Seeking holistic care, some veterinarians turn to acupuncture

Eight-year-old Tripp lies on an exam table with half a dozen acupuncture needles inserted into various parts of his body.

Tripp suffers from congestive heart failure, pulmonary hypertension and idiopathic seizures. To treat his conditions, he takes a plethora of medications and visits health specialists regularly.

He also has four paws and a wet nose.

For Deb Bruner, who rescued Tripp from a puppy mill three years ago, treating her canine with acupuncture is part of a holistic care regimen she uses rather than relying solely on drugs.

“I just feel like if we can take care of an animal with fewer meds, then why not?” Bruner said.  “The medicines have so many side effects.”

In the exam room, Tripp is being treated by Dr. Brooke Lucas of the Kulshan Veterinary Hospital in Lynden. Lucas recently added acupuncture to her range of services.

While still an emerging, and sometimes controversial, component of veterinary medicine, a number of offices around the country are offering acupuncture among their care options.

At least two trade organizations are devoted to the practice: the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture and the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. The Washington State Veterinary Medical Association promotes training programs for veterinary acupuncture on its website.

Lucas, who has been a veterinarian for six years, said she had been interested in using acupuncture to treat animals since she was a student in veterinary school. She received  acupuncture training through a five-week post-graduate course.

She has performed the treatment on a variety of animals, including dogs, cats, horses, cows, llamas and goats.

Lucas uses acupuncture to treat many different ailments, but she said it seems to work particularly well in animals with arthritis, back hip or hip disease.

“It’s another option to offer,” Lucas said. “Typical Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers.”

Science behind the needle?

Critics of the practice usually point to missing evidence that acupuncture improves the health of animals, similar to arguments from skeptics of acupuncture’s benefits on humans.

Veterinary acupuncture in the U.S. has been in practice since at least the 1970s. Researchers are still studying its effectiveness and usefulness.

Yet anecdotal evidence from practitioners and pet owners suggests acupuncture can play a role in animal health care.

Deb Bruner, who runs a Bellingham doggie daycare business called 3 Schips and a Girl, said she has seen positive benefits of acupuncture on Tripp—who is of the schipperke dog breed—particularly in helping his allergies.

Lucas believes acupuncture is good component of treatment for animals needing pain relief.

But she was quick to say that acupuncture was not the sole treatment she recommends.

“I’ll never say that acupuncture is a cure-all for everything,” she said

Acupuncture treatment centers on stimulating certain points on the body, typically by inserting small needles into the skin. The goal of the practitioner is to correct the flow of “life energy,” referred to in traditional Chinese medicine as “qi.”

In acupuncture treatment, the obstruction of this energy is thought to be a cause of many health problems.

Researchers have yet to correlate the practice with Western medicine. But some have noted that acupuncture points tend to be in close proximity to spots on the body where nerves enter muscle tissue.

During a typical session, Lucas starts by checking the animal’s pulse. Then she examines its tongue.

She said the tongue’s color and size are keys to reaching a diagnosis and determining which acupuncture points to use.

Some of her patients, including Tripp, receive chiropractic care during the session, as well.

Once Lucas decides which points to use, she inserts the needles.

They will remain in the animal for 10-30 minutes, depending on the ailment and the animal’s temperament.

During Tripp’s session, Lucas inserted needles around his paws and ears, as well as in various spots along his back.

The small, furry dog looked unfazed through the treatment, resting calmly on the table and occasionally looking up to Bruner, who stood next to the exam table, watching.

Lucas said the animals are rarely a problem during sessions. But owners, however, occasionally need some consolation, especially ones who are there for the first time.

“Sometimes, I definitely need to calm the owners down first,” she said. “If the owner’s calm, then the animal’s more calm, too.”

This article was revised on Nov. 1, 2012. An earlier version misstated the frequency of Tripp’s visits to health specialists.  

Contact Evan Marczynski at evan@bbjtoday.com or call 360-647-8805.

Evan Marczynski photos | Bellingham Business Journal

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