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Acupuncture for Dogs and Other Pets: Does it Work?

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This and other holistic practices are gaining popularity with local veterinarians.

Like most Swiss mountain dogs, Dallas has a sweet disposition. But would he tolerate being poked with needles during an acupuncture treatment? Dallas’s human father was willing to find out. “He had a lot of medical problems,” says David Cohen, who lives in Berwyn. “He took more pills than an 80 year old with asthma.”

After he was rescued nearly three years ago, Dallas underwent surgery on his spleen and stomach. To help his dog regain and maintain his health, Cohen turned to Berwyn Veterinary Center’s Dr. Leah Whipple, a veterinarian who specializes in integrative medicine.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Whipple practiced Western-style medicine for the first 17 years of her career. When clients started asking for other options to treat their pets, she researched alternative modalities. “Acupuncture resonated with me because it can be used for arthritis, which is common in a lot of animals,” Whipple says. “If I could make changes with needles instead of medications that have side effects, I was all for it.”

Not surprisingly, only a few schools teach veterinary acupuncture. Undeterred, Whipple traveled to Houston weekly for four months. She quickly started learning that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, bodies have meridians that are pathways of life energy—also known as qi. Humans and animals have some (but not all) of the same meridians. We don’t have tails, and horses don’t have gallbladders or toes. “We put needles in spots on their hooves,” Whipple says. “We can also use acupuncture with birds.”

Many Western doctors have viewed animal acupuncture with skepticism. In 2016, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s board of directors voted against recognizing the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture as a specialty organization. That would involve “representing a distinct field of veterinary medicine backed by scientific knowledge and practice and accepted by the profession and public,” the association said in a written statement.

The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society has been advising caution since its founding in 1974. IVAS considers animal acupuncture a surgical procedure that should be practiced only by doctors with extensive training. “Acupuncture should never be administered without a proper veterinary medical diagnosis and an ongoing assessment of the patient’s condition by a licensed veterinarian,” according to the IVAS website.

Whipple finished her veterinary acupuncture certification back in 1997 and expanded her practice in 2019 by becoming certified in veterinary Western herbal medicine. But she hasn’t abandoned traditional veterinary medicine. Being an integrative practitioner means she uses pharmaceuticals when her patients need them. She also uses photomodulation laser treatments, herbal supplements and nutrition to treat animals.

Nicole Moore says that holistic health practices helped Callie, her beloved Boxer who was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive cancer. “She was 8 years old—almost 9—and I didn’t want to put her through chemo,” says Moore, who lives in Phoenixville. “But I didn’t want to sit back and do nothing,” Following Whipple’s recommendations, Moore started giving Callie herbal supplements and stopped feeding her commercial dog food. “Most kibble is as processed as you can get, and that causes body inflammation,” Whipple says. “The food exaggerates the problem.”

To Moore’s surprised delight, Callie devoured her home-cooked food. Following Whipple’s recipes and those she found online, Moore cooked chicken breast, ground turkey and freshly cut, boiled vegetables. To that, she added salmon oil and a few other canine-specific ingredients. Cooking for pets is not cheap.

They can go through a lot of food. Moore believes it was worth the extra expense. Given three months to live, Callie survived for three more years. Sadly, she died in 2019. “But her last years were good years,” Moore says. “Callie got her energy back, went for walks and got back to her normal self. The change was truly amazing.”

Dallas underwent his own transformation. Although he won’t eat vegetables, he is on a steady diet of boneless, skinless chicken breast doctored with Whipple-approved ingredients. And Dallas does tolerate acupuncture. “He winces just a little, but he’s fine if I put my hand on him,” Cohen says. “The toughest part is keeping him still for 10 minutes.”

With Dallas’s condition improving, Cohen focuses on his newest rescue: Sabrina, a 4-year-old Swiss mountain dog. When he adopted Sabrina, she was overweight and had a limp from a sore right shoulder. With acupuncture, a whole food diet and laser therapy, she has lost 20 pounds and walks without pain.

Is Cohen willing to try holistic health on his own body? “I have threatened that the next time I get back pain, I will try acupuncture,” he says. “Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”