Dr. Brian Husbands is a veterinary oncologist and certified veterinary acupuncturist at BluePearl Veterinary Partners, a specialty and emergency vet practice in the Minneapolis area. In vet school, he had very little exposure to acupuncture. But during his first residency, he found clients who thought it improved the quality of life for their pets - mainly older arthritis patients. Then, in his second residency, he was seeking ways to improve quality of life for his cancer patients and he considered acupuncture. Husbands eventually became a licensed veterinary acupuncturist in 2009.
What are some common things that acupuncture is used for in the veterinary world?
I think the disorders that seem like they have the strongest improvements with acupuncture are osteoskeletal disease, like arthritis; neurologic disease - what I typically will use it for is dogs that have a disc extrusion - it's really for pain control; and gastrointestinal disease, so if they're vomiting or having diarrhea or they're not eating as well. Those are the three things I use it for in most cases. I've used it for patients who have skin problems. I've used it for patients who have certain eye problems. I've used it for post-anesthesia recovery in dogs who have pain from amputations. Those are probably the big ones.
Can you describe the acupuncture process with a typical patient?
Usually, if we see a patient for an acute or sudden problem, we will treat with only one or two treatments, and it helps that patient dramatically. When we see a patient who has a more chronic, debilitating problem, like long-term arthritis, or a problem where they have gastrointestinal disease and they've been losing weight and have been doing poorly for a while, then usually between six to eight sessions are needed to see the beginnings of improvement. And once they've improved and have plateaued, then we usually will treat them on an as needed basis.
When they come in for sessions, the patients will receive acupuncture needles. It could be as few as one needle - that's a rare scenario. Usually it's in the realm of somewhere between eight and 20 needles that are placed at acupuncture points. Those needles usually will stay in place for somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. The overall end result is to try to improve their quality of life.
How would you say acupuncture works together with more traditional veterinary medicine?
When I use acupuncture, I try to use it as one arm of whatever therapy it is that we are going for. Most of the patients that I see for pain management are typically on other therapies already, and they may be seeing some effect, but it may not be the impact that they'd like, so we do this as an ancillary thing. There are some patients who do so well that they get off all pain medications and they shift over to doing full acupuncture. So for most of the stuff that we use it for it is complimentary or integrative.
People seem to be really interested in more alternative types of medicine and therapies for themselves, is this trend happening in the veterinary world as well?
I think it is. I do herbal medicine for about a third of the patients that I treat. So I do think it's that way. And it's that way in human oncology as well. It's the same thing if you or your pet - which is your family member - were diagnosed with something pretty serious; you would want to look to see if there was anything else you could do. And so I do think that that trend is present, and I think that many more specialists and general practice, like family practice vets, are embracing those things versus shunning them away.
On the other hand, how do you work with patients' owners who are more skeptical of alternative treatments such as acupuncture?
If someone comes in specifically for acupuncture, they either have been through it themselves, or they've heard about another patient who's gone through it, or they've seen the potential benefits while searching for some complementary care, and so they're willing to go through it to see whether or not it can help their pet. If it's something that I bring up to an owner saying 'We're doing x, y and z to treat Fluffy's cancer, and we can add these things in,' then I don't push as hard - maybe as I should in some cases. So most of the patients who come in tend not to have very much skepticism.
In your experience, how successful or effective can acupuncture treatment be for animals?
There are a handful of published studies on using acupuncture for dogs and there's only a single case report out there for a cat. And it depends on what we're using it for. It can range anywhere from about 30 percent up to about 90 percent.
Are there any dangers in using acupuncture on animals?
Generally speaking, no. They would be the same concerns that any medical person would have with putting a needle in a patient. So if a patients' clotting ability isn't up to par, and you're putting needles in them, then that's a worry. I have not had any problems, so knock on wood.
Where do you see the future of veterinary acupuncture headed?
You don't have to be a specialist to do acupuncture, but I think the number just continues to grow. There are three different training programs that are out there and they consistently are full. So where I'd like to see it go is controlled clinical trials. We've been doing it in the United Stated for 40 years, and it's been done in dogs and cats for thousands of years. So my hope would be - and I do think it will come - I think it will be a little while still, but my hope would be that we follow what's happening in human medicine with doing controlled clinical trials to truly figure out whether or not there's as much of an impact as we think there is. I do think that it's growing and I think that we need to really figure out the things that it will benefit.