Dr. Lee Pickett performing acupuncture on a dog
Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine therapy, is used in conjunction with conventional Western medicine to treat dogs and cats with pain or weakness associated with degenerative joint disease (including osteoarthritis due to hip dysplasia), spondylosis, intervertebral disc disease and traumatic nerve injuries. Veterinarians also use acupuncture in allergic skin disease, lick granulomas, seizures and kidney failure, and in birds with psychological feather-picking.
Techniques and Treatment Schedules
Treatment consists of one or more of the following techniques, depending on the pet’s medical condition: 1) dry needle acupuncture, the insertion of sterile acupuncture needles into the skin at various locations – points – where they are retained for about 15 minutes; 2) electro-acupuncture, which provides a small, non-painful electrical current to some of the needles; 3) moxibustion, warming the acupuncture point by burning the herb mugwort (Artemis vulgaris) above the surface of the skin; or 4) aquapuncture, injecting a substance such as Vitamin B complex into an acupuncture point.
Most dogs don’t mind acupuncture treatments and actually come to enjoy them, although not all cats tolerate them well. A family member usually holds the pet during treatment.
A typical treatment schedule starts with two treatments per week for the first two weeks, then one treatment per week for a month. Subtle improvement usually is noted by the fourth treatment. If no improvement is seen by the sixth treatment, additional treatments are unlikely to prove beneficial.
After maximal improvement is achieved, treatments are gradually stretched out to a schedule that meets the pet’s needs. Generally, maintenance treatments are repeated every one to two months throughout the pet’s life.
At Bernville Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Lee Pickett provides acupuncture therapy.
How Acupuncture Works
Some, but not all, of the actions of acupuncture can be explained in terms familiar to conventional Western medicine and science. Acupuncture is thought to exert its pain-relieving effects by releasing brain chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin, and by blocking transmission of pain signals up the spinal cord to the brain. Function is thought to be enhanced through increased blood circulation to the area needled.
In traditional Chinese medicine, disease is thought to result from an imbalance of yin and yang (essentially an imbalance of normal homeostasis) as well as abnormal flow of Qi (loosely translated to mean energy) and blood (similar but not identical to the Western concept of blood.) The objective of acupuncture therapy is to restore balance and enhance the flow of Qi and blood.
Before acupuncture therapy begins, a conventional Western workup is done to determine whether other therapies would be more appropriate or even whether acupuncture is contraindicated. For example, it is essential to differentiate joint pain due to osteoarthritis (a chronic degenerative disorder for which acupuncture is useful) from pain caused by Lyme disease or septic arthritis (infections for which other treatment is more appropriate) or bone cancer (which will develop faster with acupuncture treatments.)
Adverse reactions from acupuncture are rare if the correct points, depths of needle insertion, needling techniques and retention times are used. The possibility of infection, though extremely low, is minimized by using sterile needles and needling only uninfected skin. Bleeding occurs only rarely; when it does, the few drops released from the acupuncture point are a positive sign.
For a day or so after an acupuncture treatment, the pet may experience drowsiness or weakness. These transient effects are considered good prognostic signs, but treatments should not be scheduled for the day before competition or heavy exercise (e.g., obedience trials, agility trials or hunting.)
Other potential adverse reactions include hives and increased growth rate of established tumors. Corticosteroids, particularly at high doses, may block some of the effects of acupuncture.
Altman, Sheldon. Acupuncture Therapy in Small Animal Practice. Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Third Edition, Edited by Stephen J. Ettinger, 1989, pp. 484-498.
Kendall, D.E. A Scientific Model for Acupuncture, Part I. American Journal of Acupuncture 17(3):251-268.
Kendall, D.E. A Scientific Model for Acupuncture, Part II. American Journal of Acupuncture 17(4):343-360.
Schoen, Allen M. Veterinary Acupuncture: Ancient Art to Modern Medicine. American Veterinary Publications, Inc., California, 1994.
Schwartz, Cheryl. Four Paws, Five Directions. Celestial Arts Publishing, California, 1996.