As complementary and alternative medicine continues to grow in the United States, veterinary acupuncture is also earning a place in the medical field, in both the medical community and the community of pet-owners who opt for alternative options.
- As complementary and alternative medicine continues to grow in the United States, veterinary acupuncture is also earning a place in the medical field, in both the medical community and the community of pet-owners who opt for alternative options.
- With the founding of the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) in the 1970s, American veterinarians were granted access to certification programs that allowed them to practice animal acupuncture in their clinics.
- This article examines the contemporary practice of veterinary acupuncture through an ethnographic study—including observation and interviews with one practitioner and one patient—of one busy veterinary acupuncturist’s practice in California.
The research for this article was conducted at the Oceana Pet Hospital in Pacifica, California, owned and operated by Dr. Afsaneh Nia. This article includes:
- An interview with Dr. Nia.
- A first-hand observation of a veterinary acupuncture treatment.
- A conversation with one of Dr. Nia’s clients.
Based on this research, the article discusses:
- The culture of veterinary acupuncture in California, from both the practitioners’ and clients’ perspectives,
- The differences between veterinary acupuncture practice in the U.S. and in China.
The overarching aim of the article is to bring new insight to the historical and cultural nature of this novel aspect of American alternative healthcare.
In most American contexts, it is widely known that the increasingly popular complementary healthcare practice of acupuncture is rooted in the traditional medicine of ancient China. The practice of veterinary acupuncture—the needling of key points on animals in order to heal various illnesses—is less commonly recognized. Although the practice of veterinary acupuncture may seem relatively novel here in the United States, animal acupuncture has been around for as long as human acupuncture and has similar historical roots . The Chinese were the first to classify the locations of puncture points, describe the system of the acupuncture channels, and develop the laws inherent to the practice of acupuncture . In fact, Chinese acupuncturists have also applied their practice to animals for thousands of years .
Only in the past three decades, however, has the practice been more significantly integrated into the West. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS), formed in 1974, was the first institution in Western society to offer postgraduate courses in veterinary acupuncture . Over the last 35 years, it has become a driving force for veterinarians in the field who were interested in Eastern medicine. Presently in the West, acupuncture is integrated as a valid therapeutic practice in equine, bovine, exotic, and small animal medicine as complementary treatment to conventional Western biomedicine .
Despite this popularity, there are several major distinctions between the use of traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM) in the Eastern and Western contexts. In Western veterinary medicine (WVM), the acupuncture points and channel lines employed during practice are transposed from humans . This is not necessarily the case in Eastern practice, since it is generally believed in the East that animals do not possess souls and therefore do not have circulating Qi, or vital energy. Another difference is that veterinary acupuncture in China is primarily used for agricultural animals such as cattle, pigs, and horses . In modern Western society, on the other hand, there appears to be a greater significance on small animals such as dogs and cats, and there is a larger incentive to better understand acupuncture in these species . There are also differences in logistics and materials: WVM generally uses lighter, one-time-use needles that are sterilized, while Chinese practitioners use sterilized, reusable needles . Nonetheless, the WVM approach to veterinary acupuncture has created a unique practice that integrates Eastern philosophies and Western biomedical techniques, retaining a level of cultural comfort in the United States by conforming to many of the Western standards of medical hygiene and theory.
Interview with Dr. Nia
This article presents research collected during a four-day visit to the Oceana Pet Hospital near San Francisco, California. The hospital is owned and operated by Dr. Afsaneh Nia, a veterinarian who recently completed an IVAS course in animal acupuncture. She has been practicing the specialty for over a year now and has around 50 clients so far that have requested and received some form of this alternative care.
