Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
The Point of Health
Acupuncture is the most direct contact I have with an animal’s immune system and general body flow.
IAM AWARE THAT EVEN AS I PLACE NEEDLES INTO AN ARTHRITIC dog or an asthmatic cat, a pet owner may be skeptical. But when their pet is better, almost miraculously, they keep coming back, and the obvious improvements continue with each treatment. During treatments, some pets become very calm. Clients note that their pet looks “Zen’d out.” I take this as a good sign that energy and circulation are changing.
Acupuncture is ostensibly about needles, but what the needles help is circulation, by sending a message to the body. Sharp messages such as “relax this muscle” or “a little more blood here, please” or “could you drain here” or “remember this foot?”
Using needles, I am in communication with the body. Perhaps every method of good medicine is a communication—about what the body can do, about what it needs, what works and what doesn’t. I receive information and answers from the needles that assist me diagnostically. At the same time, I am treating the problem at hand. It is a gratifying practice.
I didn’t always think acupuncture was a viable medical option. I had heard what I believed to be unsubstantiated rumors about patients recovering, and that some doctors found it surprisingly effective. But because I didn’t understand the basis of it, I disregarded it. I always found the stories interesting, but also like fairy tales: too good to be true.
I arrived in Canada for the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society course feeling like a traitor to the training I had received in vet school. I knew that my colleagues felt that learning Chinese medicine was a step in the wrong direction and that I was wasting my time. Because they were not trained in these techniques, they did not see how they could be successfully applied to medical practice. Despite this discouragement, I still wanted to learn more. I was frustrated by the model of treating disease instead of curing it. Much of what I found when reading about acupuncture made medical sense to me. I began to think there might be some truth to those fairy tales about acupuncture and alternative healing.
The instructor began our lecture by saying: “This course is going to change your lives!” I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, please!” At the very most, I would learn about these interesting needles and then go back to my life. I was already a doctor. Well trained and serious about medicine, I had physiology down cold. I had dissected, studied, and magnified almost every imaginable species. I knew circulation. I had traced blood vessels, nerves, and lymphatics as they branched their way through the body. If there was a pathway for the invisible “Qi” (pronounced “chee”) to circulate vital life energy through the body, I had never seen it.
As we studied the ancient Chinese descriptions of disease states, the English major in me loved the dramatic and colorful imagery used to describe diagnoses: overactive liver fire acting on the weak stomach, which causes rebellious Qi (vomiting). An external wind-cold invasion through the Winds-Gate point on the upper back that is not fought off by Righteous Qi becomes an accumulation of phlegm (a cold). The acupuncture narrative was more poetic and dramatic than my other veterinary textbooks.
Then we followed case studies. There I was in class, watching, riveted, as animal after animal benefited from this ancient Chinese healing art. I saw improvements in animals with conditions such as lumbosacral arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and kidney disease. Diseases that I had only seen addressed in a limited way by Western medicine. There almost seemed to be a magic in it, an amazing day-to-day magic of a body healing itself. It was breathtaking.
After administering acupuncture to many species of animals, the process now makes sense to me on many levels. A neuromuscular connection is stimulated by the needles. They exhibit a measurable charge polarity that affects the tissues when they are inserted. This corresponds to chemistry—the idea of positive and negative charges that rule intercellular interactions, nerve impulses, muscular contractions, and physiologic functions.
Acupuncture needles affect body chemistry. They balance the flow of nutrients in and out of the body. Injured areas of the body have a different resistance and electrical charge than healthy areas. Needles redirect flow and impulses to deficient areas. The body is then able to facilitate the healing process. At the acupuncture points, there is an increase in nerve endings, small capillary beds, nerve fibers, and aggregations of mast cells.
CHINESE MEDICAL DESCRIPTION
Acupuncture—Placing needles in specific points to elicit a physiologic and energetic response. These points are located on interconnected pathways, called meridians, that carry the body’s Qi. The Qi, meaning vital life force or energy, responds to the needles. This response helps the body regain homeostasis and heal itself.
As a result, needled areas have a measurable physiologic change in beta- endorphin release, stimulation of circulation, and decrease in inflammation.
