You’ve most likely heard about — or maybe even tried for yourself — acupuncture therapy. This form of traditional Chinese medicine, which involves inserting small needles along specific points on the body, has been used to treat a variety of conditions in humans, including musculoskeletal issues (arthritis, back or knee pain, shoulder stiffness), gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, seizures, insomnia, and more. Some acupuncture patients have also reported lower stress levels and better moods. Could this age-old treatment help our ailing pets, too? Advocates say the proof is in the pudding.
Dog-owner Dale Caen is an avid proponent of acupuncture, not only for herself (she’s been getting acupuncture for 10 years for autoimmune disease) but also for her pets. A few years ago, when Caen’s two elderly labradors’ health issues worsened, her veterinarian, Dr. Trudy Dunlap, suggested acupuncture. The older lab, Sugar, suffered from arthritis. “She would have moments of paralyzation where she couldn’t move at all,” Caen says, “and she was on all sorts of medication.” The other pup, Casey, had kidney disease.
Sugar had difficulty with her movements and getting up on things was a near impossibility, but Caen says she could tell a big difference after acupuncture. “She’d be trotting around and running around outside. It was wild to see.” Casey showed tremendous improvements as well. “I’m a big believer that you can really tell a dog’s health by its exterior — if their coat looks good, if their eyes are shiny. They both looked healthier. They both had more energy. It was like a second lease on life for them,” Caen says.
Dunlap has practiced veterinary medicine for 16 years. Today, she treats animals at the Downtown Animal Hospital and has found that, for some animals and for certain ailments, acupuncture works well in conjunction with standard Western medicine (the types of treatments a patient receives from a regularly trained veterinarian). She treats animals with acupuncture at the clinic, but for those with more severe health problems that limit mobility, she does house calls.
After watching her own 13-year-old yellow lab, Alley, suffer with severe arthritis and after having reached “the end of everything that I could offer her” to alleviate her pain, Dunlap started researching alternative methods of treatment. “Especially for the old guys that want to keep on going and doing, and they want to greet you, but they can’t anymore,” she says. “Those are the ones that are most heart-breaking — for my clients, and for me to watch. We get to a point where we can’t do anything else with them; we’ve used all the tools in our toolbox.”
In an effort to add to her toolbox, Dunlap took an intensive educational course through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 2011. Today, most of her focus as a veterinarian is in the realm of Western medicine, but she incorporates acupuncture when she finds that it may provide additional benefits for a patient.
Dunlap has treated dogs, horses, and cats with acupuncture. In fact, when we talked for this story, she had just left a house-call for a cat named Misty. “This is an 18-year-old cat who has terrible arthritis that has been bothering her, and that was diagnosed with x-ray. It’s important when you see these animals to make sure that they have been diagnosed correctly, so that means doing the diagnostic procedures that a regular veterinarian would do — x-rays, blood work. It’s good to know what you’re dealing with when you’re trying to treat with acupuncture,” Dunlap says. “Today, when I finished with Misty, she walked across the room, got up on her hind legs, put her paws on the window sill, and looked out the window. I looked at her owners and said, ‘Has she ever done that before?’ They said, ‘No, she can’t do it anymore, so it’s crazy that she just did that.’ But right in front of me, she went to the window sill and stood up on her back legs,” Dunlap says.
Though Dunlap and her clients have seen great results for animals with arthritis, acupuncture has proven helpful for other problems. “Most people get referrals for some sort of lameness or neurological problem, like a dog that has intervertebral disc disease — a slipped disc in their back — and they’re not walking at all or not walking well,” Dunlap says. But it can also be used for internal medicine problems, including kidney failure and cancer.
GETTING TO THE POINT
How does acupuncture work? “The first thing everybody asks is, ‘Is it painful?’” says Dunlap. Most animals typically don’t react to the insertion of the needles, but if the practitioner is needling a spot that’s particularly painful or if the animal has muscle soreness in a certain place, they might feel a little bit of pain in that area. “Generally, they accept it without any problems,” she says.
Caen says when Sugar and Casey got acupuncture, it had a calming effect on them. “They would nap, and they would drool,” she says. “They were so quiet — they’d end up kind of crawling into Trudy’s lap. They knew when she was coming that that’s what she was coming for, and they seemed to enjoy it.”
Dunlap describes the three main forms of acupuncture. First, there’s dry needling, in which the acupuncture treatment is done with “dry needles” alone. The practitioner gently places sterilized needles in particular points along the body called meridians. “The meridians have been mapped out, and we’ve extrapolated what they did in humans into animals,” Dunlap says. “After you study acupuncture, you are able to identify where the points are that you want to use based on what’s wrong with the animal.”
Once the needles are placed, the animal sits with them in for about 20 minutes. “How many needles do you use?” asks Dunlap. “It depends on the animal, and it depends on the practitioner. In school, I saw practitioners who were able to use one or two needles to get the effects they wanted. Some practitioners use many more.”
Another form is aquapuncture, where instead of placing dry needles in the skin, the practitioner will inject something into a point on the meridian. “Things you might inject would be maybe saline or B-12,” Dunlap says. “This can stimulate that point a little bit longer than if you used just a dry needle.”
Some choose electro-acupuncture, during which the needles are inserted and hooked up to a small pulsing electric charge. “That stimulates the needles and gives you a little longer stimulus, and the treatment is a little bit deeper that way,” says Dunlap.
With any acupuncture treatment, the needles are generally placed along the meridian. “The meridian is just an imaginary line that goes down the animal’s body,” Dunlap says. “It has been determined that if you put needles in these particular spots, you expect particular results.”
Scientists and practitioners have tried to gain a better understanding of why placing a needle in a certain spot gets a response. “Basically what you’re doing is microtrauma. A tiny bit of trauma happens when you put that needle in the skin, and when you traumatize the skin or any part of the body, the body reacts with a little bit of inflammation; that inflammation calls blood, oxygen, and chemical mediators to the area,” Dunlap explains. “The thought is that if you’re putting these needles in where we suspect there are bundles of nerves and blood vessels intertwined together at that particular point, and you do that microtrauma there, you’re actually signaling the body to send blood, oxygen, and chemical mediators that are needed for healing and reduction of pain. That’s the effect you’re trying to get: to help the body choose to heal itself. And this works locally, segmentally, and centrally on the body.”
Dunlap recalls treating a dog who had cancer in her spleen (hemangiosarcoma). With this type of cancer, the prognosis is poor, even after having the tumor surgically removed. Dogs with this diagnosis are typically expected to live only about three months after surgery. “She lived a year after that cancer diagnosis,” says Dunlap. “She didn’t die from cancer; she was elderly. But that dog shouldn’t have lived that long with that diagnosis, and that diagnosis was confirmed by the pathologist.”
She also treated a colleague’s beagle who suffered severe renal failure. “I had never seen numbers like this in labwork,” she says. Along with regular veterinary treatments for this condition, Dunlap did acupuncture on her once a week for a year. “Her numbers really never changed, but she did. She did great. That dog went on like the Energizer bunny,” she says. “And every time we’d look at her lab work, we just would laugh and say, ‘Don’t show it to the dog; don’t let her see her own lab work.’ You wouldn’t believe she was up and still going with numbers like that.”
Dunlap emphasizes that acupuncture should not take the place of standard veterinary treatment for any ailment. “I don’t ever choose just one over the other,” she says. “I try to incorporate them together.” Your pet will need to have a full physical exam and proper diagnostics before seeking acupuncture as an additional or alternative treatment. And often, results may not be seen until a few treatments have been done.
Dunlap adds that if you’re going to try acupuncture, you need to be committed to it. “The first treatment is usually a fact-finding treatment. I’m going to read your chart and talk to your referring veterinarian. I’m going to do a full physical exam and review all the diagnostics that have already been done before doing the treatment,” she says. “Sometimes you have to go back and tweak what you’re doing after you figure out what works and what doesn’t. I usually tell people to expect results, if they’re going to have them, after the second to third treatment and to stay in it until after we’ve done three or four treatments.”
Acupuncture sessions are typically done once a week for the first month. After that, Dunlap sits down with patients to talk about any differences the clients have seen, whether the treatments are helping or not. “Then we get on a schedule. Some animals come back once a month, some come back once a year. Some come more often, depending on what their problem is.”
While some animals respond better to acupuncture than others, and some show only subtle changes, this alternative medicine has proven, at least to Dunlap and her clients, like Caen, that there is hope for our elderly pets, even when we think we’ve exhausted all the tools in our veterinary toolbox.
“Euthanasia is part of what we do as veterinarians, and I see animals that we have to let go earlier than the client wants to because they just can’t get up anymore,” Dunlap says. With acupuncture, she has seen great results. While some are smaller victories (“They may show up at the edge of your bed holding their ball — and they haven’t done that in a year — or they may go back to greeting you at the door”), others (like extending the life of a cancer patient) are more astounding. “I don’t know that I ever want to take credit for anything that miraculous,” Dunlap says, “but it’s nice to be a part of it and think that you helped.”
Though Caen’s labradors, Sugar and Casey, have since passed away, not solely due to their health issues but rather from old age, Caen says, “I totally owe the longevity of both of these labradors to Trudy. It’s all about quality of life. That’s what we all want for our dogs, and that’s what acupuncture did,” she says. “It improved their lives, even their mental well-being — it made them happier dogs.”