When my cat, Neo, was 7 years old, he began scratching and licking open sores on his belly. A blood test revealed he was mildly allergic to pollen, but the strongest reaction was to protein, specifically chicken, turkey and beef.
Initially, heavy doses of steroids were Neo’s only relief, but I purchased cat food made with venison, something he had never eaten. The itching slowly got better and, after a time, I gradually weaned him off the steroid to see if the food change had solved the scratching entirely. Neo’s itching was much less intense than it had been previously, but he still scratched. My vet put him back on a lower dose of steroids, but I was concerned about the long-term side effects.
After some Internet research, I decided to try acupuncture. Neo had four or five sessions over several months, but after each one, the itching improved. Eventually, I was able to take him off of the steroids entirely.
Bernard Glassman and his wife, Barbara, of Chapel Hill adopted Tofu, their yellow lab, when she was just a puppy. At 11 years old, Tofu was diagnosed with a condition that resulted in a growth on her spine. They were told that she might have six months to live and the pain would likely be too great to justify keeping her alive.
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Tofu could no longer walk up the steps of their home and Bernard and Barbara considered putting her on painkillers, but, like me, they were concerned about side effects. The vet who diagnosed Tofu suggested acupuncture and, even though it seemed like a lot of hoodoo to him at the time, Bernard called a qualified vet.
At the first session, Bernard held Tofu and watched her relax and eventually sleep with the needles sticking out of her fur. “All I know is that, once Tofu was getting the acupuncture, she moved more easily,” said Glassman. “After one treatment, she walked up the stairs after at least a month of barely being able to get up a curb.”
Tofu received regular acupuncture until she passed, which was five years beyond her diagnosis.
According to Bernard, “We gave Tofu a pill for pain on occasion, but I feel that acupuncture saved her.”
Not every story is as dramatic as Tofu’s, but fortunately for our animal companions, acupuncture can be used to treat dogs and cats supportively for pretty much anything.
All I know is that, once Tofu was getting the acupuncture, she moved more easily.
Owner Bernard Glassman
Michelle Droke, DVM, of Cole Park Veterinary Hospital says: “The most common things we treat and probably have the most success treating are arthritis, leg pain, back pain, and neck pain. We also use acupuncture in patients that have various diseases like cancer, for example. We’re not necessarily going to cure their cancer, but we can help treat nausea and pain associated with the cancer. We can also try to support the immune system to slow the progression of the cancer and help with energy level.”
Acupuncture is also used to help treat seizure disorders, which can result in fewer seizures and decreased medication.
“A lot of the drugs we use have potential side effects and acupuncture really doesn’t, so it’s a nice, safe thing we can try to support our patients,” says Droke.
The basic principle behind acupuncture is that accessing specified energy points in the body stimulates the central nervous system, which, helps to increase the flow of qi, or life energy. When acupuncture needles are inserted at these points, feel-good hormones, or endorphins, are released, which not only ease physical pain but also promote relaxation.
Dr. Droke indicates, however, that not every animal is helped by acupuncture. Just like humans, some animals respond and some do not. And, just like humans, there are patients that simply don’t like acupuncture.
“Some dogs try to bite us and it ends up being more stressful than helpful to try to put the needles in, and the same is true with some cats. We are limited a little bit by a patient’s disposition.”
A growing number of veterinarians are trained in acupuncture and the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture (www.aava.org) offers a searchable database of certified veterinary acupuncturists across the country. Please seek the advice of your veterinarian if you are interested inacupuncture for a four-legged friend.
Holly Hough, Ph.D., works with the Clergy Health Initiative at the Duke Divinity School. You can contact and follow her at facebook.com/drhollyhough.