Periodically, one sees newspaper articles extolling the virtues of acupuncture for animals. To those familiar with the practice of acupuncture, the tag lines are nauseatingly familiar, e.g., acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, it works to stimulate the animal’s natural energies, etc., etc. Ditto the testimonials; Fluffy wasn’t helped by anything else; now, after a few months of treatment (and plenty of time), Fluffy is running around happily. Some may even take such testimony further, asserting, for example, with some rather tortured logic, that since acupuncture “works” in animals, and animals aren’t thought to be susceptible to placebo effects, then acupuncture must therefore work in people.
In fact, other than testimonials, there’s really no good evidence that acupuncture does work in animals. In fact, acupuncture isn’t much practiced in veterinary medicine – a distinct (but very vocal) minority of veterinarians may practice it. In fact, the most recent review on the management of canine arthritis concluded, “There was weak or no evidence in support of the use of” various modalities, including electrostimulated acupuncture and gold wire acupuncture,”1 and a recent study of electroacupuncture for postoperative pain after back surgery in dogs concluded that there was “equivocal evidence” for an effect, even though there was no difference in analgesics used between treatment and control groups.2
So, what’s with the newspaper articles? Most scientifically minded people are familiar with the problems that beset testimonial evidence, so there’s little reason to repeat them here. But I don’t think that most people – and especially newspaper reporters – have any idea of the distortions, half-truths, and flat out lies that have been advanced in support of animal acupuncture.
First off, acupuncture has not been used in animals for thousands of years; at least if one defines acupuncture as involving the use of fine needles at specific points, and surely if one is interested in written evidence (Chinese writing is about 2500 years old). That’s not to say that the Chinese didn’t do things at points on the animal’s body; they certainly did, just like most every other ancient culture from which there are records. But such interventions were bleeding and cautery, and if one includes lancets to cause bleeding as acupuncture, then while acupunture is an ancient practice, it didn’t start in China, and it didn’t involve “qi” and all of the other metaphysical trappings of the practice. In fact, there’s absolutely no history at all of anyone – including the Chinese – using fine needles to treat animals until well into the 20th century.
Acupuncture points also haven’t been shown to exist in animals (or people, for that matter). In fact, the acupuncture charts devised for animals are inventions of the 20th century, made by “transposing” one of the myriad human charts directly onto animals. That’s one reason why horses have a “gall bladder” meridian (putative channels which connect acupuncture points, which also haven’t been shown to exist), even though they don’t have a gall bladder. But, when it comes to animal acupuncture, there’s apparently no absurdity sufficiently large to cause practitioners any embarrassment.
Although not nearly as extensively as in human medicine, acupuncture has been studied in animals. Looking over the results, one can occasionally find positive studies, especially if the studies have been poorly designed. There have been two reviews on veterinary acupuncture. One, looking at the evidence across all animal species, concluded that there wasn’t enough compelling evidence to either support or refute the practice3; the other, in horses, concluded that there wasn’t good evidence to support the practice, and that the best studies were uniformly negative.4
In spite of the fact that no good evidence to support the practice of animal acupuncture has emerged in the several decades in which it has been proposed (roughly coinciding with the emergence of interest in human medicine in the early 1970s), there are for profit ventures that will “certify” veterinarians to practice acupuncture, such as the “Chi Institute” in Florida, or the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. None of the certifications offered by these organizations is recognized by the Board of Specialities of the American Veterinary Medical Association, presumably because such recognition depends on the ability to demonstrate a body of scientific support.
Veterinary acupuncture is a triumph of style over substance. Fortunately, most veterinarians haven’t succumbed to offering needless needles to animals, in spite of the fact that there are apparently some people eager for such “options.” But when you read the next article extolling the virtues of the practice, keep in mind that you’re reading a level of journalism commensurate with what’s seen on the entertainment pages, information that has essentially nothing to do with good science.
- Sanderson RO, Beata C, Flipo RM, Genevois JP, Macias C, Tacke S, Vezzoni A, Innes JF. Systematic Review of the Management of Canine Arthritis. Vet Rec. 2009 Apr 4;164(14):418-24.
- Laim A, Jaggy A, Forterre F, et al. Effects of adjunct electroacupuncture on severity of postoperative pain in dogs undergoing hemilaminectomy because of acute thoracolumbar intervertebral disk disease. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 2009; 234(9): 1141-6.
- Habacher, G, Pittler, MH, Ernst, E. Effectiveness of acupuncture in veterinary medicine: systematic review. J Vet Intern Med 2006; 20(3):480-8.
- Ramey, DW, Lee, M and Messer, NT. “A Review of the Western Veterinary Literature on Equine Acupuncture.” J Eq Vet Sci, 2001; 21(2): 56 – 60.