In pain control, experiments have shown a modification in neural impulse transmission from the spinal cord to the brain after acupuncture. There are now many studies measuring how acupuncture points affect brain oxygenation. They provide information on the physiologic responses to needles. For example, when points on the limbs that are associated with vision were stimulated with acupuncture, the optic centers of the brain increased oxygenation by 80 percent. There are more studies on acupuncture completed every year.
When I added Chinese medicine to my bag of treatments, I had not only more tools—acupuncture and herbs—but also a new way to analyze and remedy the internal and external conditions affecting an animal. Everything that goes in, on, and around an animal in his world can affect his health. This includes weather, seasons, and natural and man-made disasters.
When I feel acupuncture points and notice deficiencies, or localized heat areas, I wonder why these signposts are there for me to find. Did evolution expect acupuncturists to come along? My understanding of why we need acupuncture, chiropractic therapy, and massage is based on what animals experience in their natural environment. Their bodies are touched by the elements. They physically respond to rain, wind, snow, and everything they encounter. Their legs are scratched by grasses as they run through the prairie, or jabbed by branches as they forage in foliage.
The animal’s environment itself acts as a sort of acupuncturist—stimulating circulation during a struggle through the underbrush, or a roll in the dirt and stones. The more animals are isolated from this rugged connection to the earth, the less their bodies can heal themselves in this natural way. Animal bodies expect their circulation to be stimulated by their environment—weather, wind, trees, bushes, twigs, leaves, caves, stones, water. This was one way I initially made sense of acupuncture.
Skin needs to be touched. The health of an animal depends on it. In many cases it is a medical necessity. The health of sick kittens significantly improves if they have sufficient physical contact. In the same way, the physical presence of animals has a positive influence on humans. Research shows that petting a dog or cat relieves stress and improves the health of the owners. Acupuncture is another way to touch.
A couple of weeks before I left for Canada, I had injured my shoulder lifting a large dog. It was terribly painful and I could no longer lift my arm. I had consulted with an orthopedic doctor and was told the injury was severe enough to consider a surgical repair, which would be followed by a lengthy recovery. I decided to take some time to think about my options.
The first night in the hotel, one of my acupuncture classmates offered to put some needles in my shoulder. I received a very public acupuncture treatment in the hotel lounge. After a few minutes, one of my other classmates tried to remove the needles, but they would not come out. We waited another fifteen minutes, then all the needles came out easily. My shoulder had already begun to feel better.
The needles need to stay in until they’re done—which varies according to species, body part, and type of health issue. You can tell when to remove them because the needle lets go. Dogs require 5–15 minutes. Needles in cats require less than dogs: 3–8 minutes. Elephants and camels take needles for 15-plus minutes. High-energy animals, such as birds, require only 1–3 minutes—often I can just “ting” the point, which means quickly insert and take right out.
The success of acupuncture on my shoulder is pleasantly summed up in a picture of me, shortly after the course, comfortably lifting my son in the afternoon sun. Today I have no signs of that injury.
I believe that years of practicing with acupuncture have changed the way I use my hands in general. I rely on them now as a primary sense, almost as much as my eyes. When I ran the alternative wing of a veterinary specialty center, our exam rooms and offices had no windows. Everyone was worrying about Y2K—the turn of the century and the possibility that we’d have a blackout. I joked that it didn’t matter to me; I could do acupuncture in the dark. The most important sense for acupuncture is touch.
Acupuncture can decrease pain and slow the progression of diseases. Tangible physiologic changes that positively affect the health of animals often occur as a result of acupuncture. These changes can positively affect the health of an animal. Most animals I treat are relaxed during the treatment and show almost immediate signs of relief afterward.
Acupuncture’s potency as a pain reliever is truly remarkable. I have treated arthritic or injured animals that regained their spunk after just one treatment. An owner reported that a patient went home and used basement stairs she had avoided for years. Another patient jumped up to a high comfy bed that would have been impossible before the acupuncture treatment. I warn owners to be alert for this potential reaction to healthier circulation. The pet’s body may feel rejuvenated in one treatment, but more time is needed to restore stability and strength for improved activity. Without rebuilding muscle and reestablishing neuromuscular connections, a pet can hurt himself.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING AN ACUPUNCTURE TREATMENT?
