Acupuncture in Rabbits

Traditional chinese medicine (TCM) has existed for five thousand years. It has been used to treat a wide variety of physical and emotional ailments within the context of its culture using lifestyle adjustments, herbs, and acupuncture. Recently, Western culture has become increasingly aware of the benefits of this model of medicine and has begun to integrate it into the system of scientific medicine that we practice. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society was established in 1974 and has been training and certifying veterinarians since. The course is open only to licensed veterinarians, and includes a rigorous examination and case report requirement. This past year, the FDA approved acupuncture for use as a primary therapy in a few specific instances in humans, and the list is expected to grow. Increasingly, people are requesting the same kind of care for their pets that they seek for themselves. This has extended to acupuncture for house rabbits. In our clinic we have used acupuncture as an adjunct as well as a primary therapy to treat rabbits with a wide range of conditions. It is still considered an alternative form of medicine, and has not been proved effective in studies for any condition in rabbits. The anecdotal evidence is mounting that this is a treatment that works for many things.

The mechanism of acupuncture is poorly understood. Research in Chinese and Western universities has suggested multiple mechanisms involving nerves, blood vessels, hormonal responses, and local tissue responses to have its full effect. In rabbits, a study has demonstrated the ability of acupuncture to cause the release of endorphins and neuropeptides in the cerebrospinal fluid of treated individuals that can transfer analgesia, or pain relief, to another rabbit by injection (1). It also functions on the principle of Qi or energy, a concept largely ignored in Western medicine. TCM also uses the concept of Yin and Yang, two opposites existing at once, to describe the balance within an individual. Because rabbits have such a high level of energy, they are considered to be Yang: active, alert, fast moving. This causes them to respond to fewer needles than other animals, and need treatment for a shorter needling duration. Most rabbits tolerate the needles very well. The purpose of the treatments is to restore health by restoring balance in the body.

A wide variety of ailments can be treated with acupuncture. We have treated rabbits with head tilts, kidney disease, paralysis and weakness, urinary incontinence, cancer side effects, and nasal disease. As with any medicine, it does not work all the time. Acupuncture heals illness fairly well, but if the disease has resulted in tissue death, the treatments will fail. Several rabbits with severe head tilt caused by middle ear infections improved rapidly after initiating treatment. The few that did not make a full recovery appeared to be more chronically affected. One, Perry, mentioned in the accompanying article, still has a head tilt, but finds his balance restored after treatment. The discomfort and lack of appetite caused by kidney disease improve after needling. As with all therapy for kidney disease, however, this is not a cure for the disease. All of the rabbits we have treated with needles for weakness or paralysis have improved to some degree. One, nearly paralyzed from a young age, regained the ability to walk after several years of being unable to do so. Urinary incontinence can be the result of many problems. Several rabbits whose incontinence had no definable cause improved during treatment with needles. All needed maintenance therapy to prevent severe relapse, but their quality of life was greatly improved. Often, the greatest discomfort of cancer is not the tumor, but its effects. We have used acupuncture to decrease pain and fluid accumulation in cancer patients, as well as attempting to enhance their immune system’s battle against the disease. Nasal infection is a very frustrating disease to treat, often resulting from the immune system’s inability to kill the infecting organism. Acupuncture holds promise of improved immune function for these rabbits, helping in the fight to rid the body of infection.

No therapy is a cure-all. However, many diseases of rabbits are the result of their immune system’s inability to defeat infection, or the inflammation it causes in the attempt. Traditional Chinese Medicine can restore balance to the ill body, boosting the weak areas, and calming the excesses. This form of medicine can be used in conjunction with Western medicine to provide an entire treatment that respects the body’s innate energy and ability to heal itself with as few negative effects as possible.

by Jeffrey Ryan, DVM

House Rabbit Journal Winter 2000: Volume IV, Number 2

1. Hans, J.S. and L. Terenius, “Neurochemical Basis of Acupuncture Analgesia.” Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology 22:193-220. 1982.

Further Reading

Cheng, SJ, et al. Studies on improving the nonspecific immune effectiveness of rabbits by different acupuncture conditions. Proceedings of International Conference on Veterinary Acupuncture. China Academic Publishers, Beijing: 1987.

Kaptchuk, Ted J., OMD. The Web That Has No Weaver. Congdon and Weed. New York: 1983.

Schwartz, C. Four Paws Five Directions. Celestial Arts Publishing, Berkeley, Ca: 1996.

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