I sat with Dr. Nia in the lobby of her animal hospital, the morning before the procedure I would observe was to take place. She described the basics of the veterinary acupuncture process as “very similar to human acupuncture, in which needles are inserted into specific points of the body.” She believes it may work by restoring a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems through microscopic trauma. These microtraumas can cause a cascade of hormone and neurotransmitter release, which relax the animal’s body by increasing circulation. This practice also releases endorphins and balances the body’s energy. I then brought up the Eastern theory of Qi and asked her how valid she thought it was. “I try to think of acupuncture…as a balancing of the body’s chemistry,” she responded, “Does that negate the Qi theory? I don’t think so.” I then asked her how this issue was tackled during her training and she told me that they were not restricted to one theory—both Eastern and Western explanations were taught equally. This was a very interesting point about the culture of practicing acupuncture. While biomedicine almost always tries to find distinct physiological explanations for phenomena, Dr. Nia’s integrated veterinary course offered alternative explanations and avoided favoring one theory over another. This, of course, contributes to a more open-minded learning experience and empowers the students to decide for themselves which perspective to apply in their own practices. In the case of Dr. Nia, she had decided that both theories “could be valid,” but chose to focus on the Western explanation since it was one that she understood more in-depth and thus could better relay to clients.
I questioned her further about the course, and she told me she felt “an extreme sense of openness” during the training, very unlike the courses she had taken for her DVM degree. Dr. Nia describes this training:
“I felt like every question posed in lectures was considered and answered honestly. I felt very comfortable participating in classes and asking deeper questions about the practice. It seemed like a stark contrast to my earlier days in veterinary school, where there was one explanation for the material being taught and deviation resulted in a bad grade. There was no room to explore other options. They’d tell us ‘this is how this illness works’ and refuse to even discuss the concepts of pain or illness, let alone offer alternative therapies.”
This highlights differences in the cultures of learning between alternative medicine and its biomedical counterpart. Biomedical education appears to be more one-track and by-the-book, where phenomena is reduced to single explanations, while alternative education allows for more than one explanation and supports the potential validity of each.
Overall, Dr. Nia said she found the field of veterinary acupuncture and the individuals involved in it to be “a breath of fresh air, a collective of people that are as open-minded as I am, and who aren’t afraid to take these cultural risks to find new ways of healing their patients.” I asked further about these supposed cultural risks. She explained that to some veterinarians and clients, acupuncture “was silly and ineffective,” and that there was a certain amount of risk in pursuing alternative medicine, especially because other professionals sometimes look down upon it.
“Though,” she rebutted, “the stigma has certainly decreased over my career. Over the course of my career, I’ve come to know more and more professionals who earn their certification in acupuncture and I’ve seen the culture grow over time.” She added, “I wouldn’t have even dreamed of a specialty like this twenty years ago because it was barely an option.”
From this, we can see the parallel trends in the growths of acupuncture for humans and that of animals. As most scholars have posed, complementary and alternative medicine has gained a lot of popularity over the past few decades that it did not necessarily have before. This increase in exposure and consumer demand appears to have also driven the growth of veterinary acupuncture. “The reason I decided to enroll in a course,” Dr. Nia said, “other than personal interest, was that my clients were actually asking for it. Consumer demand is very high.” Dr. Nia continued talking about her personal interest in the field and why she felt inclined to pursue it:
“I think there are things that biomedicine can’t explain and doesn’t have answers for. It’s such an interesting specialty since it doesn’t include the possibility of people arguing that there’s a placebo effect. It’s hard to argue for a placebo effect when your patients have no real understanding of the procedure. That’s what makes it so interesting and compelling. Acupuncture has been around for so long that there must be a reason it’s still being performed, right? If it didn’t work, why would it have been so resilient throughout history?”
Here were some surprisingly strong arguments for the practice of acupuncture. The most-used counter-argument for acupuncture seems to be the placebo effect argument, which is markedly absent in veterinary acupuncture and this fact seems to reinforce its effectiveness.
I also asked about Dr. Nia’s interactions with clients and in which situations she offers these holistic practices. I asked her if there were only certain types of clients that she suggests acupuncture to. Her response was, “Generally, no… I offer the services to any client whose pet would benefit. I don’t discriminate or choose selectively. Anyone can be a potential client.” As for the rate of acceptance, Dr. Nia says about 1 in 4 of her clients who are offered acupuncture treatment end up agreeing to it, a statistic that she personally found “surprisingly high.” She adds, “Given the current state of the economy and the fact that veterinary care in itself is technically an elective procedure, veterinary acupuncture seems like a bit of a stretch financially.” She argues that her high rate of acceptance of the practice “is indicative of a larger cultural acceptance of alternative care, both among clients and practitioners.”
