Acupuncture's origins go back some 5,000 years, but its use in Western veterinary medicine is just starting.
Paralyzed from the waist down with disk syndrome, Gretchen lay moaning and weak. A veterinarian, having diagnosed the long-haired miniature dachshund's condition, offered her owners a grim choice: He could operate to remove the lower-back calcium deposits—a risky procedure, with no guarantee of success—or euthanize her.
Fortunately for Gretchen, another veterinarian, Dr. Stan Gorlitsky of Cleveland, Ohio, offered a different alternative: veterinary acupuncture. Dr. Gorlitsky deftly inserted two thin needles into carefully selected points just beneath Gretchen's skin and connected the needles to an electrostimulator (a device that generates low-voltage current). Then he switched on the machine. Gretchen felt no pain from the needles and only a slight tingling sensation from the current.
Ten minutes later, the dog's eyes brightened and she slowly stood up on the examining table. A year (and three $25 follow-up treatments) later, Gretchen remains free from pain—and from the painkilling drugs that once kept her in a stupor.
Besides disk syndrome, other disorders veterinary acupuncture can be used to treat include hip dysplasia, arthritis, allergies, lockjaw, colic, asthma, epilepsy, fevers, chronic infections and bone fractures. It's not that acupuncture miraculously heals ailments; rather, the procedure "stimulates certain meridian points in the body, so the body can heal itself," explains Dr. Gorlitsky.
Despite a considerable body of scientific research on the subject, acupuncture's effectiveness remains largely a mystery. Dr. Howard Mitchell, a veterinarian from Bristow, Oklahoma, offers one explanation. Comparing the body's inner workings to a river, he explains, "When there's an ailment in the body, the flow of energy is partially blocked. Like debris blocking a river's flow, metabolic waste and energy back up at a site of injury." So, in damaged or inflamed tissue, the body's normal flow of oxygen, blood and energy is interfered with. Acupuncture corrects the energy imbalance, he says.
The Chinese refer to negative energy as yin and positive energy as yang. Acupuncture supposedly balances these opposite charges, "changing the polarity in tissue to stimulate natural healing processes," according to Dr. H. Grady Young of Atlanta, Georgia, who, in 1943, became the first U.S. vet to integrate animal acupuncture with Western medicine.
Quite often, discussing energy relationships as health-affecting forces still draws skepticism in Western medical circles and among laypersons too. But Dr. Bruce Sickels, a vet from Union City, Indiana, is used to critics. "People look at you kind of funny when you talk about healing with energy flows," Dr. Sickels says with a laugh. "But don't physicians routinely take EEGs [electroencephalograms] and electrocardiograms to measure electrical energy in humans? There's an electromagnetic field in animals that can't be denied."
Traditionally, acupuncture involves inserting needles just beneath the skin at meridian points and then slowly turning the needles by hand; energy is transferred from acupuncturist to patient. But nowadays, to speed things up (and to reduce wear and tear on the needle-turner) a battery-run electrostimulator is used to achieve the same purpose. Or, if you squirm at the thought of turning your pet into a living pincushion, a "cold" laser (one that emits harmless low-voltage energy, as opposed to a metal-cutting "hot" laser) can be employed, and is said to work even faster.
Sometimes, a combination of the two is used. A couple of years ago, Oklahoma's Dr. Mitchell used both electrostimulation and laser therapy to treat a barrel-racing quarter horse, named Cool Approach, for a fractured splint bone (front leg). Conventional treatment called for surgery, followed by six to eight months of healing. Instead, Mitchell administered laser and electrostimulation acupuncture therapy for half an hour every day for a week. The result: "Three weeks later," the vet recalls, "the horse won a $42,000 purse; and by year's end, it had won more barrel races than any horse in history, earning $85,000 in prize money."
