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Animals & Alternative Medicine

by Belinda Recio
alternative medicine animals

Acupuncture, massage and herbal medicine may be even more effective on animals than people

A friend has a horse that developed ongoing respiratory issues. Her vet tried a variety of medications, but nothing worked. When someone suggested that she consider acupuncture, she decided to give it a try. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for her to find a local veterinary acupuncturist. Perhaps even more surprising was that, after only a few sessions, her horse’s breathing improved, his energy returned and soon she was able to take him out for his daily rides on the trails.

Veterinarians are increasingly turning to alternative therapies such as acupuncture, herbal remedies and massage to treat both illness and injury in animals. Some vets believe that alternative therapies not only work for animals, but may even work better for animals than for people. If researchers ever prove this to be true, one possible explanation might be that animals’ minds don’t get in the way. Think about the placebo effect (when your brain convinces your body that a fake treatment works), or the nocebo effect (when you believe that you are having negative symptoms or side effects when none should occur). Both the placebo and nocebo effects are proven human phenomena, but as far as we know, neither exists in animals. Without a meddling mind to get in the way, it’s possible that alternative therapies could be more effective for animals than people.

The alternative therapy turned to most often in veterinary medicine is acupuncture. Popular in Chinese veterinary practice for thousands of years, vets are now using acupuncture to treat musculoskeletal, respiratory, dermatological, gastrointestinal and other animal health issues. Acupuncture is most often used in veterinary medicine for pain management, and there are some vets who consider it to be as effective as medication. Because we can’t ask animals if they are feeling better, vets rely on behaviors such as positive changes in appetite, sleep and general energy level, as well as species-specific gestures—such as tail-wagging in dogs—to infer that animals feel better. And many vets report significant improvement.

Of course, there is also a fair amount of skepticism surrounding the efficacy of acupuncture in animals, with one study claiming no compelling evidence to either recommend or reject acupuncture in veterinary medicine, primarily because there hasn’t been enough conclusive research. Nonetheless, if you decide to explore acupuncture for your companion or farm animal, note that the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society recommends that you hire a licensed veterinarian with formal training in the practice.

Like acupuncture, herbs have been used medicinally for thousands of years to improve health in both people and animals. Veterinary herbalists use ginger, chamomile, goldenseal and others to treat everything from gastrointestinal issues to weak immune systems. Although most herbs are safe when used as intended, it’s best to consult with your vet or to find a veterinary herbalist before administering herbs to an animal. Certain herbs can be just as dangerous as drugs and might interact with conventional medications in unsafe ways. Further, because herbs and supplements are not regulated in the same way as drugs, sourcing reliable suppliers is critically important.

As for the science behind veterinary herbal medicine, there have been a few formal studies of certain herbal remedies, and some positive outcomes have been reported. But just as with acupuncture, more research is required before a scientific consensus can be reached.Another therapeutic technique used in nontraditional veterinary medicine is massage. When practiced by a qualified professional, therapeutic massage can be as beneficial for animals as it is for humans, both physically and mentally. It can relieve muscle tension, improve circulation and help to realign the spine, all of which can reduce—or even eliminate—pain, lower blood pressure, and increase flexibility and range of motion. Massage is especially good for older animals, or those that are recovering from surgery. However, as with any alternative therapy, always consult a vet first, especially if the animal is recuperating from a surgical procedure.

Alternative Medicine Resources for Animals

To explore alternative therapies for your companion or farm animal, please consult with your vet and work only with qualified practitioners. Search the databases on the following websites to find veterinary acupuncturists, herbalists and massage therapists near you.

International Veterinary Acupuncture Society

Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association

International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork

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