This same cat, however, transformed into a picture of serenity and calmness when she had tiny needles strategically inserted on her body during acupuncture treatments.
“The big surprise is just how many cats will sit still and accept acupuncture needles,” says Polly Fleckenstein, DVM, MS, a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified veterinary spinal manipulative therapist at the Veterinary Medical Center of Central New York. “Dusty was my cat. She suffered from seizures, but hated being handled. But once we added acupuncture to her care, she stopped having seizures and she never reacted negatively to the acupuncture needles.”
Nick, a 12-year-old mixed breed, is a regular canine patient at Cornell University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y. Every week to two weeks, his owners bring in Nicky to receive electroacupuncture treatments to address his aches and mobility issues associated with chronic arthritis.
“He develops a spring in his step after each treatment,” notes Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, Ph.D., chief of the Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Service at Cornell who, with Curtis Dewey, DVM, is board-certified in acupuncture and offer this therapy at Cornell.
The field of veterinary acupuncture is drawing the interest of more conventionally-schooled veterinarians – and pet owners. The study – and interest – of acupuncture on pets is on the rise. Acupuncture training programs have steadily experienced increased enrollments since the mid-1990s, according to the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture. The AAVA was admitted into the American Veterinary Medical Association’s House of Delegates in early 2014.
Dr. Fleckenstein has incorporated acupuncture in her practice for the past two decades. She believes that more pet owners see the benefits of integrative medicine and want the same type of care for their pets.
“More owners are willing to do more for their pets in terms of medicine, pain management and nutrition,” she says. “People see the benefit of acupuncture on themselves. They are looking for that extra little bit that may improve the quality of life for their pets and acupuncture is a viable option.”
Adds Dr. Wakshlag, “Acupuncture is a modality that should be actually mainstreamed. Using the word, complimentary, is now a bit of a misconception.”
Acupuncture is a 2,000-year-old Chinese healing art that is fast-becoming a popular therapy for use on 21st Century pets: dogs, cats, horses and even birds. It can boost blood circulation and spur the release of endorphins (pain-controlling hormones) and cortisol (anti-inflammatory hormones design to regulate stress within the body). The goal of acupuncture is to promote the body to heal and unlike conventional medications, it lacks potential adverse side effects.
A common type of acupuncture performed on cats and dogs involves the use of tiny needles strategically placed so as not to send any pain signals to the brain. On average, 20 to 30 needles are placed, depending on the health needs of that specific pet. These needles are inserted into body tissue where blood vessels and nerve bundles merge.
In fact, many patients relax and even fall asleep during the treatment that can range from a few minutes to up to a half hour.
In her practice, Dr. Fleckenstein incorporates acupuncture in treating cats with kidney failure, heart disease, asthma, diabetes and to some extent, arthritis, stomatitis and gingivitis. Acupuncture can assist in inflammatory conditions and help support immune systems.
“I’ve had some paralyzed cats whose mobility has improved and I treated a cat who had elevated kidney levels for three to five years,” she says. “After steady acupuncture treats, his kidney levels came back to normal. We can’t prove that acupuncture was responsible for the improvement, but we did not change anything else in our treatment.”
Other types of acupuncture include:
• The use of lasers to provide needle-less treatments, an advantage for pets who don’t tolerate needles. Aqua acupuncture involves the injection of needles containing medicinal herbs or vitamins that are injected into the body. Moxabustion applies a warm Chinese herbal compound to the needles to provide added heat to treat joint stiffness and muscle soreness.
• Electroacupuncture involves electrodes hooked up to the needles to deliver a mild, steady electric current to stimulate nerves damaged by injury or trauma.
In general, acupuncture tends to be painless and safe and can be combined with medicines and other treatments with no side effects. Used to stimulate the body to heal itself, acupuncture can benefit cats and dogs facing these conditions:
• Sore muscles and joints
• Muscle spasms
• Degenerative joint disease
• Digestive issues, including constipation, diarrhea and vomiting
• Cushing’s disease (dogs)
• Hypothyroidism (dogs)
• Heart disease
• Kidney disease
• Liver disease
• Ruptured discs
• Dermatologic conditions, including allergic dermatitis and lick granulomas
• Asthma and other respiratory problems
• Epilepsy and seizures
• Weakened immune system
In addition, acupuncture is employed to maintain the health of dogs active in such sports as hunting, agility and fly ball.
“More owners are willing to do more for their pets in terms of medicine, pain management and nutrition,” says Dr. Fleckenstein, who has practiced veterinary acupuncture for two decades. “Pet owners are looking for that extra little bit that may improve the quality of life for their pets and acupuncture is a viable option.”
To maximize the benefit of the acupuncture session, the dog under Dr. Fleckenstein’s care, enters a quiet room with dimmed lighting with their owner present. Dogs relax on blankets or comfortable bedding during the treatment.
“Owners need to relax as much as possible because their dogs read their energies,” says Dr. Fleckenstein. “I’ve had some owners fall asleep next to their dogs who also fall asleep.”
Acupuncture is considered quite safe with the biggest precaution in making sure a dog does not lick and swallow an acupuncture needle.
“I’ve inserted 100,000s of needles and only 1 dog has swallowed one needle,” says Dr. Fleckenstein.
The number of acupuncture treatments depends on the dog, but on average, the treatments are weekly with the goal of extending to maintenance visits every month or six weeks.
“People see that they are investing in the quality of the health of their pets with these acupuncture treatments,” says Dr. Fleckenstein. “After an acupuncture treatment, we advise that the dog take it easy — no big, long walks — and make sure the dog drinks plenty of fresh water.”
Treatment sessions, on average, range in cost between $50 and $100. Acupuncture may qualify for pet insurance but coverage varies. A check of five pet insurance companies found one company that covers acupuncture if it’s performed by a licensed veterinarian for a covered accident or illness, but excludes acupuncture as preventive or routine care. Another company requires the owner to purchase an additional coverage for acupuncture reimbursement.
Many dogs display an eagerness for acupuncture treatments. Sophie, an eight-year old spayed Labrador retriever, had a lifetime history of urinary incontinence and developed an adverse reaction to medication. Three years ago, her owners took her for regular acupuncture treatments performed by Dr. Fleckenstein.
“Within two months of weekly treatments, there was a significant decrease in her leaking,” says Polly Fleckenstein. “In the past 18 months, Sophie has only leaked three times and she now only needs to come in every six weeks for acupuncture treatments.”
Is acupuncture the answer for a pet’s health?
“With acupuncture, you may not cure the problem, but you can slow it down and make the quality of life better for that pet,” says Dr. Fleckenstein. “I’ve been amazed by how well cats and dogs do.”
Selecting a Veterinary Acupuncturist
If you are considering acupuncture care for your cat or dog, seek a veterinarian certified in this field from one of three associations:
• International Veterinary Acupuncture Society – www.ivas.org. This group has more than 1,800 members.
• American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture – www.aava.org. This group has more than 900 members.
• Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine – www.tcvm.com.
By Sarah Zumhofe