THE PATIENT IS CALMED as much as possible on a comfortable mat on the floor, with some water, a treat, and a rubdown. We may dim the lights, which seems to work wonders for cats. A hands-on exam determines the current points that will be used. They can be in sensitive areas that are hot or cold to the touch, depressions in the skin, scars, thickened joints, or swellings. Signs of current problems, overall condition, and other health history issues contribute to the point prescription. Points are also chosen based on the animal’s tolerance and temperament. Needle size is proportional to the animal and point location. I have very tiny hand needles for very tiny animals. I use long needles specially designed for the mega-vertebrates such as elephants or camels.
The animal usually doesn’t feel the needles. However, at inflamed points, the needle may feel like a sting. Stronger points may go in without any sensation, but then shortly after, a small “zing” can be felt. This is called the arrival of Qi, which is integral to the treatment. Many animals don’t react to the arrival of Qi. However, some dogs are startled by the arrival of Qi, just as they are by someone knocking at the front door.
Yawning is considered a good sign during an acupuncture treatment. When an animal yawns it usually signifies a change in energy. That is the goal of the needles. If a point bleeds, it is considered a beneficial reaction. If a tiny acupuncture needle causes bleeding, the congestion in that point was released.
One of my favorite things about studying acupuncture is the vivid, poetic names for the various points.
Some Names for Acupuncture Points
Walks three miles. When you think the patient is done for, put a needle in this point and they can walk another three miles.
Surround the dragon. Putting needles in a circle around an inflammatory skin lesion, like little tilting metal fence posts. This keeps that hot dragon skin from spreading, and cools it down.
Kidney tiara. Needles are put in a pretty pattern over the area on the back where the kidneys live. It does resemble a midback crown. Especially if bejeweled acupuncture needles are employed.
Longevity point. A point that increases longevity. How cool is that?
A forbidden point (CV8) is located midline in the belly button, and should never be needled. When I asked what happens if CV8 is needled, my teacher replied, “Don’t ask, don’t do it.” But I now know it affects the immune system and overall energy flow and is a very strong point. Warming moxibustion of this point is usually the only way it is treated. Warming moxibustion is the technique of burning moxa (mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris) above the surface of the skin at a specific point to warm the meridians of the body. Moxa looks like a charcoal stick. One end is lit and burns like a hot coal. It is held over the area to be warmed. Moxabustion is one way to heat an area that requires increased circulation. Another way to do this is to fill a balloon or an exam glove with hot water and place it on the area. The self-made water bottle should just cover the area being treated. Large hot water bottles diffuse the heat and are not effective for this purpose.
WHAT IS ACUPUNCTURE GOOD FOR?
Developed over thousands of years, the medical system of acupuncture can ameliorate almost all medical conditions, including:
Arthritis, disc disease, post-op orthopedic surgery, and many musculoskeletal conditions
Anxiety, behavior problems, and other neurologic conditions
Allergies, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory intestinal conditions, immune system disorders
Asthma, kidney, liver, and heart disease, and other systemic diseases
Cancers—to boost the immune system and to mitigate side effects of chemo
Dermatitis, lick granulomas, hot spots
Incontinence, bladder stones and chronic infections, urologic diseases
Dry needles—just the needles
Aquapuncture—injection of substance into acupuncture points to stimulate them instead of needles. Can be vitamin B12, saline, Traumeel, or other substances.
Electroacupuncture—wiring the needles to a stimulation that looks like cruel torture but is sublimely effective at decreasing pain, decreasing inflammation, and improving circulation in cervical disc diseases
Laser acupuncture—I use a class 3B cold laser to stimulate points instead of needles.
Acupressure—massage-like small circular finger pressure to improve circulation. I teach owners to do this for certain conditions. See below.
Moxabustion—heating points using a lit charcoal made of mugwort warms and increases circulation.
