2938 Vet. Med. Basic Sciences Bldg.
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
By Sarah Probst
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
Acupuncture is recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association as "the examination and stimulation of specific points of the body of non-human animals by use of acupuncture needles, injections, low-level lasers, magnets and a variety of other techniques for the diagnosis and treatment of numerous conditions in animals." The policy goes on to state, "Veterinary acupuncture and acutherapy are now considered an integral part of veterinary medicine."
Dr. Elaine R. Caplan, veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital in Urbana, first observed acupuncture when she was an intern at the Animal Medical Center in New York City in 1982. "I was amazed at how well animals tolerated the needles. The doctor was working on cases that everybody else had given up on." Because of the success Dr. Caplan observed then, she decided to become certified in acupuncture.
"In 1989 I took the certification course taught by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, the only organization that certifies veterinarians for acupuncture. I have been doing acupuncture in combination with traditional therapy ever since," says Dr. Caplan.
Acupuncture is used for a variety of applications, ranging from sedation to arthritis pain management to treatment of deaf animals. Often acupuncture is used adjunctly with medication, surgery, or post-operative treatments. "Most of my patients are big old dogs that have joint pain from arthritis, back pain from disc disease, or spinal arthritis," says Dr. Caplan.
Second-year veterinary student Michelle Sherman chose to use acupuncture to treat her dog, Oscar. "He was diagnosed with lumbo-sacral disease, and the suggested treatment was 6 weeks of cage confinement, so we decided to try an alternative." Sherman was very impressed with Oscar's improvement: "It was great! Before acupuncture, he couldn't even make it up the stairs. We had to carry him, and that was quite a feat considering he is an 80-pound dog! Now, after acupuncture, he runs and jumps up those steps," says Sherman. "He does need to come back for treatment every two or three months, because if he doesn't, he gets sore again."
There are many explanations for the way acupuncture works. In one of the scientific explanations, the neural opiate theory, pain control can be explained by the release of an endogenous (originating from within the body) opiate called endorphin. Endorphins are released upon needle or pressure stimulation of specific points. "These endogenous opiates interact at different levels in the central nervous system to inhibit pain perception in higher centers and inhibit pain transmission from the spinal cord," says Dr. Caplan. In addition, endorphins control pain by causing blood vessels to dilate, which increases blood flow around joints and muscles, thus increasing nutrient and oxygen delivery to the desired area.
Support for the neural opiate theory exists in studies showing that endorphin stimulation is present in acupuncture. When endorphin-blocking drugs have been given to an animal undergoing acupuncture, the normal effects of acupuncture have not been observed.
"The neural non-opiate theory, also known as the gate theory, was one of the earliest scientific explanations of acupuncture. It hypothesized that acupuncture stimulates inhibitory interneurons to close the 'gate' of pain transmission within the spinal cord. Thus no perception of pain takes place," explains Dr. Caplan.
The Chinese have used acupuncture to treat disease for over 4000 years in humans as well as animals. "Chinese concepts may seem metaphorical to our Western minds; it's a totally different view of internal medicine. According to Chinese philosophy, disease is an imbalance of energy in the body. Acupuncture therapy is based on balancing the energy, correcting its flow-thereby healing the animal," explains Dr. Caplan. "Acupuncture is a technique that is hard to understand and believe when you hear about it. I had doubts myself, but the benefits of acupuncture are convincing when observed."
When Michelle Sherman's dog went in for acupuncture, she didn't know what to expect or how Oscar would react. "Treatments can last from 10 seconds to 30 minutes, depending upon the condition treated and the method employed," says Dr. Caplan. "Patients are often treated 1 to 3 times a week for 4 to 6 weeks. A positive result is often noticed with the first 4 to 6 treatments, and sometimes earlier depending upon the condition treated."
"Most of the time Oscar just lay there," says Sherman. "A few spots caused tenderness, but he was oblivious to most of the pressure points while they were stimulated. One of the acupuncture points on his head, a relaxation point, almost made him fall asleep during the therapy. In fact, he'd almost always sleep all the way home."
Acupuncture is often chosen to complement traditional therapy or provide an alternative form of medical therapy. Appetite stimulation, nausea control, and immune modulation can aid animals with cancer, immune deficiencies, seizure tendencies, and arthritis. Many more conditions in animals can be treated with acupuncture therapy.
Remember, these techniques should be regarded as surgical
and medical procedures which should be done only by a certified
veterinary acupuncturist. Ask your local veterinarian for more
information about certified veterinary acupuncture therapy.