acupuncture for pets – veterinary acupuncture

Many of you may know that in March, I went to a conference for acupuncture training. It was only a couple days, so  obviously not thorough or complete. There I learned the Traditional Chinese Medicine approach to acupuncture. This involves the movement of Chi, analagous to “energy” that flows through the body. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a diagnosis is made by looking at the patient’s tongue, and feeling the quality of the pulse (aptly named a tongue and pulse diagnosis). In TCM, organs are metaphors, not literal. Therefore, looking at the tongue and feeling the pulse, along with evaluating the entire patient, can lead a TCM practitioner to come to a TCM diagnosis. Chi can be stagnant in some regions of the body. Some organs may be labelled hot, or damp, or cold, for example. The maladies are treated by choosing points that will help the Chi flow as it needs. TCM also assigns qualities such as wood, earth, or metal, to name a few, to organs and disease processes. Stimulating the woodiness may  promote fire, etc. (Of course, I am grossly oversimplifying this!)

I loved learning from the TCM practitioners. They loved their style of medicine, their enthusiasm was contagious, and they get amazing results with it!

I just couldn’t do it. I’m sorry.

I am a scientist. Before I went to vet school, I was a molecular cell biologist. So wrapping my head around the mystical powers of TCM was just not going to happen. The pet’s Triple Heater being too hot was not a diagnosis I could honestly give. What to do? I know acupuncture works, but how can a scientist practice acupuncture….with a straight face?

I chose a school of acupuncture that is science based. Yes, the art of acupuncture has worked for hundreds of years….but how? I wanted to know. So I took the Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians course in Colorado. We learned acupuncture, but not based on the flow of Chi. Instead, we evaluated scientifically what anatomical structures lie beneath each acupuncture point. What happens physiologically when the point is stimulated? What nerves are firing? What chemical are released from the body’s cells? Not surprisingly, acupuncture points are often found at locations on the body with rich innervation or blood flow. This is not a coincidence. We don’t need Chi to practice acupuncture – we need to know what our needles or lasers are physiologically doing!

With this style of acupuncture, the diagnosis is not made by feeling the tongue and the pulse. It is made by examining the patient like a traditional veterinarian, but from a holistic angle. We then dig a little deeper, and feel for tension or abnormalities of the muscles and fascia, the connective tissue just underneath the skin. We will still use Western diagnostic tools – blood tests, x-rays, ultrasound, etc – as deemed appropriate for that patient. The key difference is in the treatment. Sure, some patients will still require prescription medications, but we may reduce the dose needed, or eliminate the need altogether. We may also treat diseases when traditional medication has failed.

Scientific acupuncture does not eschew Western medicine. We still vaccinate (with vaccines appropriate for that pet’s lifestyle). We still use diagnostic tests. And we can still use prescription medications, even surgery. Scientific medical acupuncture is designed to be an additional tool for the veterinary practitioner. Can we use acupuncture to reduce the need for medications or even avoid surgery? Absolutely! But we do not need to stop all other treatments if we try acupuncture.

And if you would like to try a veterinarian who practices Traditional Chinese Medicine, diagnosing the tongue and pulse, and focusing on Chi, please do! Even though the approach is different, if a veterinarian practicing TCM and one practicing science-based acupuncture both treat the same animal, there will be a significant overlap of the points chosen. So both schools of thought arrive at similar treatment plans, they just take different roads to get there! There are points that practitioners of TCM use that science-based acupuncturists (like me) do not, because there is no anatomic or physiologic reason for that point on the body to do anything. Does it hurt anything to use these points? Not if done correctly. The benefit is questionable, however.

Both approaches to acupuncture experience high rates of treatment success. Having learned both styles, and having close friends who practice both styles, I have seen this. So consider acupuncture for your pet’s pain, nerve disease, or inflammatory condition. Whichever style you chose, the one who benefits is your pet!