to have originated in China over thousands of years ago and is used regularly in Traditional Chinese Medicine, aka “TCM”, for a wide variety of ailments. The popularity of acupuncture in pets has increased over the last 20 years and more veterinarians are seeking this type of specialized training to help their patients. It is estimated that 20% of people don’t respond to acupuncture, and we can only assume that a similar percentage applies to pets as well. As with other modalities, acupuncture is a great component to a multi-modal pain control program.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves placement of very fine needles into the skin. On TV or movies, this often leaves the patient looking like a hedgehog or something out of a horror movie. Despite this portrayal in popular media, acupuncture needles are placed in very specific points along median lines. Median lines may run the length of the body or simply a limb. The acupuncture needles are placed in particular sites to specifically work to stimulate the brain, limbs, and/or internal organs.
Veterinarians today have two different avenues to consider in pursuing their acupuncture training, Eastern and Western. Eastern medicine focuses more on the Traditional Chinese Medicine school of thought. In Eastern medicine philosophy, the body is in a constant state of maintaining homeostasis or balance. Everything functions in the body as a result of the dynamic interaction of the polar opposites, yin and yang. Illness results if the yin and yang fall out of balance. Increases and decreases in qi (chi), the five elements (air, fire, earth, water, and wood), weather, etc. can lead to these imbalances and illness.
Western medicine looks at acupuncture from a neurologic interaction perspective. Science has shown that the brain is the master control center for the body. The brain monitors glucose, hormone levels and pain signals constantly through nearly instant feedback from the nerves all over the body. Based on the input, the brain coordinates efferent signals back to the body in order to modify the body’s response. Acupuncture uses needles at specific anatomic points to act as a neuromodulator, or influence the neurologic signals to the brain, and generate desired physiologic responses. Some of these effects may include reducing anxiety, dampening pain signals, improved nerve signals to muscles which hopefully improve limb function and proprioception as the body heals itself.
Acupuncture can be very beneficial in helping control pain, and this is often the main concern clients have when looking for acupuncture as a treatment for their pets. When an acupuncture needle is placed, the nerve signals carrying the sensation of pain to the brain slow down and decrease the amount of pain registered by the brain. Additionally, the body’s own natural pain killers, endorphins, are released and further reduce pain.
Once a pet is comfortable with acupuncture, a veterinarian can use electro-acupuncture to potentially increase its benefits. Mild electrical stimulation is applied directly to the needles, which feels much like a gentle vibration below the skin. Electrical stimulation may improve signaling in nerve fibers, stimulate healing of damaged nerves, and stimulate the patient’s body to produce two additional natural pain relief chemicals: encephalin and serotonin.
Not Just For Pain Control
While we focused on pain control in this blog, acupuncture can also be used to help increase neurological signaling in situations in which there are deficiencies, inflammation, seizures, organ dysfunction, gastric ulcers, spinal disc problems, and much more. Regularly scheduled acupuncture treatments can also be very effective for treating minor sports injuries in dog and cat athletes. Many professional and amateur canine competitors routinely include acupuncture in their training programs to prevent muscle and tendon injuries. If you are interested in exploring the potential benefits of acupuncture for your pet, please talk with your veterinarian as they may know a colleague in your area who is trained in acupuncture, or call the office and we may be able to help.
For information about acupuncture and rehabilitation therapy for pets:
Dr. Kern was interviewed by Lee Cohen and Rick Pruess of the Mid Michigan Pet Expert Talk Show on AM 1320 WILS in Lansing. Topics included veterinary medical acupuncture and rehabilitation therapy for animals. The audio segments aired on their morning program on Saturday, May 11, 2013. The podcasts can be heard here (acupuncture interview link & rehab interview link).