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Acupuncture: An Alternative to Drugs and Surgery to Help Pets Heal

03/15/2012 07:53 am ET | Updated May 14, 2012

Acupuncture comes from the Latin words acus (needle) and puncture (to prick). Simply, acupuncture means pricking the skin with a needle.

This ancient Chinese healing art has been around 5,000 years for use in people. The earliest animal acupuncture charts -- for horses -- were from 136 A.D. So the technique has been used with animals for quite awhile as well.

Animal acupuncture has been popular in the U.S. for about 35 years, and its popularity continues to grow. As one of my colleagues at Cornell University points out, people are becoming more interested all the time in finding non-surgical, non-drug modalities to help their pets heal.

Explaining Acupuncture: Eastern and Western Perspectives

There's a slight difference in the way Eastern and Western medicine explains how acupuncture works.

The Western viewpoint is that we are electrical beings -- our brains and spinal cords are wired with electrical or nerve-based synapses. The nerves are connected by nerve bundles, which are used as acupuncture points.

The bioelectricity that zips through the nerves that wire your entire body can be modulated (acted upon) by inserting a metal needle into nerve bundles. (Metal conducts electricity.)

Insertion of an acupuncture needle into a nerve bundle is the equivalent of plugging into an electrical outlet in your home to route electricity to a specific appliance or electronic gadget. Acupuncture has the ability to reroute bioelectricity to different parts of the body, allowing for modulation of an animal's neuro-electrical system with a metal needle.

The Eastern perspective on acupuncture is that this bioelectricity, called chi (pronounced "chee"), is the body's vital energy force. Chi flows along nerve pathways called meridians. In Eastern medicine there are 12 major meridians in the body and 365 acupuncture points (nerve bundles).

By modulating (acting upon) the flow of chi or energy around the body through the use of metal needles, acupuncturists can help reduce inflammation, block pain, improve organ function, and balance the body's energy systems.

How Acupuncture Is Used in Veterinary Medicine

Animal acupuncture is beneficial for small animals like dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets. The technique is also becoming quite popular in large animal medicine for use with cows, horses, even exotics and zoo animals like camels and elephants are receiving its benefits.

The American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture lists the following conditions as among the most responsive to acupuncture:

• Hip dysplasia
• Degenerative joint disease
• Degenerative myelopathy
• Epilepsy
• Asthma
• Urinary tract infections
• Inflammation (systemic inflammatory conditions)

I'm a licensed animal acupuncturist and use the technique frequently in my practice. I treat traumatic nerve injuries, lick granulomas, degenerative joint disease, arthritis, musculoskeletal problems, epilepsy, and allergic skin conditions.

Types of Acupuncture

The dry metal needle method is the traditional form of acupuncture, but there are more recent variations on that technique that are proving quite successful as well, including:

• Electro-acupuncture, which involves attaching a microcurrent of electricity to the metal needle to stimulate the body's electrical flow.

• Laser acupuncture is the use of lasers rather than needles on acupuncture points. This variation can be beneficial for really wiggly pets or animals that object strenuously to being pricked with needles.

• Aqua-puncture is the placement of drops of sterile fluid under the skin at acupuncture points.

• Moxibustion is a technique that involves heating the acupuncture needles using mugwort, a dried, rolled herbal incense. It's a great technique for warming the body and is especially beneficial for older, arthritic animals.

Determining the Success of Acupuncture Treatments for Your Pet

My advice to pet owners is to find an acupuncturist who has received formal training, and is licensed (this is extremely important).

The success of acupuncture depends on a few factors, including:

• The practitioner's expertise
• The duration and intensity of the condition being treated
• The number, length and consistency of treatments

Statistically, about 25 percent of patients have an amazing response to acupuncture, showing major improvement to the point of a full cure.

Another 50 percent experience dramatic improvement, but with some symptoms still present. The remaining 25 percent have no response at all.

What these results highlight is that the art of medicine -- matching up the type of treatment needed to successfully unlock a healing response in your pet -- is an important part of deciding what modality to pick.

Sometimes a certain technique works immediately and dramatically. More often there is a period of trying different methods of healing to determine what procedure or combination of procedures provides the most benefit for the animal.

Acupuncture is a great alternative healing technique that has the potential to help your pet avoid the traditional drugs and/or surgery approach.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at: MercolaHealthyPets.com.

Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.

For more by Dr. Karen Becker, click here.

For more on pet health, click here.