Gold bead implants—surgical procedure to implant gold beads in acupuncture points, typically used around joints, especially the hips
Acupressure points I teach my clients to use for pets, for the following conditions:
Seizures—the midpoint of the ear, between the eyes
Nausea—inside the forearm above the wrists
Anxiety—the midline on the head, at the top of the head on the crest of the skull
Hip arthritis—three points above the head of the femur-like cap on the hip joints
Kidney disease—a circle of points that cross the spine, behind the ribs
I treated Affie, an African elephant, with acupuncture for her arthritic front legs. I couldn’t use many points because of logistics. Acu-points on her bladder meridian would have involved me climbing on her back, and she was not an elephant who tolerated passengers. I would have used points on the inside and back of her rear legs if it hadn’t been life-threatening. I chose accessible points, and she let me put needles in a number of very effective spots.
Affie was never chained or restrained. If we called her and she didn’t come, we didn’t force her to come, we just held off the treatment that day. Every interaction between us was aimed at strengthening our bond.
As with all animals that are closer to their wild side, Affie took her time to get to know me. Then we started the dance. I moved deliberately and continuously, placing needles in the leg she presented to me. Most of the points are put in by feel, so it was easy for me to watch her as she watched me.
I stopped when I saw the whites of her eyes. Eye movement is one indicator of an elephant’s emotional state. When Affie was calm, I could see the dark color of her iris, and the pupil, but very little of the outer white part of her eye was visible. As with a human, when an elephant is worried, surprised, or shocked, her lids open in a different way and you can see the whites of their eyes. If she seemed anxious, I offered her a treat and said something reassuring. I was also vigilant about my escape route.
We were all careful not to drop a bucket, trip on a cord, or make a sudden move. Elephants never forget and a wrong move could frighten her and make her wary of me. Fortunately, she became increasingly comfortable as time went on. She tolerated not only the acupuncture, but cold laser acupuncture as well.
Cold laser, also called low-level laser light treatment, is a painless method to decrease inflammation and improve circulation in an area. Stimulating the body’s own response on a cellular level, the laser, measured by joules of energy on the machine, penetrates the cells and enhances anti- inflammatory mediators to increase circulation. Despite an elephant’s thick skin, the energy penetration is still effective. Once she was comfortable with the machine and its beeping, Affie was not bothered by the treatment.
Putting in the needles can be challenging. I use what’s called an insertion tube: a small tube that surrounds the needle. If you tap several times with the tube before you push the needle through, the skin is fooled into ignoring the needle. According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture needles actually have a sharp but rounded tip. They feel different than hypodermic needles. According to this ancient medical lore, they push aside the cells rather than cut through them.
A feisty fifteen-year-old Labrador was brought to me because he was having trouble with his rear legs and couldn’t go up stairs or jump anymore. He had severe lumbosacral arthritis (spinal arthritis where the spine joins the hips). I treated him successfully with acupuncture and the underwater treadmill. For over a year he was doing very well but then all of a sudden, he couldn’t walk at all. I added electrostimulation to his regimen of weekly acupuncture. After just two treatments he was back to his favorite stroll in his garden. These two modalities, which have no side effects, kept him going strong in his golden years.
Every animal, breed, and species has its own reaction to acupuncture. It is a very individualized treatment. Some breeds, like Weimaraners or whippets, are more skin-sensitive than others. Other breeds, like terriers, take longer to respond to acupuncture because, I believe, they are contentious by nature. Labradors will seem to benefit from the needles right away. Cats are surprisingly complacent about acupuncture. I think this is because they are accustomed to sharp claws and teeth. I love treating cats because their response is rapid and dramatic.
You can tell by feel alone when the needles are done working. When they are inserted it feels as if I’m pushing through tight gravel. The needle is being grabbed by the fascia and tissue as it goes in. When the body is done with the needle, it lets go of it. Then the needle, which up until that second couldn’t be pulled out easily, comes out as if out of butter. I’ve heard an acupuncturist for humans say, “Leave that needle in until it falls out.” I’ve also heard that humans are slow boats when it comes to the length a needle has to stay in for treatment.
