More and more vet practices are offering acupuncture in response to the growing demand for complementary therapies. Angela Tufvesson reports.
Devising effective treatment regimens for troublesome conditions and managing a fickle client base is tricky business for vets, but what if there were an out-of-the-box solution to both problems? Enter veterinary acupuncture, which a growing number of Australian practices now offer as an adjunct to Western medicine. This ancient Eastern technique is an effective treatment for a range of common ailments, and as a regular, minimally invasive procedure, it allows vets to develop long-term relationships with clients.
Put a needle on it
Complementary medicine techniques such as acupuncture may sound foreign and substandard to Western ears, but the gap between Western and complementary medicine is closing as modern medicine widens its scope to include a more holistic approach to healthcare, and adopts therapies that originated in the East.
More than 30 per cent of Australian GPs practise a fusion of Eastern and Western philosophies known as integrative medicine. Acupuncture is the most widely recognised Eastern technique, so much so that Medicare pays when it is administered by a medical doctor.
Veterinary acupuncturist Dr Elissa Marriott from the Australian Veterinary Acupuncture Group (AVAG) says this trend is reflected in the rising demand for acupuncture in the animal world. “As we’re seeing the human side of acupuncture growing, the veterinary side has grown as well,” she says. “We’re really starting to see a significant explosion in requests for acupuncture, both from clients and referrals from other vets who see that acupuncture works well [including] in human medicine.”
The human and animal forms of acupuncture are virtually identical. Very fine needles are inserted into specific points on the body to promote the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate blood flow, normalise autonomic function and relieve pain. According to the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), research shows an increase in endorphins, red and white cell counts and cortisol levels in the blood stream after acupuncture treatment.
“You can use acupuncture as a sole treatment or you can use it integratively with Western medicine,” says veterinary acupuncturist Dr Emma Rowe from Adelaide Hills Veterinary Acupuncture.
“The integrative approach is effective because Western medicine has a lot of strengths in diagnostics and also with acute conditions, trauma and infections, while Chinese medicine has enormous strengths in treating things like chronic conditions and cancer, and it’s excellent for geriatric animals and pain.
“The most common reason that an animal receives acupuncture is for pain as a lot of animals can’t tolerate the anti-inflammatory medicine that Western medicine provides.”
“Chinese medicine has enormous strengths in treating things like chronic conditions and cancer, and it’s excellent for geriatric animals and pain.”—Dr Emma Rowe, veterinary acupuncturist
Indeed, the AVA reports that 80 per cent of veterinary acupuncture treatments are used to treat musculoskeletal conditions. Many other conditions have also been shown to respond to acupuncture, including diseases of the skin, cardiovascular system and immune system, as well as behavioural problems. In China, horses, cows and pigs have been treated with acupuncture for over 3,000 years and the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) says the technique can be used on every species of animal.
While certification to practise veterinary acupuncture is not mandatory and uncertified vets are technically free to practise the technique, the AVAG recommends that vets undertake appropriate internationally recognised training through organisations such as IVAS or the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, which typically takes about 12 months to complete.
Marriott adds that acupuncturists who practise on humans are not certified to practise on animals. “We always recommend that you are certified and we encourage people to only use certified veterinary acupuncturists,” she says.
“There are people who are certified in [human] acupuncture and start to work with animals. We presume they don’t have the knowledge of anatomy that varies between humans and animals and we always strongly discourage against using uncertified practitioners.”
For existing practices, Rowe says acupuncture is best offered in addition to Western medicine.
“From a business point of view that’s the way to go because you’ve already got your practice and it’s an additional service that can be added that doesn’t have massive overheads,” she says.
“For a big practice, it’s very easy to get started and the major cost is really going to be the training. The major ongoing cost is needles and the major charge is for your time. It works really well if you’ve got spare rooms—someone can be consulting in Western medicine in one room and someone can be consulting in Chinese medicine in another room.”
Dr Belinda Parsons, a veterinary acupuncturist and general manager at Great Western Animal Hospital, says that while acupuncture won’t have a significant direct impact on the bottom line of a practice, it helps to generate indirect income through the development of close relationships with clients.
“Clients develop a really strong relationship with you because you see them very regularly, perhaps monthly,” she says. “Acupuncture is a great way to build a strong bond with your clients because you’re able to pick up on other things earlier, you develop trust with them and they’re happy to take your advice and let you oversee the entire care of the patient. It takes about 10 minutes to put the needles in and the rest of time is just waiting for needles, so it’s a good time to get to know the client better and see what else the pet might need.”
Rowe says educating clients about the benefits of acupuncture is crucial because even though the discipline is becoming more mainstream some clients may feel apprehensive. “People aren’t as aware of it and they’re still a little bit afraid of it, either that it doesn’t work or that it’s a bit wishy-washy.” She says sharing images of relaxed pets during treatment on social media sites like Instagram can be an effective way to break down fears and misconceptions.
Ultimately, notes Rowe, practices that offer acupuncture are responding to a growing demand for more natural and holistic treatments for pets that shows no sign of abating. “A lot of times you can hit a brick wall with Western medicine and run out of options, and Chinese medicine is the other option,” she says. “You’re better off to have it at your practice rather than outsourcing it.”