May-June 2015 | Featured Article

Pet Acupuncture Rises in Popularity

More pet owners are trying acupuncture to treat arthritis and other ailments in dogs and cats

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Illustration by Goodloe Byron

Shortly after Denise Unterman of Takoma Park adopted Honeybee last fall, she noticed that the 5-year-old mixed-breed dog was limping on her hind legs and often very stiff after long periods of lying down. So Unterman took Honeybee to a Rockville veterinary practice, where the dog was diagnosed with arthritis stemming from hip dysplasia.

Honeybee’s condition didn’t require surgery, Unterman learned, but something needed to be done to ease her discomfort. Unterman’s vet at Pet Dominion recommended trying acupuncture, a practice normally used to treat humans.

Unterman says she noticed a dramatic improvement in Honeybee’s condition after the first treatment, which was combined with laser heat therapy. After three treatments over five weeks, much of the dog’s arthritis pain was eliminated, Unterman says.

“She bounces around, she doesn’t favor her bad leg,” Unterman says. “She doesn’t look like a dog who has arthritis.”

Local vets say that acupuncture for animals, which stems from the ancient Chinese practice, is rapidly gaining popularity among pet owners as a way to treat pain, neurological disorders and gastrointestinal disorders in dogs and cats. The treatment, offered by area vets since the 1980s, involves the insertion of small needles to ease discomfort by stimulating the body’s natural reactions. In 2014, the American Veterinary Medical Association voted to begin formally working with the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture (AAVA) as an ally organization.

Nicole Karrasch, an anesthesiologist and acupuncturist at Friendship Hospital for Animals in Friendship Heights, believes that acupuncture is becoming more popular because pet owners are doing more to keep their pets alive longer. Older pets are more likely to suffer from ailments and diseases that seem to be responsive to acupuncture.

Karrasch says that acupuncture can be a less invasive form of treatment and produce fewer negative side effects than pain medications. But acupuncture can’t be used in place of surgery, she says: “It can be a good supplemental treatment.”

Acupuncture also can be helpful in treating behavioral problems such as anxiety disorders, phobias and elimination disorders, like house-soiling. Often, the treatment will be used in conjunction with medications or behavioral classes, says Christina Zeoli, an associate veterinarian and acupuncturist at Pet Dominion, where acupuncture sessions cost $50 to $100.

Some clients may shy away from the treatment because they think it is “some weird holistic approach,” Zeoli says. However, she points out that the practice is based on knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Several veterinary schools and organizations, such as the AAVA and the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, certify vets in the practice of acupuncture—it’s smart for pet owners to ask about certifications before beginning any treatment.

“It’s very safe, that’s the big benefit. There are hardly any side effects,” Zeoli says.

Last fall, Allen Malman’s 8-year-old calico, Midge, became the first cat to be treated with acupuncture at Pet Dominion. The cat was treated for a limp in her front leg and severe constipation, says Malman, a Bethesda resident.

On treatment days, Malman dropped Midge off at Pet Dominion in the morning to help the cat acclimate to being away from home. In the afternoon, she was placed in an exam room where classical music was playing.

After eight sessions, Midge no longer needed monthly treatments for constipation and was able to move as she had before developing a limp. “It seems to be an effective treatment,” Malman says. “We have been very happy.”

Alexandra Nowicki is an editorial intern.