Sit. Stay. Heal.

Pet owners turn to acupuncture when conventional medicine fails.

by Michele C. Hollow

October 2011

When Laurie Morse-Dell found Luca, a four-year-old mixed-breed dog, wandering the streets of Memphis, he was in rough shape and limped badly. Luca’s veterinarian prescribed a swimming routine and a glucosamine supplement for joint support.

“We took him swimming three to four times a week, and saw an improvement,” says Morse-Dell, a 29-year-old marketing professional. “Then we moved to Bismarck, North Dakota, where the swimming options are not so great for dogs and the weather is much colder. It was clear that Luca would need more help. It got to the point where he was in visible pain and unable to sit or stand well.”

Luca’s veterinarian, Mark Ekerberg, DVM, of the Missouri River Vet Clinic in Bismarck, examined Luca, took X-rays and found that the dog had severe arthritis in his knees.

“I agreed to give acupuncture a try,” says Morse-Dell. “The whole experience was very calming. Dr. Ekerberg put a rug on the exam table and Luca sat there while the needles were inserted. Luca yawned and laid down. I was warned that he may be in some pain that day and the next, but within a few hours he was running around the backyard like he was a new dog.”

Luca initially underwent a series of six treatments, 20 minutes every two weeks. Morse-Dell now follows up with a 20-minute session every three or four months. “Luca usually lays very still for the treatment, yawns often and occasionally shakes a few needles out but seems to enjoy the experience,” Morse-Dell says.

The principles behind acupuncture for animals are the same as when this ancient healing art is used on humans: To regulate the movement of life force, or qi, through invisible channels called meridians by placing fine needles at specific points on the meridians. Acupuncture needles come in various sizes; the same sizes used on humans are used on bigger dogs, while smaller needles are used on small dogs and cats. In addition to companion animals, including horses, acupuncture has been found to be effective in a wide variety of species, including cattle, elephants, monkeys and rabbits.

An Old Dog

Denise Sullivan, a physical therapist in Colorado, was about to have her 12-year-old German Shepherd put down when he could no longer get out of bed. “I called a local equine vet hoping he could perform the sad deed in our home in his own bed instead of on a cold metal exam table,” Sullivan, 49, recounted. “The vet implored me to bring Ado in so he could try acupuncture as a last resort. We were skeptical, but desperation led me to try it.”

Ado hadn’t moved for two days when he was brought to the veterinarian’s office. “The vet had us straddle Ado across a chair so all of his limbs rested on the floor with the chair seat supporting his belly,” Sullivan recalls. “He placed needles down the length of Ado’s spine, his third eye [between and slightly above the eyes] and a few spots near the tailbone. Surprisingly, Ado did not even flinch. We spoke nervously to the vet for about 15 minutes and waited.”

When the vet removed the needles, Ado remained standing and then walked to the car on his own. They continued weekly treatments. “By day five or six of each week, you could tell there was a weakening in his legs,” says Sullivan, “but these treatments gave him a second wind and dear Ado’s wheels held out for another year.”

Integrative Vet

After Brian Voynick, DVM, CVA, took his first course in acupuncture, he wondered if he made the right decision. Voynick has been practicing traditional medicine at the American Animal Hospital in Randolph, New Jersey, for years and wasn’t sure if acupuncture would have lasting effects. His first acupuncture patient was Suzie, a dachshund with paralyzed back legs.

Suzie’s owners couldn’t afford the surgery so Voynick asked them if they would consider acupuncture. “I told them I would consult with my professors and that I wouldn’t charge them,” he says. “Within five days, Suzie had three treatments. She stayed at the kennels in our office, and when her owners came expecting to carry her out of my office, they were shocked that Suzie was able to walk out on her own.”

Voynick knows that acupuncture, like any healing therapy, isn’t a cure-all. “I believe in integrative medicine,” he explains. He recommends acupuncture for arthritis, kidney failure
to stimulate an appetite and inflammatory bowel disease.

A typical acupuncture session can run from 20 to 60 minutes. The costs incurred depend on the practitioner’s training and experience along with the complexity of the case at hand, although acupuncture is usually less expensive than surgery. (Some pet insurance companies will cover alternative treatments, including acupuncture.)

At California Pet Acupuncture & Wellness, Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, has been using acupuncture on dogs, cats and horses since 2005. “I suggest using acupuncture on any patient
that is willing to sit or lay still and be cooperative for examination and treatment,” he says. “The majority of my patients are senior dogs and cats that have conditions causing chronic pain such as arthritis, degenerative joint disease or cancer.”

In some cases acupuncture is used with surgery to allow medication dosages to be decreased, and may also help speed the post-operative healing process and improve the animal’s comfort level. In addition, acupuncture can help control vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

Acupuncture reduces reliance on pain medications, causes no side effects, reduces muscle spasms and promotes a calmer state in patients with anxiety. “It’s a great alternative to mainstream medicine,” says Mahaney. “And what’s good for us is also good for our pets.”

To find an animal acupuncturist near you, contact the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture (www.aava.org, 860-632-9911)

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