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By Sheila Tuler, D.V.M.

Most people probably have some awareness of acupuncture as an ancient Chinese method of healing. It is rare for me to talk to someone who doesn’t at least know someone who has been treated with acupuncture. This familiarity is evidence of the increasing acceptance of acupuncture by the medical community, and the public in general, as a legitimate form of therapy. This acceptance is being reflected in the veterinary community as well, with more and more veterinarians performing or recommending some form of acupuncture for various problems.

First, a little theory. In traditional thinking, the body is composed of energy flows, called meridians, that are associated with the different organs. In a healthy body, these flows are in balance. There are no areas of excess energy, no areas of decreased energy. In disease, the energy in the body is out of balance. With acupuncture, points along the meridians are stimulated or sedated to bring the body back into balance. For the more conventionally minded, it is thought that the meridians may be associated with electrical current flows that follow nerve pathways. Many acupuncture points are found near nerve bundles or nerve endings, and it has been shown that some of the effects of acupuncture can be attributed to changes in levels of substances that transport nerve impulses. Also, anyone who studies physiology knows that the body is one big mass of checks and balances. For example, the immune system has several feedback mechanisms. In a healthy body, the immune system is a wonder to behold. However, if out of balance, there can be big problems, whether it is overactive as in autoimmune diseases, or underactive as in immunodeficient diseases. In any case, the idea of an unhealthy body in which all the neurologic feedback mechanisms are out of whack, is not a far-fetched idea.

So, why would you want anyone to stick needles into your pet, and why would these pets put up with this? When an animal is treated with acupuncture, needles are placed at various points in the body depending on the condition being treated. Sometimes substances are injected into the points, sometimes the points are stimulated either mechanically or with heat or electricity, and other times the needles are just left in place for a period of time. Most animals (including cats and birds, not just dogs) react very well to the needles, and actually become quite relaxed during and after an acupuncture session.

Acupuncture can be used in animals to treat a variety of conditions. I personally like the use of acupuncture because it can be used well as an adjunct to many more “mainstream” therapies. Thus, while a pet is being treated for an illness or other problem, we can get the body to do its part as well. One of the most common uses of acupuncture is for pain relief, especially in arthritic conditions. This is a good example where surgery, rest, or anti-inflammatory or chondroprotective agents may be necessary to treat a pet, but at the same time acupuncture can relieve pain and improve joint function.

Interested? Well, veterinary acupuncture is still in its infancy, and not licensed. Veterinarians using acupuncture range from those that know a few points to use for a few routine problems to those fully licensed in human acupuncture with a deep knowledge of the field, with most somewhere in between. To find the person suited to you and your pet’s needs, try to get a referral and ask the veterinarian about his or her experience. Acupuncture can be a great option to keep in mind for your pet’s health.

Dr. Sheila Tuler is a veterinarian who practices in Santa Fe.

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue.

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