This blog condenses the talk given on animal acupuncture by Dr. Jordan Kocen of the Veterinary Holistic Center. Acupuncture can help our animals regain mobility, increase kidney function, improve digestion, decrease pain and decrease allergies.
Getting around the misperceptions
People familiar with Western medicine may find the Chinese medical theory of acupuncture difficult to believe or understand. But the theory only tried to explain why it worked, not that it did or didn’t work.
Recent studies have supported the effectiveness of acupuncture for animals.
Watch my interview with Dr. Kocen
Acupuncture from a Western medical perspective
The body’s main messaging system is electrical (the nervous system), and secondary is chemical (hormones and chemicals).
An acupuncture point is an area in the muscle layer under the skin that has a high concentration of nerve endings. When you put an acupuncture needle there, those nerves are stimulated.
The initial response from the spinal cord is, “get that thing out of there.” Blood flow increases. Tight muscles start to relax. The body releases anti-inflammatory chemicals and endorphins. White blood cells come and flush out toxins.
The Chinese then mapped out results when a needle was put in a certain spot. For instance, they found, “If I put a needle here by the thumb, not only is it good for the thumb but it’s good for a runny nose.” They mapped acupuncture points for all sorts of ailments and symptoms.
Acupuncture for animals -- the procedure
We use very thin, sterile stainless-steel needles. And by thin, you could put seven or eight of these needles inside of a vaccine needle. That’s how tiny these are. They’re short.
Usually, needles stay in place for about 15 to 20 minutes, because not all nerves respond immediately. This gives the nervous system a better chance to do what it’s going to do.
When does animal acupuncture work well?
Animal acupuncture is good for stiffness, mobility, aches, and pains, things related to the muscles, ligaments, and tendons. On the mobility front, I would confidently say at least 80% of our patients show improvements.
Larger dog breeds
Many older Labs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and giant breeds become just slower and stiffer. Their back-end lowers, they have trouble getting up, and they certainly can’t do the stairs.
Often within just a few acupuncture treatments, they are back engaged with the family.
Interestingly, people notice that the dog or the cat’s immune system gets better after animal acupuncture. Or their allergies aren’t so bad. The digestive system works better. That’s because many points that are used to support mobility are good for the liver, the kidney, and other organs.
Kidney disease with cats
We see a lot of kidney disease with cats as they age. (Here’s an article on kidney disease in dogs.) Acupuncture for cats may help when cats have back tension/tightness. The tension may decrease nerve flow to their kidneys. And that diminishes the kidney’s function. Stimulating kidney acupuncture points improves communication between the kidneys and the central nervous system. And helps stimulate the kidneys to work better.
What limits effectiveness?
The longer the problem’s been there, or the more physical problems animals have may limit how much better they can get. And if they’ve lost nerve functions in key places, animal acupuncture will not work as well because we only have the chemical messenger. If they have some nerve function, you’ll get improvement.
Reasonable expectations for improvement
Generally, it takes three or four treatments to see if it’s helping. If there’s no improvement when we get to six treatments, then I say, “I don’t think it’s going to work.” Fortunately, that’s rare.
Set reasonable expectations for improvements. Clients have said,
- This may sound funny, but she seems happier.
- There’s a little more sparkle in their eyes.
- They’re getting up and down easier.
- They want to go for walks, they’re able to go for walks again.
- They’re picking up their toys again.
- My neighbor said he sees the difference – I hadn’t noticed it ‘till then.
What’s the time investment?
We schedule treatments once a week to every 10 days for the first few visits. When we see improvements, we gradually extend the time period between. We find the farthest interval that maintains and sustains them at that better level of function.
How does acupuncture feel for the animal?
One of the biggest things that keep people away is their own memory of vaccinations or a blood draw – their own or their animal’s.
We mostly use points along the back. With a little distraction, pets barely notice they’re there. We rub their ears. Or stroke down along the back and then put the needle in. It’s not painful.
Most clients are quite shocked at how well they do. The animals look at me as if to say, “Why are we here? We could sit at home and do nothing for 15 minutes!” Some even fall asleep.
Is there a problem mixing acupuncture and current medications?
There’s generally no negative interaction between current medications or supplements and animal acupuncture. That’s mainly because they’re working through different actions.
I tell people keep all medications and doses the same during initial treatment. That’s so we know that improvements can be attributed to acupuncture.
After we see improvements, we say, “which of these medications poses a (potential) problem?” Those include digestive upsets or liver problems. We ween those out first. We’ve been able to get animals off (or decrease the amount of) many, if not all medicines.
Slipped (swollen) disk
A client came in with a dog that had a slipped (swollen) disk. They could not afford surgery, so our veterinary receptionist adopted the dog and had the surgery done. But the dog still couldn’t walk. So, we started acupuncture immediately. Within a few treatments the do was walking!
Severe neck pain
We saw a terrier with severe neck pain. He was better with medications, but still yelped every time he tried to move. In two treatments, they stopped the medications. He’s now walking around shaking his head, probably thinking, “It’s just unbelievable!”
White German Shepherd not very mobile
A client with a white German Shepherd came in without the dog. I explained how acupuncture works, what we could expect, no guarantees. And she said, “Okay, hold on a minute.” She went out, brought in the dog and we started treatments.
By the second treatment, I saw improvements. He got up and down smoother and moved better. But she disagreed -- “No, he’s no better.” Each time she kept saying, “No, he’s no better.” So, at appointment number six I said, “Okay, this is it, what do you think?” And she said,
“I was going to say he’s no better but then I was also going to complain that he’s always underfoot. Then I realized, wait a minute he’s always underfoot, he’s not sitting over in the corner all the time.”
In time, he got even better!
Dr. Kocen received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine. He’s been practicing in Northern Virginia ever since. After practicing general small animal medicine for several years, he was certified in veterinary acupuncture in 1990. At the time, Dr. Kocen was the only veterinarian in Northern Virginia providing that service.
Over the next few years, he trained in Chinese herbal medicine and homeopathy. Most of his appointments were people coming in for holistic medicine.
Dr. Kocen joined SouthPaws Veterinary Specialists when they first opened in Springfield, Virginia in 1995. He headed the holistic medical/medicine department for 19 years. To increase the availability of alternative modalities for small animals, Dr. Kocen opened the Veterinary Holistic Center in North Springfield in September 2015.
If you’re close to the metro DC area (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia) find out more about the Veterinary Holistic Center at https://vhcnova.com/ or call 703.662.4494.
I now have office hours at the Veterinary Holistic Center in Springfield, Virginia on Mondays.
You can now see the veterinarians and me on the same day!