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Vets Combine Age-Old Acupuncture with New Treatments
Knowxville News Sentenial
It was Tiger the horse’s third visit for back pain, and this time veterinarian Dr. Jose Castro got right to the point.
Castro, who practices and teaches at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine’s Large Animal Clinical Sciences Department, looked at a form he designed to tell him, based on Tiger’s reaction to acupuncture during his first two sessions, what locations for the needles were likely to give the horse relief.
Then, as a student looked on and assisted, he deftly twisted a series of thin needles into pressure points up and down Tiger’s back, and on his neck and flanks. Sometimes the animal had no visible reaction to the needles, though Castro, with his hands on the horse, could feel even subtle movement. Other times, he twitched as a needle stimulated an acupoint.
A veterinary surgeon by training, Castro began offering acupuncture to his equine patients a little less than a year ago, intending it to complement the more typical Western medicine practice he already offered.
Then he started noticing an influx of new patients whose owners came to him primarily for acupuncture. Some had taken their animals to out-of-town practitioners; others had experienced acupuncture themselves and wanted the same benefits they felt for their pets.
“I know, obviously, something is happening if they keep coming” for acupuncture, Castro said. He’s seeing about three patients a week for acupuncture now.
And he noticed something else: Some of his clients who were originally skeptics about acupuncture, after they saw results in their horses, sought out treatments for themselves.
Castro counts traditional Chinese veterinary medicine, which includes acupuncture, among his training. The basic belief is that the needles stimulate points on channels through which life “energy” flows, and that acupuncture can unblock the channels and bring that energy back “in balance.”
But in addition to the traditional Chinese “dry needle” approach, he’ll also use electricity to stimulate acupoints, or combine the treatment with others UT offers, such as the underwater treadmill, massage, solarium or salt hydrotherapy. That’s in addition to diet, medication, surgery and other Western medicine options.
Typically, he’ll do three sessions with a horse, a week or two apart, he said, each time refining the points to focus more on areas that need improvement. There are 173 points on which he can place a needle.
“If after the third treatment I’m not getting the improvement, the results I expect, I’ll reassess,” he said. But “most horses respond,” he said. “I do see a lot of benefits.”
Castro will try acupuncture to relieve back or neck or leg pain, to control pain from chronic problems, to increase muscle tone, or even to treat an animal that seems depressed or has behavior issues.
And he’s taking notes, on a sheet he designed himself that combines Western and complementary medicine. Ultimately, he hopes to find scientific backing for the success of acupuncture, and publish his work in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
“The amount of articles that are being published (about veterinary acupuncture) are staggering,” he said.
Castro generally limits his practice to horses, although he has treated a pig with acupuncture as well as Dudley, the rescued bull with a prosthetic leg who spent several months at UT before going on to the Gentle Barn sanctuary.
But another local veterinarian, Dr. Mili Bass, treats small animals: dogs, cats and the occasional bird.
Bass founded Village Veterinary Clinic in Farragut but sold it several years ago to focus on a small local veterinary acupuncture practice while serving as a relief primary-care vet in Hawaii. She’s one of a handful of Knoxville vets — along with Dr. Rai Kaur Khalsa at Fountain City Animal Hospital and Dr. Michelle Williams of the Whole Point — to practice animal acupuncture.
Bass became interested in acupuncture because she remembered her mother used it in Mississippi in the 1970s for relief from migraine headaches.
“She always talked about how the pain just went away,” Bass said.
Like Castro, Bass combines different types of acupuncture training in her practice. She said clients often seek acupuncture for their pets “as a last resort.”
“I definitely have clients who are skeptics,” she said. “They usually end up being convinced of their dog’s or cat’s response.”
While there are animals who will immediately react (or go straight to sleep) during a session, “gradually relaxing” is more common, Bass said. After years of practice, she said, she’s become able to detect very subtle reactions during an exam or treatment session.
“The ultimate judge is really the client,” Castro said, since asking an animal how it feels isn’t an option.
Dr. Steve Skinner of Knoxville Animal Clinic said he doesn’t practice acupuncture but has referred his patients to Bass and others who do, especially for back and neck pain or severe arthritis.
“It doesn’t work for every patient every time, but Western medicine doesn’t work for every patient every time,” Skinner said. “It works often enough for me to say there’s something there.”