Animal Acupuncture: More Pets Get the Point

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
November 25, 2002

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."

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