Veterinary acupuncture treatments vary according to the nature of the malady. Where there's an acute injury, such as a bone fracture, a positive charge builds up, so negative current is applied to achieve balance. With chronic injuries, such as arthritis, an excess negative charge is present. "Nothing really works in Western veterinary medicine for treating arthritis," remarks Dr. Terry Durkes, a vet from Marion, Indiana. "But I've had a 99% success rate with acupuncture in treating arthritic patients under seven years of age." Success rates for such patients seven to 12 years old has been 80%, and for older ones roughly 50%, he adds.
Rather than using "conventional" acupuncture, Dr. Durkes implants a tiny gold bead one-half inch or more deep into a specific meridian site. The gold is said to provide a positive charge, offsetting the excess negative charge at the arthritic joint. As balance is restored, calcium deposits are eventually reabsorbed by the body, he says.
Meanwhile, Ohio's Dr. Gorlitsky has had outstanding success in treating hip dysplasia with electrostimulated needles. "I often get dramatic results," he notes. "Conventional treatment with cortisone and antiinflammatory drugs can leave animals with recurring pain for years, in chronic cases. But with acupuncture I typically see 75 to 100% recovery after three 15- to 30minute treatments over a period of about a month." Dr. Gorlitsky claims that about 25 to 50% of his patients recover after just one treatment. "In time, you can actually see how treatment causes bones to remodel themselves," he says.
Gorlitsky hasn't been as successful using acupuncture to treat cases involving severe bone changes, or dogs that are quite old and weak. "But in severe cases that I can't actually cure, even though the patient may never walk perfectly again, I can usually eliminate the pain," he says.
Acupuncture also works wonders in treating allergies, Indiana's Dr. Durkes adds. "I've had an 80% success rate in treating allergies. And these are cases referred to me from other vets who've exhausted conventional medical procedures." What of the other 20%? Usually, says Durkes, his failures are cases related to flea bites. If the patient goes back to flea-infested environs, the pet may not overcome the allergy.
In addition to its ability to accelerate healing, acupuncture may be most widely known as a replacement for chemical anesthesia during surgery. The technique causes naturally occurring morphine-like compounds called endorphins to be released in specific parts of the body. Hence, major surgery can be performed painlessly—with the patient fully conscious.
What's more, acupuncture can reduce the overall need for medication. "Medications I once would use up in three weeks are still around after three years, or past their expiration dates," says Dr. Gorlitsky. By injecting antibiotics into a meridian point that corresponds to the site of injury or infection, a vet can reduce the amount of medication needed for treatment. "If done correctly, acupuncture can save 50 to 75% on antibiotic costs," remarks Dr. Durkes. "You can treat an animal more quickly and with less antibiotic by injecting [medication] directly into the right place."
Furthermore, some veterinarians are looking to acupuncture as a tool to replace certain effective medications now banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. David Hartsell of Alexandria, Minnesota, a vet who works mainly with dairy cattle, says, "A major reason I took up acupuncture is because the FDA is continually cracking down on drugs. It's a reflection of people's concern about [drug] residue in food."
Although much has been documented about human acupuncture, its veterinary counterpart has received little attention. In fact, until last summer the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) wouldn't sanction the technique, calling it "experimental."
Now, however, AVMA states: "Veterinary acupuncture and acutherapy are considered valid modalities. But potential for abuse exists. These techniques should be regarded as surgical and/or medical procedures under state veterinary practice acts. It is recommended that extensive educational programs be undertaken before a veterinarian is considered competent to practice acupuncture."
Enter the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS). Established in 1975, the U.S.-based IVAS now has more than 200 veterinarian members. In an effort to keep "quackupuncture" to a minimum, IVAS provides a certification program for licensed vets, requiring 120 hours of seminars and a comprehensive exam, plus five case reports. And to retain certified status, a vet must take 10 hours of instruction every year. "An awful lot of acupuncture is being done out there by quacks," says Dr. Durkes. "But when performed by a licensed and skilled IVAS certified vet, acupuncture will more than likely pay for itself."
To find an IVAS-certified veterinarian, you can search by your location on the IVAS website.
Author Dave Kendall is an associate editor for The New Farm magazine.