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Acupuncture for Animals

Taking a look at non-invasive treatments—how acupuncture can be a pathway to better health for your dog.
Written by Jaime Niedermeier; Photography by Pam Biasotti
In these enlightened times, the benefits of acupuncture are not the question. Acupuncture is the insertion of fine needles into specific points on the body to stimulate a healing effect. It increases blood circulation, relieves muscle spasms, and causes the release of endorphins (a natural painkiller) and cortisol (a steroid). It has been used on working animals, including horses and elephants, in China, Korea and India for over 3000 years. It is currently used all over the world, often in conjunction with Western medicine including physical therapy or medications, or together with other Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) including herbs, heat or massage.

Acupuncture is recommended for musculoskeletal problems like arthritis, pain or paralysis; skin issues, such as lick granuloma or allergies; respiratory issues; and gastrointestinal problems. Acupuncture can also treat sports injuries in both well-conditioned agility dogs and weekend warriors alike.

Rachael Feigenbaum, VMD, who owns and operates Lotus Veterinary House Calls in San Francisco, says, “The most dramatic results I see are probably related to...controlling pain. The classic example is a dog with an acute flare-up of intervertebral disc disease which causes severe pain and muscle-tensing. It is typical that after a single treatment of acupuncture using electro-stimulation (where a small current is applied between acupuncture needles), the pain has completely or almost completely resolved, and the dog is happy and relaxed. A Western vet may have prescribed steroids and pain medications, and even discussed surgery, but I typically have a great deal of success with acupuncture alone.”

Dr. Feigenbaum says of feline clients Spencer and Poly, “As soon as I walk in the door, they get excited and run over to the carpet where I always perform their treatments. They lie on their sides purring until I place their needles, and then they stay there perfectly still in what can only be compared to a state of blissful relaxation until I take the needles out 15 minutes later.”

Acupuncture is known to be one of the safest forms of medical treatment for animals, as it is non-invasive and very rarely has side effects. Herbal remedies are a different story. At Pets Unlimited in San Francisco, Randy Bowman, DVM, shows me the array of herbs in stock. “In the pharmacy, there’s a limited amount of herbal formulas on the shelf, but... in each one of the bottles, there’s anywhere from three to twenty-plus herbs... Really, there’s thousands (that could be prescribed). Almost anything that you could imagine, that anyone could have ever tried to use to treat something. Anything growing. ...And if it was dried versus soaked in water and then dried, it actually has a different name.” He laughs. “It’s difficult. That takes a lot longer than learning acupuncture, actually.” Dr. Bowman adds that because of a lack of research, drug interactions between herbs and other medications are not always known. He says, “Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Dr. Feigenbaum also relies heavily on her training as a veterinarian. “Personally, for my practice, I think that it is crucial to begin by getting all the pertinent history, doing a thorough physical exam, and arriving at an accurate diagnosis from both a Western and a Chinese perspective. My Western training as a vet allows me to understand different underlying causes for symptoms that might appear identical. If there is ever a possibility that symptoms are caused by cancer, I might be hesitant to recommend, or even recommend against treating with acupuncture, so as not to inadvertantly stimulate the growth of the cancer. I can also recognize when an animal needs further diagnostics to understand the underlying problem, or when symptoms could indicate the need for emergency intervention.”

So the question is, who can practice acupuncture and TCM on animals? It depends on the state.

In Oregon, the Veterinary Practice Act allows practitioners of alternative or complementary methods to work on animals with a referral from a veterinarian.

Washington laws state that only veterinarians may practice acupuncture on animals.

California laws are somewhere in-between, allowing acupuncturists to treat animals under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. Although vets may choose to undergo rigorous training and certification in acupuncture and TCM, it’s not mandatory. All that’s required is that the practitioner is a veterinarian, or works under a vet’s supervision. That also applies to Licensed Acupuncturists, who, although able to treat humans in the role of primary care practitioner, are currently unable to obtain additional training or certification that would enable them to practice on animals independently.

Bill Mosca, the Executive Director of the California State Oriental Medical Association (CSOMA), doesn’t foresee acupuncturists pushing for a change anytime soon. He says, “My guess is that we’d run into similar things as dentists would run into if they wanted to expand their scope of practice” to include animals. “Practicing on humans and practicing on non-humans are very different things. It would be a...monumental change in the laws covering both veterinary medicine as well as acupuncture.” Mosca says until more acupuncturists ask the board to develop a position on the issue, it will be status quo in California.

If acupuncturists decide to lobby to expand their scope of practice in California or Washington, a good model for compromise might lie in Maryland. Theresa Deramo, L.Ac, M.Ac, is a Certified Animal Acupuncturist in Laurel, Maryland. After obtaining her Master’s degree in Acupuncture, she attended a 187 hour certification course in animal acupuncture, including 50 hours of training by a veterinarian. Companion animals in Maryland must be seen by a veterinarian within 14 days of beginning acupuncture treatment, and practitioners emphasize that acupuncture is meant to complement, not replace, veterinary care.

Medical practitioners of all modalities agree that it is important for clients to do their homework, trust their intuition, and ultimately pick the care that will be best for their pets. As Martin H. Fischer said, “The patient does not care about your science; what he wants to know is, can you cure him?”

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