Healing needles

Some pet owners are turning to acupuncture to ease the pain


Dr. Huisheng Xie, a pet acupuncturist at the University of Florida Veterinary School, works on Lady Jane, a 12 year old dog owned by Rose Mary Alexander Tuesday, November 16, 2010. Lady Jane suffers from chronic disc problems and arthritis.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 3, 2011 at 10:07 p.m.

Acupuncture for your pet? It's not as far-fetched as it may sound.

For some, especially those who've used it themselves, acupuncture and Eastern medicine may be among the first options when a pet falls ill. For others, it may be the last resort if other treatments don't deliver results.

And with the help of local veterinarians, this practice has found its way to Gainesville's furry friends.



“If conventional medicine failed, that's not the end of the world,” said Huisheng Xie, clinical associate professor for acupuncture services at University of Florida. “Acu puncture can make a difference.”

Lynn Sickinger of Ponte Vedra Beach can attest to that.

When her border collie Chutney's blood work showed extremely elevated liver enzyme levels, she knew she had to do something. She first reached out to an acupuncturist in Jacksonville.

“It was a disaster,” she recalled, preferring not to mention the company by name.

But because of her personal success with acupuncture, she didn't rule it out. And when she learned one of the foremost veterinary acupuncturists resided in Gainesville, she loaded Chutney into the car and made the two-hour trek to see Xie.

That was August 2007, when Chutney was 9 with enzyme levels at more than 2,000. Now, they've dropped to the 200s.

“Besides having a grey face, she doesn't show any signs of her age,” Sickinger said.

Acupuncture is in Xie's blood. A third generation practitioner of Chinese medicine, he grew up watching his father and grandfather treat and heal human patients with acupuncture and tradition al herbal medicine.

After his childhood dog died, Xie decided to take what was an integral part of his family's history and use it to help animals.

Xie has seen hundreds of patients in his 30-year tenure practicing pet acupuncture, with dogs and horses being the most common animals that come into his office.

Although it's not a common treatment in the United States, Xie identified three areas where acupuncture can drastically help your pet.

For animals in a lot of pain from having had surgery or being treated for cancer, acupuncture can help relieve their suffering. It's a more effective way to release endorphins, as well as help the animal relax, he said.

Acupuncture also can help animals suffering from skin disorders and rashes when they don't see a response from Western medicine.

Finally, for older pets, acupuncture can help improve their quality of life for during those last years, as well as help treat some degenerative diseases, such as chronic arthritis pain.

Acupuncture is only one type of Chinese medicine that can be used to help your pets. Herbal remedies, food therapy and dietary management also can be used to treat a number of ailments, including seizures, fertility problems, and muscular and skeletal disorders.

“It's most important to recognize acupuncture is a broad, encompassing approach to health care,” said Robert Spiegel, resident veterinarian at Earth Vets in Gainesville “It's a balanced approach; it's not either/or.”

In fact, Spiegel, who has been practicing Chinese medicine on animals since the early 1980s, believes the best treatment for most pets is a combination of Chinese medicine with modern Western treatments.

“We have anti-inflammatory drugs that effectively work to cancel the pain, but that's in the short run,” he said. “In the long run, they may also do harm to the intestines, kidney or heart.”

That's where acupuncture comes in. For animals being given long-term prescription medication, it can help offset the negative side effects of certain drugs.

The process is fairly simple and similar to how it's practice on humans. Needles are inserted into specific pressure points in your pet, which are chosen based on imbalances in the animal's body. The needles are typically left in for 15-30 minutes, which varies depending on the cause for treatment and the type of animal

If you're worried about it hurting the animal, there's no need. It's not a painless procedure, but Xie equates the slight stinging sensation to that of an ant bite.

“A needle is a needle, so they definitely feel it,” he said.

The surprising thing, however, is that most people are actually more concerned about the procedure than the animal, even after Xie's reassurance.

Xie also found that after pets have received acu puncture, their owners' diet and lifestyle started to improve as well, because typically when the dog needs to get more exercise, the owner is the one that gives it to them.

Spiegel urges pet owners to explore acupuncture and Chinese medicine as possible treatment methods at the first sign of an illness. Like with most medical treatments, acupuncture isn't a one-time fix.

“It's not uncommon for pets to be presented in the 11th hour, [with owners] asking us to perform miracles,” Spiegel said. “But you're only going to enjoy so much benefit from this.”

For many animals and most conditions, several repeat treatments are needed in order to see results. Even with treatment, the best medicine for all types of animals is a well-balanced diet and steady exercise.

Sickinger takes Chutney to see Xie every six weeks. The dog's enzyme levels are still high, but they are manageable. It may be a long trip, but Chutney's quality of life the past three years makes it worth it to Sickinger.

“I believe he saved her life,” Sickinger said. “I wouldn't be spending the time and money on if it I didn't truly believe in it.”

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