Practical Applications of Acupuncture in Small Animal Practice
Acupuncture works via homeostatic (self-adjusting, natural self-healing) mechanisms in the body. Adaptive feed-back and feed-forward mechanisms include sensory and motor reflexes, mediated by the peripheral nervous system, spinal cord, midbrain and autonomic nervous system. They also include adaptive responses mediated by the neurohumoral and immune systems (cellular chemical messengers, neurotransmitters and hormones, antibodies, interferon, etc). Acupuncture can help only if these mechanisms are capable of responding to peripheral stimuli.
Acupuncture has many clinical applications in small animal practice. Functional disorders, with no (or minimal) tissue pathology, are the best indications. For example, in treating hindlimb paralysis in canine thoracolumbar disc disease, dogs with Grade 3 pathology (hindlimb paralysis but with intact pain sensitivity when the toes are clamped with a forceps, indicating less severe pathology in the spinal cord) have an excellent prognosis (85%+) to acupuncture within circa 30-35 days. In contrast, dogs with Grade 4 pathology (hindlimb paralysis with absence of pain sensitivity when the toes are clamped with a forceps, indicating severe spinal pathology) have a poor prognosis (circa 30%) and cure can take 70-80 days. Meanwhile, many Grade 4 dogs are incontinent. Some may develop bowel/urinary retention, requiring very regular catheterisation or enemas to evacuate the bladder or bowel. They may develop pressure-sores or ulcers because they are unable to change their body position easily. Such dogs pose huge problems for families in which all members are at work and nobody is at home during the day to help the dog. When the vet explains the clinical realities, and the poor prognosis despite the owner’s best efforts, many owners opt for euthanasia of such dogs.
There are no traditional acupuncture charts for small animals. Therefore, acupuncturists use the “human transposition system” to find the relevant acupoints; they treat the same points as would be used in humans with similar clinical conditions. A Canadian vet, Dr. Janne Potter, has charts of the main acupoints in dogs and horses at: http://www.wbvc.bc.ca/ivas.htm and charts of human acupoints and their functions are at: http://www.yinyanghouse.com/acupoints.html or http://www.acuxo.com/meridianPictures.asp
The best clinical indications or acupuncture include: (a) musculoskeletal pain, spinal disorders & joint disorders; (b) respiratory disorders, cough and rhinitis; (c) eye conditions (conjunctivitis, keratitis, dry-eye); (d) Gastrointestinal disorders; (e) urogenital / reproductive disorders; (f) some allergies/skin conditions; (g) behavioural disorders; (h) epilepsy; (i) geriatric disorders; (j) emergencies. Other conditions can be helped but conditions (a) to (j) are those most often treated by acupuncture in small animals.
(a) Musculoskeletal pain, spinal disorders & joint disorders: Myofascial syndromes, like muscle cramp in greyhounds, often have associated trigger-points in nearby tissues. Acupuncture is a very successful treatment. Spinal pain +/- paralysis (especially disk disease of the neck or thoracolumbar area) is a very common problem, for which acupuncture is a quick and effective treatment. Interval to cure relates to the severity (Grade) of the disease. In thoracolumbar disc disease, Grades 1, 2 and 3 respond in circa 13, 24 and 32 days, respectively, requiring a mean of 2, 3.4 and 4.8 sessions respectively. As mentioned above, if the owners are not prepared to nurse the animal for a prolonged period (9 sessions over a period of circa 76 days), euthanasia is often the only practical solution for Grade 4 disk disease. In cervical disc disease, 70% of dogs recover after 2.5 sessions (mean recovery time 14 days). In both types (thoracolumbar and cervical cases), relapse rates are circa 35% but response to re-treatment is similar to that to the initial treatment. Arthrosis of the large joints (shoulder, hip, elbow and stifle) also responds well to acupuncture, especially when combined with homeopathy and/or glucosamine and chondroitin. Arthrosis of the smaller, more distal, joints does not respond as well as arthrosis of the larger joints. Hip dysplasia, a very common problem, also responds well to simple acupuncture, or to permanent implantation of gold beads near the hip joint. Gold implantation requires full surgical preparation and a short-acting general anaesthetic.
(b) Respiratory disorders, cough and rhinitis: acupuncture can help several respiratory conditions, like asthma in cats, bronchitis, kennel-cough (tracheitis) and rhinitis.
(c) Eye conditions (conjunctivitis, keratitis, dry-eye): acupuncture can help or cure conjunctivitis (sometimes caused by wind in the eye when dogs are driven with their heads out of a car window), keratitis, lacrimation and dry-eye.
