Ask the Vet
Acupuncture for animals?
Question: My twelve year old Labrador, Bruno, suffers from arthritis of the back and hips. He has been on anti-inflammatories and glucosamine for a few years but these are ceasing to be as effective as they once were. I have tried acupuncture myself and been greatly helped. Knowing that you practice acupuncture alongside traditional medicine I was wondering if acupuncture might be helpful for Bruno, and if so, how it actually works.
Answer: I am very sorry to hear about Bruno’s predicament, which is all too common in elderly dogs. We have used acupuncture to great avail in dogs especially those with problems like Bruno’s. Although one cannot turn back the clock I would hope acupuncture would at the very least make his life more comfortable and manageable and acupuncture can be safely used alongside traditional medication.
The use of acupuncture in China dates back at least 3000 years however it now seems clear that therapeutic techniques involving piercing the body developed independently in many communities around the world up to 7000 years ago. The mammalian system incorporates a complex system of sensory modulation. In childhood, we all learn to take advantage of this when our parents teach us to ‘rub it better’. This soon becomes conditioned behaviour and in adult life as we suffer more chronic muscular pains and aches we often massage deep into our aching muscles in an attempt to relieve pain. It does not take a great leap of the imagination to see how such behaviours may have progressed in certain communities until the skin was pierced at sites of tender muscle. This was observed to be a very efficient therapy and before long maps of the body describing the common sites of tenderness would have been produced.
Western Medical Acupuncture uses acupuncture as a therapy following orthodox clinical diagnosis predominantly in the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders and, in particular, chronic pain states in animals. Points are chosen based on the principles of nervous system function and the identification of trigger points - tender points in a taut band of muscle which can cause referred pain. Science and acupuncture no longer represent opposing poles of medical opinion as more and more evidence is found to support and explain the mechanisms by which acupuncture achieves its results. The specific effects of acupuncture needling are achieved through stimulation of the peripheral nervous system (the part of the nervous system that excludes the brain and spinal cord) and neuromodulation (the process in the nervous system in which several classes of chemicals called neurotransmitters regulate diverse populations of nerve cells) of the central nervous system, which occurs as a consequence. Acupuncture also stimulates the release of pain-relieving chemicals in the brain and spinal cord such as endorphins, which produce more generalised analgesia. These effects, combined with local needling of painful trigger points, result in exceptional pain relief.
In painful conditions, acupuncture works by fooling the brain into thinking that potential tissue damage has just occurred at the site of needling. Because this new damage is instantly rated as potentially more serious to the body than pain from an ongoing long-term condition, the needle stimulus takes priority in terms of recognition, and the nerve fibres being activated produce substances in the spinal cord that inhibit any activity in ‘pain’ nerve fibres which are transmitting from that local area. In addition nerve transmission continues beyond the spinal cord to the brain stimulating the release of a number of chemicals and hormones, all of which ‘damp down’ the perception of pain at every level.
Although primarily used for analgesic purposes, acupuncture is used for many varied purposes including enhanced wound healing, control of vomiting, stroke rehabilitation and influence on the immune system, to mention just a few.