Alyson Yee | Odd Jobs
A needling suspicion
Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 06:04
For those whom Western medicine has failed, traditional herbs and cures can be an appealing alternative. Complementary and alternative medicine has been rising in popularity since the 1970s, in part because it seeks to treat diseases more holistically. In fact, some practices don’t distinguish particular causes or symptoms and instead approach general wellbeing. In traditional Eastern theory, qi is the vital energy that flows through the body along 12 main meridians, named after Chinese rivers. Illnesses are caused by blockages in its flow. The practice of acupuncture is that of inserting small needles at some 365 basic pressure points in the body to correct imbalances in qi.
Acupuncture has been approved by the National Institute of Health and the World Health Organization for use on certain conditions, but its efficacy is mainly anecdotal. Scientific studies evaluating acupuncture have found weak effects and attribute it to a placebo — the human body is surprisingly easy to trick, and people do get better from sugar pills. In this case, it has been hard to come up with a control group (Placebo acupuncture? How do you fool someone into thinking you’re stabbing them with a needle when you’re not?) There doesn’t seem to be physiological correlations to the qi meridians that explain the pain relief experienced by proponents of acupuncture.
Here’s the twist: Some pet owners now insist on acupuncture for their four−legged friends. Qi−based treatments have existed in China since the Jin dynasty in the year 265, when horses and working animals would be bled at very specific locations. However, there is no history of anyone using fine acupuncture needles to treat animals until well into the 20th century. According to equine veterinarian David Ramey, qi meridians haven’t been shown to exist in animals, but practitioners have transposed maps onto pet bodies. This can have absurd effects: Horses have a prominent gall bladder meridian, even though they lack a gall bladder!
However, no matter how great your horse whispering skills are, it’s hard to get a read on how a pet is reacting to a treatment. Most support for veterinary acupuncture comes in the form of testimonials: “Fluffy was sick and we were going to put her down and then she had acupuncture and now she’s happily running around, just like always!” Supposedly there is no placebo effect observed in animals, although arguably that is because they don’t understand the difference between an antibiotic and a sugar pill, and therefore any medicine is foreign, scary and bound to have an effect. You can’t very well ask an animal how it’s feeling or why. My friend’s cat used to have a sixth sense about going to the vet and would somehow disappear just when it was time to coax her into a carrier. Judging from the terror most animals (humans included!) seem to have of sterile steel tables and professionals in white coats, additional vet visits with extra needles don’t strike me as agreeable to most house pets.
Although there isn’t data on pet acupuncturist salaries, human acupuncturists make about $50,000 and veterinarians make $70,000−$90,000 annually. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, founded in 1974, oversees the certification of aspiring practitioners. It offers rigorous courses in acupuncture, including clinical research, to veterinary school fourth−years or graduates. Not all veterinary acupuncturists are certified through this organization, but its goal is to create high and uniform standards of care. If you’re passionate about animals and want to apply age−old therapies, and you can reconcile the science they teach you in veterinary school with the mystery of qi, you can be a pet acupuncturist! There are even People & Pets Acupuncture clinics that holistically treat the whole family — and make house calls.
Alyson Yee is a senior majoring in biology and French. She can be reached at Alyson.Yee@tufts.edu.