Through speaking with Dr. Nia, a clearer picture began to emerge of what veterinary acupuncture looks like from the veterinarian’s point of view. Just as human acupuncture and other alternative treatments have increased in popularity over the past few decades, veterinary acupuncture is becoming a more accepted form of treatment as well. And similar to its human counterpart, animal acupuncture is being primarily driven by consumer demand. Dr. Nia’s own personal interest and her commitment to her patients and clients spurred the decision to earn a certification in this specialty, one that was unavailable to her just twenty years ago. As she mentioned, the stigma of holistic care is being eradicated from the professional sphere as more and more veterinarians choose to pursue this form of care, which is indicative of a changing cultural understanding as Westerners come to crave more than the reductionist approach typical of biomedicine.
A Veterinary Acupuncture Procedure: Beth’s Story
Beth is a friendly, 8-year-old Cocker Spaniel bursting with energy. Our first encounter was full of slobbery licks and a constantly wagging tail. Beth trots around the lobby happily examining various objects and smells. It is hard to believe that less than a year ago Beth was struck by a vehicle in an accident that caused partial paralysis in her right rear leg. Watching her scamper across the lobby, her owner Samantha describes the accident to me. “She would barely put any pressure on her leg, kind of like it was broken,” Samantha tells. Looking at Beth now, it would be difficult to guess that she had had any issues walking. I focus in on her right rear leg to see if I notice any difference in pressure from her other leg. Soon, I convince myself I see a slight discrepancy, but it is so minor that I would not have noticed had I not been intently looking. After a short while, Dr. Nia comes outside, hugs Samantha, and leads the duo back to the treatment room.
This is Beth’s sixth acupuncture treatment since the accident. Dr. Nia lifts Beth onto the treatment table and Samantha begins petting her. Beth seems calm and content, though still very energetic. Dr. Nia unwraps the first needle and places it in Beth’s forehead. Dr. Nia is very hands-on, feeling around to find the right location for the next needle. She measures out distances with her fingers in order to increase accuracy. Within seconds, Beth’s tail stops wagging and her head begins to droop. She enters a state of quiet calm. It is utterly shocking how quickly this transformation takes place. Dr. Nia then places some more needles along Beth’s spine, eventually focusing her attention on the injured leg where she places several more needles at strategic locations.
This is the first session in which Dr. Nia will use electroacupuncture on Beth. She brings out the equipment and hooks up electrodes to specific needles on Beth’s legs. The machine makes a humming noise when turned on. Beth does not flinch and Dr. Nia tells me it is not painful. After a short while, the needles are removed and placed aside. Dr. Nia places a small amount of pressure on each point after removing the needles. Within a few minutes, Beth is up and alert, wagging her tail as before.
Following Beth’s acupuncture, I sat down with Samantha, a 38 year-old accountant and part-time yoga instructor living in Pacifica with her two dogs. I began by asking her about her experience at the animal hospital following Beth’s accident. Samantha obliged:
“Beth could barely walk at first and our whole family was very worried. After the initial check-up, we found out that nothing was broken and were relieved to hear so. We took Beth back home and although her spirits lifted over the next week, we noticed her reluctance to put weight on her right rear leg. Dr. Nia had mentioned that her leg might have been partially paralyzed, and that was unfortunately the case.”
I asked Samantha how the idea for acupuncture came up and how willing she initially was to accept it. She described her initial lack of confidence: “It seemed like a bit of an investment and I wasn’t sure if it would even work. My husband had had some acupuncture done to help with his asthma, but we didn’t see too big of a result with him, so I was still kind of doubtful.” Speaking to Dr. Nia several more times over the phone, Samantha began warming up to the idea, especially after Dr. Nia ensured her that the procedure would not cause Beth any extra pain. She finally accepted the treatment offer and took Beth in for her first session.
She described the first session as one that made her a bit nervous, though she added that being able to accompany Beth in the treatment room was an important alleviator of that nervousness. “Being back there was very helpful,” she said, “being able to observe the treatment was very interesting and calming.” She told me that the first needle that Dr. Nia used was placed on Beth’s forehead, the same location that was first punctured during the session I had observed. “Almost instantly,” she details, “Beth, who was actually kind of nervous and jittery, stopped moving and laid her head down in my lap. It was one of the strangest experiences, because I’d never seen her act like that before. That’s when I was convinced that the acupuncture was definitely having an effect.”
