Animals suffer from diseases, just as humans do. They can develop arthritis, cancer, allergies, diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune diseases, digestive disorders, back problems, and other conditions. While nutrition is the cornerstone of animal health, a variety of alternative treatments may contribute to the healing process.
Acupuncture and chiropractic treatments can work together to help relieve pain and treat injuries, arthritis, hip dysplasia, spondylosis, degenerative joint disease, limping, dry eye, paralysis, and dogs and cats with arthritis respond particularly well to acupuncture.
Acupuncture and Chiropractic: Better Together
The ancient Chinese pain-alleviating technique known as acupuncture, and the more contemporary alternative healing practice of chiropractic medicine, are now widely accepted treatments for companion animals. Since pets are not subject to the power of suggestion (or the placebo effect), successful use of these techniques in animals speaks for itself. In fact, acupuncture and chiropractic are often used together since they tend to complement each other.
“Sometimes one works better, sometimes the other, and sometimes the combo works better,” notes Dr. Nancy Scanlan, a holistic veterinarian in Sherman Oaks, California. She has been treating animals with acupuncture and chiropractic since 1989.
The number of sessions required to get results from these methods varies with the individual animal and the particular problem involved, according to Scanlan. While most pets receive ongoing treatments, in some instances a single session might do the trick with no further visits required for six months to a year. She goes on to say, however, that most of the time “we’re dealing with an animal that has arthritis, or a chronic disk problem, so they need repeated treatments. Usually after about three treatments, you start seeing some really good results.”
“There are some animals that can take up to 10 (acupuncture) treatments before you start seeing something—where nothing happens in nine treatments, but the tenth is the magic one. It’s rare, but it does happen. In my own practice, it seems that if it doesn’t work in 10, it’s not going to work.”
In addition to treating ailing animals, these complementary therapies are also used as maintenance techniques on healthy animals, especially performance dogs.
The Centuries-Old Secret of Soothing Through ‘Needlepoint’
Acupuncture therapy relieves pain by inserting a series of needles in strategic points along channels of energy flow in the body, known as meridians. Acupuncture, since it does not involve the use of any drugs or toxic substances, is particularly advantageous because it has few side effects.
However, why acupuncture works as well as some human patients claim it does is still a matter of speculation by medical researchers. One theory suggests it serves to stimulate electrical currents that are channeled by the nervous system into various organs of the body. Another school of thought believes acupuncture stimulates the release of certain natural opiates. These neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, endorphins and other chemicals, are able to numb the pain and may even create a kind of “high.” That may explain why tests performed on subjects after acupuncture treatments have revealed the presence of higher-than-normal amounts of these substances, and why some patients undergoing acupuncture claim it gives them a feeling of euphoria.
Prior to the early 1970s the benefits of acupuncture were known to very few Americans. This technique was brought to the attention of Western media by events that occurred in 1972. James Reston, a well-known columnist with the New York Times, had a medical emergency while covering the U.S. ping-pong team’s trip to China, just prior to President Nixon’s groundbreaking visit. In writing about the emergency appendectomy he received, James described how acupuncture treatments had successfully relieved pain from the surgery. That prompted the President’s personal physician to investigate and lead to acupuncture being accepted as an experimental medical procedure by the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs. Today, acupuncture is accepted as a legitimate form of therapy and has gained in popularity.
Acupuncture can help relieve pain in animals from conditions such as hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis, in addition to improving circulation. Scanlan notes that, following treatment, “they move more freely, they move better, and they walk better. This is beyond what you see with just pain killers.”
For cats and dogs, acupuncture offers a number of distinct advantages. According to Scanlan, most pets are receptive to it. “Even with the ones that are really anti-veterinarian, you can usually manage to sneak some needles in.” She goes on to say, “it can also be used in more extreme cases where you wouldn’t want to use chiropractic. Acupuncture is sometimes more dramatic in terms of what we can accomplish” to provide an effective means of improving circulation, decreasing inflammation, and either increasing or decreasing hormone levels.
Scanlan once treated a cat that was suffering from end stage kidney disease. The animal was close to death and had stopped eating and drinking, was vomiting, and refused to allow its owner to give it sub-Q fluid, which is administered directly under the skin in kidney patients. “I was also unable to administer any fluids, but the cat would let me insert acupuncture needles,” she recalls, “after which it resumed eating and drinking as soon as it got home.” She said the effects of the treatment lasted a month, as did each of four subsequent acupuncture sessions, before the cat passed away. With acupuncture, “we were able to give the cat five more months of quality life. That’s pretty dramatic.”
Scanlan explains this phenomenon results from a twofold effect. First, there’s the release of endorphins that she attributes to the acupuncture treatments. Cats, she contends, are “extremely responsive” to this and sometimes start purring when the needles are inserted, “not a nervous purr but a relaxed purr.” Secondly, acupuncture, when done correctly, “stimulates the nerves going to the right places.” This increases circulation to certain areas, such as the kidneys, and decreases nausea which helps revive the appetite. “When you hit the right point, you can get that kind of result.”
Another condition where acupuncture is particularly well suited, according to Scanlan, is in the treatment of dachshunds that begin suffering at a very young age from calcified disks. In such cases, a sudden movement of the back could set off a rupture and rule out the use of chiropractic. But she maintains that acupuncture, can be safely used when calcified disks are present. Acupuncture can also be used to treat behavioral problems such as destructive separation anxiety or spraying in the house. While it’s effectiveness in this area is not 100 percent, Scanlan says “very often we get good results.”
In general, Scanlan says, cats usually respond to acupuncture treatments more quickly than dogs because, in her opinion, “cats are wired,” with very sensitive nervous systems, whereas dogs tend to be the more “laid back.”
Helping a Distressed Pet to ‘Adjust’
Chiropractors trained in giving adjustments to people are probably not qualified to treat a dog or cat. Certified animal acupuncturists must pass a course offered either by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, the American Veterinary Acupuncture Society, or the Chi Institute (which offers training every year in Florida).
Scanlan points out, “you need to understand animal anatomy. For example, the curve in the neck of a dog or cat is the opposite of the way the human neck curves.” In addition, “a dog’s back is different from a person’s ... the angles are different; (they) put more weight on the front end than the back end, so the mechanics are different.”
There are also some dogs that “are all messed up,” having been bred with a shape that isn’t quite what nature intended. Dachshunds are a good example. “Very often, dogs like that need maintenance adjustments just because of the way they’re shaped. Their legs don’t match their bodies.”
Another big difference between treating humans and animals “is that if you’ve got a patient who is touchy, they’re going to turn around and bite you.” Because of that risk, “you may have to ease your way into it.”
Scanlan urges pet owners to look for someone who has passed the course and is certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. It’s also important that an animal be thoroughly examined and tested for any underlying conditions before starting chiropractic treatments. Because of the different way animals are designed, and the potential difficulty in adjusting them, some veterinary chiropractors limit their technique to stretching and toning. The ones who use more traditional adjusting techniques must be “triply sure of being in the right position.”
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