Traditional Chinese veterinary medicine 101

November 17, 2020
Christopher Shapley DVM, CVA
Christopher Shapley DVM, CVA

The age-old practices of acupuncture and herbal medicine can work well with modern medicine to improve your patients’ health. Here are the basics.

Veterinary medicine has made, and continues to make, extraordinary advancements, with bold new diagnostic and treatment protocols becoming reality every day. Should modern or foundational diagnostics or treatments fail, however, traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM), including acupuncture and herbals, can offer an established, recognized alternative.

TCVM can benefit veterinary patients with a wide range of conditions, such as musculoskeletal disorders, skin and ear problems, vomiting and diarrhea, seizures, urinary conditions, behavioral problems, and more. TCVM can be used alone or in conjunction with Western medicine protocols.

The pattern diagnosis

As inn Western medicine, every visit to a TCVM veterinarian starts with a patient history and snout-to-tail physical examination. But TCVM practitioners also look for a few slightly different and often very subtle cues to develop what is known as a pattern diagnosis, which involves the following principles:

  • Yin-yang theory: The concept of dualism that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites
  • The 5 elements theory: Describes the interactions and relationships between things wood (liver), fire (heart), earth (spleen), metal (lungs), and water (kidneys)
  • The 5 vital/fundamental substances: “Qi” and “xue” (blood), “jinge” (body fluids), “jing” (essence), “shen” (spirit)
  • The 6 common pathogens: The items that cause illness—wind, cold, dampness, dryness, fire, and summer heat

The tongue

The patient’s tongue can yield a great deal of information. In TCVM, the tongue is divided into regions, each representing an organ system, with the color of each section providing information to the practitioner (Figure). Pallor, redness, and deep purple represent deficiency, excess, and stagnation, respectively. Dryness, cracking, or the presence of film on the tongue helps deter-mine whether any TCVM pathogens have invaded the body.

The skin and hair coat

When examining the coat, the TCVM veterinarian is assessing its overall quality and checking for dryness or greasiness. Assessment of the skin can help determine whether there are any deficiencies or excesses. Palpating the back-shu points (specific points located on the back of the body that are tied to the patient’s organ systems) can provide a wealth of information about the musculo-skeletal system. This is done simply by simply running the hands down a patient’s back before lifting its tail.

The femoral pulses

Much like the tongue, the femoral pulses are divided into regions linked to the heart, lungs, liver, gallbladder, bladder, kidneys, and intestines. Palpating the quality of these pulses (eg, excessive, thready, slippery, weak, floating) and their corresponding organ systems helps practitioners accurately form a comprehensive pattern diagnosis. Once a pattern diagnosis has been formed (eg, kidney qi deficiency, yang excess, liver qi stagnation), treatment with acupuncture and herbs can begin.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture uses acupoints to diffuse or infuse qi and blood associated with organ systems through meridians (channels through which those fundamental substances flow, much like the circulatory system). Meridians and acupoints were mapped out centuries ago; in veterinary medicine, they are based on the human model. Acupuncture sessions typically last 20 to 30 minutes and should take place in a serene setting within the hospital. The most common acupuncture techniques used in veterinary practice are dry needling, aquapuncture, moxibustion, and electroacupuncture:

  • Dry needling is the technique of placing sterile needles into predetermined acupoints.
  • Aquapuncture is similar to dry needling but involves infusing sterile saline or vitamin B12directly into the acupoints.
  • Moxibustion is the burning of moxa (mugwort) and safe use of heat to dissipate cold patterns and return heat to yang-deficient patients.
  • Electroacupuncture stimulates nerves in patients with neuropathic deficiency patterns (eg, degenerative myelopathy).

Herbal medicine

Chinese herbs are most effective when used in conjunction with acupuncture. Herbal formulations from licensed distributors have been researched thoroughly and documented through clinical studies to be safe and effective. Most modern-day herbal formulations are derived from age-old formulas used for generations by physicians practicing traditional Chinese medicine.

Working as one

Acupuncture and herbal medicine go hand in hand with conventional modern medicine. These TCVM methods can be integrated seamlessly into any practice to help diagnose and treat a wide range of ailments and are an invaluable addition to any general or specialty practice. Patients will benefit from the multimodal diagnostic techniques and therapies, and clients will be appreciative of the benefits of alternative medicine in the care of their pets

Christopher Shapley, DVM, CVA, is a specialist in veterinary acupuncture and herbal medicine at Brick Town Veterinary Hospital in Brick Township, New Jersey. He lives with his Shar-Pei Carrie and koi fish. In his spare time, Shapley enjoys kung fu, tai chi surfing, camping, and archery.