A few months back, I took my dog to her groomer and as I left her to get a blueberry facial (I know, I can’t believe my dog gets blueberry facials either) and a bath, I warned the groomer that she’d been licking her paw nonstop for a few days and it might be a bit sensitive. The groomer, who last time I checked had 10 dogs living under her roof—10!—mentioned that the licking could be an indication of pain and asked me if I’d ever tried pet acupuncture. I hadn’t, and if the suggestion had come from anyone else, I might’ve brushed it off as total nonsense. But this lady knows her dogs, so my interest was piqued.
Luckily, my dog’s paw-licking was a thing of the past, post-blueberry-filled bath (I guess a spa day was treatment enough), but my curiosity about pet acupuncture was still alive and well. Then, last week, I spotted an article on Slate slamming the practice of pet acupuncture, which made me even more curious about the controversial treatment. Intrigued, we decided to delve into a topic we rarely explore here on Be Well Philly: pet health.
We spoke with Philly-based animal acupuncturist and licensed veterinarian Christina Fuoco of Whole Animal Gym, who boasts some of the Philadelphia Zoo's animals as patients, to get the lowdown on how the heck pet acupuncture works and how our furry friends can benefit from it.
While many of us might just think of acupuncture as that kooky thing our crazy aunt does to de-stress, it turns out, plenty of folks are trying on their pets, too: Fuoco, who got her vet degree from Penn, has been using acupuncture to treat cats, dogs, rabbits and even iguanas for everything from allergies to diabetes to cancer since 2003. But the most common ailments she sees acupuncture patients for at WAG are osteoarthritis and neck and back pain.
The first question you probably want to ask about pet acupuncture is this: How on Earth are all of those needles going to minimize your pet’s pain? As Fuoco explains, at each acupuncture point, there is a neurovascular bundle, a small nerve, artery and vein. Acupuncture stimulates the bundle, causing the release of chemical mediators which affect blood flow, relaxation and nerve conduction. This stimulation can lead to a decrease in pain and an improved function of the musculoskeletal system.
But the real question is not how pet acupuncture works, but how do we know that it’s working? Slate’s recent piece, titled "If Your Veterinarian Offers Acupuncture, Find a Different Vet," argues that when it comes to pet acupuncture, pet owners, rather than the pets themselves, fall victim to the placebo effect: Owners want to believe the treatment is working, so they convince themselves that their pets are in less pain post-acupuncture than they were before the treatment. As one vet quoted in the piece says of a pet owner, "She was completely convinced that acupuncture was controlling the dog’s pain. But the animal wouldn’t put any weight on his leg, and when I touched it, he screamed. Acupuncture makes us think we’re helping animals, when in fact we are not."
After reading this article, I was curious to see how Fuoco gauges whether her acupuncture treatments are actually helping a pet patient with his or her pain. As she told me, "Results may be as definitive as resolution of oral ulcers in a cat with ulcerative stomatitis, or it may be as subtle as an owner saying that their dog jumped in the car after one acupuncture treatment, instead of waiting to be lifted in—something the dog hadn’t done since it was diagnosed with cancer six months prior." When it comes to treating chronic conditions like arthritis, Fuoco says it can take between six and eight weekly treatments before they see significant results.
Now, I'm well aware that some of you will write pet acupuncture off as totally ridiculous practice, but it never hurts to know all of your options when it comes to your pet’s health. And now that you know how the heck pet acupuncture works, it's up to you to decide if you ever want to pursue it. If you do, we've listed a few places that offer pet acupuncture in the Philly area below.
Whole Animal Gym
611 South 2nd Street, Philadelphia
$180 for consultation and initial treatment.
Mt. Airy Animal Hospital
114 East Mount Airy Avenue, Philadelphia
$120 for consultation and initial treatment.
The Pet Vet Clinic
1602 East Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia
$110 for consultation and initial treatment.
Chestnut Hill Veterinary Hospital
903 Bethlehem Pike, Erdenheim
$75 for exam, $90 for initial treatment.
The Cat Doctor
535 North 22nd Street, Philadelphia
$133 for consultation and initial treatment.
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