Acupuncture evolved as a complete system of medicine in China, and was the basis of all medical treatments in people prior to the embracing of Western medical techniques in the recent past. One of the earliest texts on veterinary treatments using acupuncture appeared around 650 BCE, written by a military general who specialised in equine treatments.
Indications for use
Any condition, with the exception of those requiring surgical correction, can usefully be treated using acupuncture. In the West, the use of this form of treatment has focused mainly on pain management, but this is a very narrow view of the potential of acupuncture treatments in animals. Typically, owners of animals that are experiencing noticeable side effects from medication seek help from acupuncturists. In most cases, the owners themselves have had this form of treatment and have already witnessed first hand the efficacy of this form of treatment.
The law and Acupuncture
Acupuncture is considered an act of veterinary surgery, as the needles penetrate the skin surface, and as such it can be practiced only by a veterinary surgeon or a trained, registered veterinary nurse as directed by a veterinary surgeon. In reality, the need to supervise a qualified nurse to give a treatment means that only veterinary surgeons offer an acupuncture service at present. Non invasive forms such as acupressure and laser treatments are frequently used by physiotherapists and other therapists to complement the treatments that they give.
There is no regulation of the training of veterinary acupuncturists, but several governing bodies exist that offer acupuncture training, namely the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) which has international recognition but does not have a recognised training course in the UK, and the Association of British Veterinary Acupuncturists (ABVA) that offers training sessions varying from introductory sessions on the safe use of needling techniques to more advanced levels of training where a Chinese model of the causes of disease is explored.
The basis of veterinary acupuncture treatment is the insertion of fine sterile needles into the skin to stimulate the underlying nerve endings. According to a Western understanding of anatomy and physiology, this process is understood to have a neuromodulatory effect; most of the research directed towards acupuncture relates to pain relief effects. The ‘gate theory’ of pain suggests that an acupuncture treatment works by activating the downward (efferent) transmission of neurological signals within the CNS in response to afferent fibres stimulated during the treatment. Other effects that can be demonstrated during treatments include the release of tight muscle bands and amelioration of muscle spasms, which can be explained by the modifying effect to the neurological control of muscle fibre contraction. Other changes that have been consistently recorded following treatments, such as the immunological effects and changes to hormone function have not been so well explained by the current understanding of physiology in the West. The Chinese basis for treatment is orientated around the concept of energy meridians that flow through the body in specific well documented routes; blockages to energy flow or invasion of the meridian by pathogenic factors that alter energy flow are corrected by acupuncture, which alleviates the symptoms by correcting the underlying cause.
One of the sophistications of the Chinese approach to treatment is the linking together of all abnormalities, including behavioural signs, congenital weaknesses and observed upsets relating to times of the day, for instance, to formulate a treatment plan based on each individual patient. Palpation for abnormally sensitive areas over acupuncture point locations and taking a full history are also essential when formulating a treatment protocol for a client. Examination of the tongue and palpating the pulse are used when treating humans, but these are rarely used as diagnostic tools in veterinary acupuncture.
Duration of treatments
In the same way that Western medicine can only manage rather than treat certain conditions such as osteoarthritis, acupuncture is similar and animals with conditions such as this will require ongoing treatments at regular intervals probably for the rest of their lives. Treatment intervals can vary from 4 weeks to 4 times a year, depending on the response of the animal and the degree of pain relief obtained from each treatment. Acute conditions such as cruciate rupture, for example can require a course of treatment that ends once the animal is sound.
Potential side effects
Owners often raise the concern that the treatment might be painful to their pets – in reality needling of larger muscle masses is rarely detected by the animal, and areas such as lower limbs where muscle mass is small can be stimulated with equal effect by moxibustion techniques or lasers. Needles are sterile and single use but as the animal is unlikely to be sterile there is a theoretical risk of abscess formation or haematoma at the site of skin puncture. In reality this does not appear to be a significant problem and if animals are presented in a clean, dry condition this will suffice as a suitable preventative measure under the circumstances. Patients can become very relaxed as natural endorphin levels increase in response to the nerve stimulation during treatments: occasionally this effect can last for up to 48 hours after the treatment is given and the animal remains quite ‘dozy’ during this time. Needling by untrained personnel could penetrate underlying structures and cause significant harm, but hopefully this risk is controlled by owners seeking out trained vets to carry out acupuncture treatment.
There are several very good books written on veterinary acupuncture that can be recommended for further reading:
- ‘’Veterinary Acupuncture; Ancient Art to Modern Medicine’’ by Allen M Schoen is the standard veterinary textbook on acupuncture in all species.
- ‘’The Complete Illustrated Guide to Chinese Medicine’’ by Tom Williams is a good general basic guide to understanding Chinese medicine and gives illustrations from human medicine.
- ‘’Four Paws Five Directions’’ by Cheryl Schwartz is an excellent book for owners to read to understand Chinese medicine and where the meridians are found; it gives helpful information on diet and acupressure points for small animal owners who would like to research this area for themselves.