Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing technique based on the use of super-fine needles in certain parts of the body in order to relive pain and bring or maintain health. I personally use acupuncture for all of these reasons, and I can’t say enough about how much it’s done for me. Even so, I couldn’t imagine that cats would react very well to acupuncture until I heard about Moki, a cat who developed severe neurological damage after an infection he suffered while he was a kitten.
At first, I thought Moki was the exception and that most cats wouldn’t tolerate the treatment, but Dr. Rachel Barrack, a veterinary acupuncturist, convinced me otherwise.
“I first became interested in learning more about acupuncture and traditional Chinese veterinary medicine when I couldn’t obtain the results I was hoping for with Western medicine,” says Barrack, who began her career working with horses but whose practice today extends to small animals. “I recall trying to help a racehorse with a significant lameness return to racing. Another veterinarian performed acupuncture and quickly there was a significant improvement.”
“Around the same time, a family member’s cat was diagnosed with cancer. His quality of life declined rapidly. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy were able to ease his suffering and allow his owner some more time to say goodbye,” she says. “These two cases really sparked my interest in learning about acupuncture.”
According to Barrack, acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy can be used to treat a wide variety of physical and behavioral conditions in cats, including degenerative joint disease, neurological disease such as seizures or disk disease (or Moki’s mystery illness), stomach and intestinal problems, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, kidney problems, and skin disease. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy can also be used to provide the best possible quality of life for cats on palliative care.
There are two major philosophies about how acupuncture works. The traditional philosophy is that by inserting the needles at certain points along channels called meridians, you unblock Qi (vital life energy). Western-oriented practitioners, however, have a more biologically based belief.
“I’ll admit when I first started studying the ancient art of acupuncture I was pretty skeptical as to how it works,” Barrack says. “The western-trained scientist in me tried to establish a modern basis to this ancient practice and researched clinical studies, which explained acupuncture points as correlating to areas of increased microcirculation and nerve endings.”
While Barrack agrees with the Western ideas, “I do believe in some of the more Eastern principles in conjunction, such as the flow of Qi and blood along the meridians. Pain seems to correlate to stagnation or blockage of free flow. I also think traditional Chinese medicine focuses on the patient as a whole and not just the disease process. Chinese medicine seeks to restore harmony and balance between organ systems for optimal health and overall well-being.”
“However one seeks to justify it, I find it truly incredible that a tiny needle can result in so much extraordinary change,” Barrack says.
Now for the $64,000 question: How do cats react to acupuncture treatments? Do they fall asleep on the treatment table, like I do, or do they fight every inch of the way? The answer: Yes.
“Cats tend to really love or really hate receiving acupuncture. In my experience, there doesn’t seem to be much in between. Most cats seem to enjoy it, and some do relax to the point of falling asleep, but every now and then even the nicest cat turns into a tiger when the needling begins,” says Barrack. “For these more finicky felines, I recommend just utilizing Chinese herbal therapy to obtain the benefit of Eastern medicine without incurring unnecessary stress.”
Barrack has had many rewarding experiences giving acupuncture treatments to cats. “I find it especially rewarding to improve the quality of life for geriatric cats or those undergoing chemotherapy and radiation,” she says.
She reminds people that it’s important for a veterinarian to maintain an open mind to both Western and Chinese medicine. “Although the focus of my practice is traditional Chinese veterinary medicine, I still have not forgotten my Western veterinary training,” Barrack says. “I am the first to suggest when a patient can benefit most from Western treatment, Eastern treatment, or often a combination of the two. Ultimately, my goal is always to help animals achieve optimal health.”
Acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy can be a great complementary treatment to go along with Western medicine. To find a licensed veterinary acupuncturist in your area, Barrack recommends visiting the website of the Chi Institute, from which she received her certification. You can also check out the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society website to learn more about animal acupuncture and search for an IVAS-accredited practitioner in your area.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal rescue volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline authors, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.