(d) Gastrointestinal disorders: acupuncture can help or cure many cases of vomiting, diarrhoea, anorexia or poor appetite, constipation, bloating and flatulence in dogs and cats. However, a veterinary diagnosis of the cause and pathology is important as some cases may need western treatment, fluid replacement, intensive care and/or surgery. Paralytic ileus (with faecal retention) arises occasionally after surgery. Acupuncture can resolve it quickly in many cases.
(e) Urogenital / reproductive disorders: Post-surgical urinary incontinence, common in spayed bitches, responds very well to acupuncture. Some hormonal cases of female infertility and hormonal-related behavioural changes in pseudopregnancy in bitches, also respond well. Some bitches become depressed before oestrus; one session of acupuncture at points for the ovaries, uterus and hypothalamus often helps. By relaxing the cervix and aiding coordinated uterine contractions, acupuncture is very useful to help primiparous parturient bitches whelp more easily. Prostatitis occasionally occurs in male dogs and responds quickly and effectively to acupuncture.
(f) Some allergies/skin conditions, lick granuloma: Bilateral alopecia, a hormone-related condition that is common in spayed bitches, is one skin condition that responds well to acupuncture at the reproductive acupoints. Lick granuloma, common in dogs left alone all day while their minders are at work, is another condition that responds well. Canine skin allergies, with itch, eczema and alopecia, are the bane of a vet’s life. Cure depends on identifying and removing the offending allergens and/or desensitising the dog. One usually advises a change of diet to a hypoallergenic diet, such as brown rice and mutton. If symptoms persist, steroid or antihistamine treatment is usual, sometimes combined with a mild sedative. Acupuncture can help some cases, but overall results are disappointing in my experience.
(g) Behavioural disorders: These include previously well-behaved animals urinating or soiling in the house, damaging furniture or cushions, aggression towards their owners, etc. Animal behaviour therapy is a growing specialty in veterinary medicine and offending animals may need specialist help. However, before such help is sought, a few sessions of acupuncture are worth trying, as some cases respond well, especially if causes of pain are found, or if the points for emotional disturbance (worry, grief, fear, anger or excitement, related respectively to Yin organs of the spleen, lung, kidney, liver and heart) are treated.
(h) Epilepsy: Epileptic dogs usually require long-term daily anticonvulsive medication. Simple acupuncture or gold-bead implants (under general anaesthesia) at points for muscle spasms / convulsions can help many epileptic dogs and allow a reduction of 33-50% in their medication.
(i) Geriatric disorders: Old dogs and cats develop similar diseases to old people. Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches that old age corresponds to the Winter of Life, i.e. to the Water Element – kidney. Most of the signs of geriatric disease (arthritis/stiffness, osteoporosis, renal failure, bad teeth, heart-lung problems, failing brain functions (hearing, sight, depression), etc relate directly or indirectly to kidney Qi deficiency. Regular acupuncture sessions every 4-8 weeks can produce remarkable improvement in geriatric animals, often starting within one week of the first acupuncture session.
(j) Emergencies: acupuncture is very useful in traumatic and haemorrhagic shock, collapse and apnoea under general anaesthesia. Key points are Renzhong (GV26), (KI01) and Neiguan (PC 6). These points are useful also to enable an apnoeic newborn to take the first breath.
In summary, acupuncture is not a panacea. It works by “nudging” the body’s auto-healing mechanisms into overdrive. However, it fails to help if these mechanisms are impaired seriously. Therefore, acupuncture is very helpful in some conditions, but is of little help in conditions with serious organic pathology. Professional assessment and treatment by a competent veterinarian, trained in both western and oriental medicine, is the best option for pet-owners. Veterinarians interested to learn acupuncture may contact International Vet Acupuncture Society [IVAS: http://www.ivas.org], or their National Veterinary Acupuncture Society [http://www.komvet.at/ivadkom/vapsocs.htm].
Online Full-Text References:
Earlier columns in this series were: (1) Training In Animal Acupuncture; (2) Information Sources on Veterinary Acupuncture; (3) Methods of Stimulating Acupoints in Animals
For further information on acupuncture in small animals, see:
Acupuncture in Small Animal Practice:
Acupuncture Analgesia for Surgery in Animals:
Veterinary Acupuncture Webpage:
IVAS Notes on Master Points in Animals:
Old Publications on Veterinary Acupuncture:
More recent Publications on Veterinary Acupuncture: