By Sherry Warner
Although acupuncture is thousands of years old, it has only recently gained momentum in the veterinary community. This ancient healing method is used to treat pain and myriad health issues through the insertion of ultra-fine needles into specific acupuncture points on a pet’s body.
“It’s a procedure that uses the body’s own energy and blood flow patterns to recreate a sense of balance and align the energy pathways properly so the body can heal better,” says Dr. Julie Schell, DVM, certified in veterinary acupuncture and owner of Bow Bottom Veterinary Hospital in southeast Calgary.
“There are thousands of acupuncture points in the body and about 200 of them we use on a regular basis,” says Dr. Schell. These 200 points, each composed of a number of nerve endings and blood vessels, are divided up into 12 main meridians, or energy channels that are associated with different organs in the body.
“The acupuncture point is a little divot or bleb along the body that you can feel,” says Dr. Schell. “Or if you’ve taken proper training you can, in your mind’s eye and based on anatomy, determine where that exact acupuncture point is in relation to the meridian.”
Most people think of acupuncture as a way to relieve pain or arthritis, says Dr. Karen Marsden, DVM, co-owner of Edmonton Holistic Veterinary Clinic and certified in veterinary acupuncture. “It’s used for so many things beyond arthritis,” she explains. “At our practice and I think at most practices that have vets certified in veterinary acupuncture, it will be used on almost all their patients.”
Other health issues acupuncture is used for besides arthritis and pain management are paralysis, hip dysplasia, back problems, kidney disease in cats, soft tissue injuries and diabetes to name just a few. “Acupuncture shouldn’t be save just for arthritic animals,” says Dr. Schell.
Dr. Marsden agrees and notes that where acupuncture really shines is with paralyzed patients. “Acupuncture decreases inflammation where you’ve had a slipped disc or chronic disc disease,” she says and adds that vets love to use acupuncture for these kinds of problems especially in cases where prescription medication cannot be used.
“Acupuncture influences blood flow and with many different diseases you either have too much or too little blood in an area,” says Dr. Marsden. “Acupuncture is famous for treating knee ligament injuries because ligaments have a poor blood supply and we don’t have a drug to bring blood supply to a ligament. We just have anti-inflammatories so acupuncture helps bring blood flow into the area and help heal up the ligaments.”
The treatment process for acupuncture is similar to other complementary therapies. There is an initial consultation, which includes a physical exam and a long list of questions in order to get a really clear picture of the pet’s history and health issues. “It’s often called an exam of a hundred questions,” says Dr. Schell.
Many vets will do an acupuncture treatment during the initial consultation. The first followup visit is usually within a couple weeks of the consult then subsequent followups will be scheduled depending on the severity of the problem and how the patient has responded to treatment.
“You have to be patient. Acupuncture is not a quick fix. It’s a slow, gentle change, similar to how the aging process should be,” says Dr. Schell. Often people come to her for acupuncture treatment as a last resort. “Often it’s after western medicine has failed,” explains Dr. Schell. “It’s sometimes considered as a rescue.”
In her practice, Dr. Schell uses both western and eastern medicine. “I can’t practice veterinary medicine without using a combination of eastern and western medicine,” she says. “There’s so much that western medicine has to offer but acupuncture can take it to the next level.”
“I sometimes think that people (view) alternative medicine as a luxury or as expensive,” says Dr. Marsden. “But in the overall scheme of things we always come out way less than a surgical approach.” For example, one common injury in dogs is torn knee ligaments, she says. In some cases, acupuncture is used to avoid surgery. If you compare costs, surgery is about $5,000 to $6,000 per knee whereas the initial acupuncture consultation and followup treatments may cost about $800 to $1,000. And in this example, the use of acupuncture will also help prevent the other knee from injury, something surgery can’t do.
In order to practice veterinary acupuncture, you must be a licensed veterinarian and be certified in veterinary acupuncture. “There are multiple ways that vets can be certified in acupuncture but Alberta is very strict, which I think is a good thing,” says Dr. Marsden.
And that’s good news for pet guardians looking for an acupuncturist. They know the practitioner they choose is fully qualified to work on their pet.
When it comes to pet insurance, just like most complementary therapies, you’ll need to check with your pet insurance provider to see if they cover acupuncture treatments.