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Pet Acupuncture

Body+Soul, January/February 2010

Putting your shiba inu on the acupuncturist's table may seem as wacky as taking him to a Pilates class. But even mainstream veterinarians recognize that animal acupuncture isn't some kind of twee indulgence, but an effective alternative therapy that can help pets lead healthier -- and possibly even longer -- lives. Kerry Merchant of Williamsburg, Massachusetts, says acupuncture made all the difference for her 11-year-old dog, Bonnie, a pitbull mix who had been struggling with arthritis. "I was skeptical at first," Merchant says. "But when we tried glucosamine and that didn't help, I decided to give it a go." Within two treatments, Bonnie's use of her hind legs noticeably improved. After a year's worth of sessions (at first bimonthly; now about once a month), "it's easier for her to do things like jump up on the bed," Merchant says.

Veterinary acupuncture, practiced in China since the tenth century B.C. on horses, has recently grown more popular in the United States. "Today, more than 50 percent of vets have either practiced acupuncture or referred a patient to one who specializes in it," says Huisheng Xie, D.V.M., director of the University of Florida's veterinary acupuncture program. Vets use acupuncture on all kinds of creatures, including iguanas and birds.

How It Works
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, we suffer ailments when we have blockages in our meridians, the channels of energy that run throughout the body. (Cats and dogs have meridians similar to those of humans, Xie says.) Needles remove those obstructions and get energy flowing freely again. Western beliefs hold that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system, which can increase circulation and release hormones such as pain-relieving endorphins. The practice can help ease conditions such as asthma, diarrhea, hip dysplasia, and arthritis. "It won't necessarily cure a health problem," says Vikki Weber, executive director for the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. "But it helps relieve symptoms so the animal can recuperate faster and feel better." Weber even witnessed a case in which acupuncture helped a dachshund with cardiac failure live comfortably for several years after his owners were advised to put him to sleep. Acupuncture may also help mellow out a furniture-chewer: Those endorphins can trigger behavioral changes by reducing anxiety and relieving stress.

What to Expect
If the thought of someone sticking Fluffy has you on pins and needles, don't worry: The process should be virtually painless. She'll likely be skittish at first, but the practitioner will probably help ease her into the session by placing needles into points that induce relaxation. "Animals -- even cats -- usually lie quietly thereafter and almost never require sedation," Weber says. Another hint: Merchant finds Bonnie much calmer during her sessions if she's had a long, energy-draining walk beforehand.

How Long It Takes
Treatment durations vary. A minor sprain or strain might take only one session (typically half an hour). More serious ailments, such as a spinal disease, could require a long-term approach, starting with one session per week and eventually tapering off to once every three to six months -- possibly for the rest of a pet's life. An animal will often respond positively after the second or third treatment, depending on his or her age, diet, chemistry, and lifestyle, Weber says.

Finding an Expert
Although a number of regular acupuncturists treat animals, Weber strongly advises finding a trained veterinary practitioner. "They understand animal neuroanatomy and can properly diagnose and safely administer the procedure," she says. It's also important for your acupuncturist to consider how the therapy might interact with any other treatments or medications.

Look for a practitioner certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, Chi Institute, or Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians. Before signing up, ask how many cases the vet treats per year, and if he or she has had good results with other animals suffering from the same problem. Expect the vet to inquire about your pet's medical history, as well as behavioral changes following the first few sessions, Xie adds.

Keep in mind that acupuncture should supplement -- rather than replace -- other forms of care. "It's simply another instrument in a vet's toolbox," Weber says.