WASHINGTON — In a small room on the second floor of Friendship Hospital for Animals in Northwest D.C., 12-year-old Hurricane is confronted by a box of needles. But the black and tan canine isn’t at the vet’s office for shots — he’s receiving his first acupuncture treatment.
“I just want him to relax a little bit, to let him know he’s not getting vaccines or anything like that today,” says veterinarian Nicole Karrasch as she massages the pup. “And actually, he’s a little bit sensitive in a spot that’s common for a lot of our older guys. Plus, he was hit by a car as a puppy, so I expect him to have a little bit of chronic pain from that.”
For the past several months, Karrasch has seen a steady stream of four-legged patients at the clinic to receive the treatment that uses small needles to alleviate pain and tackle a variety of conditions, including neurological, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems.
Often Karrasch says, clients turn to acupuncture because they’re looking for a way to reduce the amount of medication they give to their pets.
“If [the pet] doesn’t really do well with [certain medicines], acupuncture is a way to control their pain in a way that doesn’t have almost any side effects,” says Karrasch, who also practices clinical medicine and anesthesiology at Friendship.
Over the years, animal acupuncture has grown in popularity. In 1974, a group of veterinarians in the U.S. formed the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society and administered the first veterinary acupuncture certification exam in 1975.
Since then, the group has grown from 80 members to more than 1,800. Karrasch, who recently obtained her certification, say vets see a lot of appeal in animal acupuncture — and the continuous wait list for the course is proof.
“It’s very safe; we can do it on almost all of our patients and we can treat a lot of different problems with it,” she says.
After his initial massage, Karrasch encourages Hurricane to lie down. He’s reluctant at first, but eventually gives in and flops to the floor.
“The most important thing is that [the pets] are comfortable and that they trust me,” she says.
Karrasch opens a pack of sealed needles and begins to insert them into a few specific areas along Hurricane’s body. She explains that she is targeting points associated with certain muscles, nerves and blood vessels. Stimulating these points allows the nervous system to modulate itself.
Hurricane doesn’t seem to mind the needles going under his fur. In fact, he’s pretty much unaware of the whole procedure.
“If you’ve ever had acupuncture, it feels a little tingly. Some people describe it as kind of a zinging sensation, so it can be a little bit of a different sensation, but it’s not unpleasant,” Karrasch says.
However, after a few minutes pass, Hurricane obviously feels something. He rolls over on his back and relaxes completely. The back half of his body even slides off the bed and onto the floor.
Karrasch says some dogs react like Hurricane, but not all. Other pets might feel a little bit achy after acupuncture from the release of inflammatory substances housed in the muscles.
“But then we expect to see improvement the next day and every day for the next three days,” Karrasch says. “I see anything from just improved mobility — better neurologic function; you know, less tripping or falling — to one dog that went home and played ball for the first time in her life after her first acupuncture session.”
Most pets receive acupuncture weekly until ideal results are reached. Then they come for maintenance therapy, which can be as infrequent as every six to 12 weeks.
Karrasch, who spends two days a week conducting acupuncture sessions at the clinic, says some owners find acupuncture’s price tag more appealing than bills associated with traditional therapies. She says pet owners can expect to pay a fee similar to the cost of a routine exam, but without the additional tests, medications and supplies added to the final bill.
Karrasch says modern medicine is helping humans live longer, and it’s doing the same for pets, thus opening the doors and minds to alternative and complementary therapies.
“We’re doing a great job with preventive medicine and controlling infectious disease — pets are living longer and we want them to be comfortable, so we’re having to deal more with problems like arthritis and back pain and potentially neurologic dysfunction.”
Interested in acupuncture for your animal? Friendship Hospital for Animals will host a free educational event on the topic on Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. as part of its Client Education Series. The hour-long class, led by Dr. Nicole Karrasch, will include complimentary drinks, light fare and, of course, treats for pets.
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