I also asked Samantha if her lifestyle choices, like her part-time yoga instruction, influenced her acceptance of the treatment. “I’m sure it’s had an effect on my decisions,” she responded, “Mainly, I trusted Dr. Nia’s recommendation that Beth could benefit from it and I felt an open and honest relationship when discussing the treatment with her.”
Discussing her feelings toward alternative medicine, Samantha explained, “Well, to me, it’s all medicine. It’s all healing. Why do we even have to distinguish between alternative and non-alternative?” She continued, “I think it creates a feeling of other. It creates a culture of doubt.” It does seem that there is still a reluctance to accept alternative practices because of the fact that they are marked as 'alternative' to something else. That phrasing, as Samantha had explained, created a contrast between biomedicine and holistic medicine and created this feeling of “other” that strayed from the norm. Going a step further, I asked her if she felt the same “othering” and “culture of doubt” when teaching yoga. Samantha describes her feelings:
“I think [since] yoga has been grouped in with ‘fitness,’ that makes it seem a lot more approachable; and that’s what I’m saying is different about acupuncture. That’s what’s different about calling it ‘alternative medicine.’ I don’t call yoga ‘alternative fitness,’ I just call it by what it is. There’s no reason to compare it to other things. It just is.”
This was one of the more interesting discoveries of my research. The branding of practices and the words used to describe them have an enormous impact on public understanding. Samantha seems correct in asserting that adding a prefix like “alternative” inherently sets up a comparison between these practices and what is deemed to be non-alternative. This can create distance and reluctance. Samantha went on to describe this phenomenon as a “culture of suspicion, or fear of the unknown.” She tells us her thoughts:
“People don’t like changing things up too much, especially if its something that’s as important as healthcare. When you’re worried about health, I feel like you tend to go with something that’s been tried and true and accepted. Biomedicine. But maybe that’s because labeling something as ‘alternative’ makes it seem less reliable.”
My interview with Samantha provided much insight into the client perspective of veterinary acupuncture. I found it interesting that even as an individual who makes a profession in alternative care, Samantha was reluctant to begin acupuncture sessions. This may shed light on the pervasiveness of the so-called “culture of suspicion” surrounding CAM, so that even individuals in the CAM community have reservations. However, her ultimate decision to go through with the acupuncture sessions, combined with their eventual success, also reinforces the idea that alternative care has gained popularity and value as a valid medical treatment. Samantha noticed, just as Dr. Nia had, that the culture surrounding this practice of acupuncture is one of open-mindedness, one in which honesty and thorough communication between doctor and patient are valued. More clients are beginning to opt for alternative veterinary treatments and it seems that the social acceptance of the practice is increasing.
Veterinary acupuncture in the United States has developed from its Chinese roots into a unique and integrative practice whose presence is quickly growing in animal hospitals across the country. By combining the methods and philosophies of the Eastern practice with the detailed physiological knowledge of the West, modern WVM is emerging as a culturally comfortable alternative treatment. With the founding of IVAS in the 1970s, American veterinarians were granted access to certification programs that allowed them to practice animal acupuncture in their clinics. Although the market seems to be primarily driven by customer demand, Dr. Nia’s story suggests that personal interest also plays a role in the growth of the field. The interview with Samantha provides a rare look at the type of client that opts for veterinary acupuncture and reminds us that there still seems to be a slight hesitance to try alternative practices due to somewhat of a social stigma against foreign and unknown practices. However, Samantha’s willingness to accept the practice after its success with Beth is also indicative of the gradual process of validation that CAM is experiencing in the West. As complementary and alternative medicine continues to grow in the United States, veterinary acupuncture is also earning a place in the medical field, in both the medical community and the community of pet-owners who opt for alternative options.
by Dorsa Amir
NOTE: This article was written originally as a paper for the UCLA upper division anthropology course Perspectives on Complementary/Alternative & Integrative Medicine, taught by Dr. Sonya Pritzker. More information on the course can be found here.
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