GETTING STONE ROLLING
IMAGINE A LONG, THIN, completely hairless cat, with a sweet temperament and constantly in motion. His skin felt like the shortest velvet, smooth and cool. Stone was a Peterbald cat with a history of more than two years of constipation and megacolon (which sounds like what it is, a distended large intestine). He was a moving target when it came time to insert the needles. We changed him to a high-protein diet with increased fiber and supplements (pumpkin, psyllium, and aloe) and gave him a wonderful herbal cascara combination that I order from Natural Path Herb Company. After four weeks of treatment he was having much more normal stools. We weaned him off the stool-regulating pharmaceutical meds and continued his acupuncture treatments, after which he would usually go right home and poop. He took herbal supplements and was fed his new diet. He continued to do well. Eventually, we decreased the herbs and continued acupuncture, though less frequently. If we went too long between acupuncture appointments he had a flare-up, but those became fewer and farther between. Now Stone comes in once every six months for a tune-up. The only treatment he requires these days is a great diet and supplements based on his stool output—which is now normal.
I HAVE SEVERAL CLIENTS who bring me more than one dog to treat at a time. The dogs don’t mind having acupuncture with each other, and it is fun to see how they interact. With the needles in, most dogs will Zen out and relax together.
Bella, nearly thirteen, and Jake, almost ten, come together for their arthritis treatment. Jake is a gentleman. He is a German shepherd mix and acupuncture makes him feel wild. Bella is a beautiful and opinionated husky. She’s not averse to biting if she’s not pleased with something. I’ve been lucky and have managed, with her permission, to treat her for many months. She is one of my favorites because she is spunky, and she responded immediately to treatments. Using acupuncture and their new diet, we improved this elderly couple’s overall health, reduced their pain, and improved spinal circulation and rear foot placement. Underwater treadmill sessions helped them both regain their muscle strength. Both dogs were stiff and slow, but now they roughhouse and act silly again, like puppies.
Sharky (Lhasa apso) and Rick (schnauzer) come together for maintenance treatments every three to four months. They both are excited to come and vie for my attention even if it means accepting acupuncture needles. I treat Rick for arthritis and to improve his immune system after he had malignant melanoma surgery. Sharky has disc disease. Their owner notices that their treatments have made them significantly healthier and pain-free.
Amadeus is a German shepherd whom we treated for his kidney disease. We combined our acupuncture treatments with the treatments of the local kidney specialist. He had been treated for months before we started. We did not recommend a low-protein diet. Amadeus had a high-protein diet and thrived on it. We used points that improved circulation to the kidneys, supported his circulation, and boosted his immune system. His kidney values improved and then plateaued over the months of his treatments. He did not have the precipitous decline in kidney function that was originally a concern for him. He also worked out in the underwater tread-mill for his overall health.
Sometimes, even though a patient comes to me for acupuncture, I may recommend some other treatment. Pippa is a young long-haired dachshund who came to me with disc disease. She had been healthy until two days before, when she came in from the yard and started falling over. The veterinarians at the ER didn’t do a radiograph because she was a dachshund with obvious signs of disc disease, including poor sensation in her rears, walking drunkenly, and pain in her spine. They started steroids and sent her back to the vet the next day. The vet was concerned when the steroids didn’t seem to be working, so she sent the dog to me for acupuncture.
It didn’t make sense. I wanted radiographs. I was as shocked as the owner when the radiographs showed a broken back. Rather than treating her with acupuncture, I sent her for back surgery to stabilize her back.
There had been a windstorm the day she was injured. Several tree branches in the yard had fallen, and one must have hit her.
After surgical repair of the fractured spine, she came for acupuncture, as well as underwater treadmill treatments to help her recover. She is healthy and active and walks and runs quite well now.
One day, I was heading over to work a double ER shift when I began to get a migraine. I called my internist for advice. I told him I couldn’t take migraine drugs before an ER shift.
“What about acupuncture?” he said.
“What?” I said.
“You’re taking that acupuncture course, aren’t you? Do you have any needles? Aren’t you supposed to practice on yourself?”
“They didn’t teach me points for migraines. I don’t think animals get migraines.”
“Try it,” he said. “You’ve got nothing to lose.”
I worked out my Chinese diagnosis and placed the needles in my forehead, ears, hands, and elbows. Thirty seconds with needles in and my migraine was gone.