Acupuncture for cats? Yes, it’s a real thing. Acupuncture, a branch of traditional Chinese medicine, has been practiced for thousands of years. Anecdotal history places its origins back 4,000 years to when Chinese warriors used arrowheads on pressure points to heal their horses. While the beginnings have been debated, it’s true that acupuncture has been used in veterinary medicine the 20th century, in the early 1970s.
Function of Acupuncture
So how exactly does acupuncture work? Veterinarian Ilana Halperin has a practice in California that includes acupuncture as well as traditional Western medicine, and lays out the basic principles.
“From a Western viewpoint, we’ve shown that inserting acupuncture needles into specific areas where there are nerve bundles or where two muscles meet can cause a release of neurotransmitters, endorphins, increase circulation and sometimes reduce muscle tension.
“From an Eastern standpoint, it’s based on the concept of chi – our life force or life energy – which is constantly running through our body. When we are ill, the chi can get blocked, the needles help open the pathways for the chia to flow. In Eastern medicine disease is a blockage of chi, and acupuncture gets it back in regulation.”
Dr. Lindsey Wedemeyer, a vet in New York who performs acupuncture of dogs, cats, rabbits, horses – even, once, on a bear – provides another way to understand the thinking behind acupuncture.
“From the Chinese perspective it balances the flow of energy to bring it to a healthy state.” Wedemeyer says evidence exists that specific nerve points impact specific body parts. As just one example, “On the leg there’s a point for the stomach, which, when stimulated, lights up on an MRI,” explains Dr. Wedemeyer. Scientific enough for you?
Note: most state laws mandate that the person who performs acupuncture on an animal be a licensed veterinarian. When I asked Dr. Halperin a good starting point for finding a practitioner she suggested the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) website.
The veterinarians interviewed came to practice acupuncture through one of two routes. Either they were already familiar with acupuncture in their own lives, or had seen its positive effect on the quality of life for animals during their education.
Dr. Halperin was trained in a completely Western school of thought but did her internship with a surgeon who used Eastern medicine. “We saw a dog on pain medicine but he was still very uncomfortable,” she explains. Then the surgeon gave him an acupuncture treatment and, “he curled up and went right to sleep.”
When doing her internship, veterinarian Dr. Bridget Halligan, of West Chelsea Veterinary in New York City, worked with two doctors who performed acupuncture. She finds acupuncture extremely satisfying particularly with older patients on whom drugs do not work and for whom she can make a meaningful impact.
After speaking with the vets, it seems acupuncture is most commonly used for arthritis and other joint conditions, kidney diseases and sometimes diabetes. There are several types of acupuncture that can be used. Dry needles and electroacupuncture for cats who can tolerate sitting still with needs in them for 10-15 minutes at a clip, to laser acupuncture which only requires 5-6 seconds on each point and is good for squirmy cats.
How Else Acupuncture Helps Cats
This isn’t to say acupuncture can’t be helpful for other types of conditions. Two people interviewed who treat their cats with acupuncture do so for neurological conditions. My good friend Christina Schmid treats her cat Piper for epileptic seizures with acupuncture, in addition to using traditional medicines. Her vet is Dr Wedemeyer. Laser acupuncture works best because, as Christina once put it, with needles they end up mostly in her and not Piper.
Dr. Wedemeyer will only treat her patients with acupuncture and other Chinese treatments (i.e. herbs) after they’ve been given a full “Western” work-up.
But since turning to acupuncture Christina has noticed, “better overall control of Piper’s seizures.”
The other cat is Moki who you might all know from Animal Planet Fame or Must Love Cats who used to be treated by Dr. Ilana Halperin. Moki’s Mom is Crystal Fogg who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (I also once had the chance to love on Moki, something I’ve yet been able to do with Piper!). Moki has uses electroacupuncture performed on his about 80% of the time and dry needles the remaining.
Moki was receiving physical therapy at Scout’s House when they suggested acupuncture as an addition to his therapy. After acupuncture says Crystal, “He’s walking a lot better. His front legs were stiff because his back legs would slide out from under him. They loosened up the muscles in his front legs and it actually helped his physical therapy.”
Interestingly, while both their cats’ conditions required them to “think outside the box,” both Crystal and Christina’s personal experiences brought them to acupuncture. Christina and her family had great success with acupuncture for a variety of ailments in the past, and Crystal was not a stranger to nontraditional methods of medicine (she received her massage therapist certification at age 18).
When to Turn to Acupuncture
So if you have a cat who cannot tolerate medicine or isn’t being completely helped by traditional Western medicine, perhaps it’s time to start investigating the restorative properties of acupuncture. Do your research and find a certified veterinarian who is trained in feline acupuncture.
Don’t be afraid to ask for references from patients whose furry friends suffer the same maladies as your little one. And ask the questions most important to you in finding a practitioner with which to partner!