When Mary Morrison's 16-year-old border collie, Shadow, was diagnosed with kidney disease last year, traditional veterinary medicine offered two options: kidney dialysis or euthanasia.
Morrison chose another option altogether: acupuncture.
Three times a month for the past year, Morrison has brought Shadow to the Del Ray Animal Clinic in Alexandria, Virginia. There, during a typical 20-minute session, Anne Mixson, a board-certified veterinarian trained in veterinary acupuncture, inserts up to a dozen needles into various acupuncture points on Shadow's skin.
Acupuncture has not cured Shadow's kidney disease or slowed the decline of old age. But it has helped alleviate the collie's symptoms and discomfort.
"She has more interest in life, more pep. She's eating," says Morrison. "We haven't felt like she was ready to be put down."
Shadow represents both the promise and challenge facing veterinary acupuncture. Anecdotal evidence suggests that acupuncture is an effective treatment for a host of ailments in animals. But researchers still understand relatively little about why and how this alternative therapy works.
The American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture in Hygiene, Colorado, says that acupuncture can treat ailments ranging from hip dysplasia and chronic degenerative joint disease to respiratory, gastrointestinal, neurological and urinary tract disorders.
Vets most commonly apply acupuncture to cats, dogs, cows and horses. But they also can treat pets like birds, ferrets and rabbits.
Veterinarians in the United States have practiced acupuncture since the early 1970s. The demand for acupuncture services has increased over the last decade, and it is raising fewer eyebrows from skeptical colleagues, practitioners say.
"Clients are asking for it every day," says Kevin Haussler, a lecturer with the department of biomedical sciences at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, in Ithaca, N.Y. "[They] are the number one reason why any of us are doing alternative therapies like acupuncture or chiropractic, because they want something more than just drugs or surgery."
"Within the greater veterinary medical community, I would say that acupuncture is very well accepted," says Haussler. "Because we're always looking for the next thing that is going to make animals feel better [and] reduce pain."
Historical Uses of Acupuncture
Acupuncture has been practiced on humans in China for more than 4,500 years. The first use of acupuncture on animals can be traced to the western Jin dynasty period of China from 136 to 265 A.D.
In this early form, sharp stones were used to cut and bleed specific locations on horses and other large working animals.
Traditional eastern medicine explains acupuncture as a method to assess and rebalance the flow of qi, or energy, that travels along 12 main linear pathways, or meridians, in the body.
Sickness comes from blocks or imbalance in the body's qi. To correct these imbalances, small needles, inserted in any number of 365 basic acupunture points, redirect the flow of energy and restore the body to health.
The West explains acupuncture by pointing out that most of the body's 365 main acupuncture points are located at clusters of nerves and blood vessels. Stimulating these areas triggers a host of local and general physiological effects, leveraging the body's own healing power.
Studies have shown that acupuncture can increase blood flow, lower heart rate and improve immune function.
Acupuncture also stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters like endorphins, the body's natural pain-killers, and smaller amounts of cortisal, an anti-inflammatory steroid.
Closing the Research Gap
A leading research center on acupuncture and animals is Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Ft. Collins.
Researchers there are exploring how acupuncture, in conjunction with anesthesia during and after surgery, can reduce the amount of anesthetic gas and post-operative pain medicine that a patient requires.
The reduction in medication can significantly lower the risk of adverse drug reactions in patients, according to Narda Robinson, a veterinarian and adjunct faculty member in the veterinary program at Colorado State University.
"I think the thrust of all this [research] is, how can we improve patient safety from medical procedures and [improve] their quality of life," Robinson said.
"The more that veterinarians learn and accept acupuncture and some of the other complimentary [alternative] medical techniques, the safety of medical intervention for animals will be that much better."