All three of the veterinarians at the Animal Medical Center of Park Hills — Dr. Crystal Harding, Dr. Jennifer Daniels and Dr. Jean Liljegren — offer a full range of medical care and treatments for companion animals, but Liljegren, the newest member of the team, also offers something different than traditional “Western” veterinary care.
Liljegren, pronounced with a silent ‘j’, and who her clients typically refer to as “Dr. Jean,” is a fully-trained and licensed doctor of veterinary medicine (D.V.M.), but is also trained in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine, including acupuncture. She offers a more holistic approach to veterinary care than her traditional counterparts, integrating the use of Chinese herbal supplements, dietary recommendations and acupuncture with traditional veterinary care.
Although the practice of acupuncture has been around for centuries, it is still relatively new in the United States, especially within the veterinary field. It has garnered enough respect among veterinary professionals, however, to have gained recognition from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) as a legitimate form of treatment.
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“Something that just happened in the last year is that the AVMA (the American Veterinary Medicine Association) has approved acupuncture as a sub-category of veterinary medicine,” said Liljegren. “So it’s getting more recognized and there’s great research going on both with herbs and with needles.”
Much of Liljegren’s “Eastern” approach centers around the use of acupuncture to treat a wide range of illnesses and medical conditions. In a nutshell, veterinary acupuncture stimulates the release of the body’s own pain relieving and anti-inflammatory substances.
According to the official website of the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture (AAVA), benefits of acupuncture also include improved blood flow to the tissues, oxygenation and the removal of metabolic wastes and toxins. Treatments involve the insertion of very thin, solid, sterile needles into body tissue where nerve bundles and blood vessels come together.
And unlike prescription and over-the-counter pain medications, there are no adverse side effects for a pet’s internal organs and no worries about unsafe interactions with any medications a pet may already be taking. Acupuncture can therefore be safely used to treat a variety of illnesses and medical conditions, including trauma and post-surgical pain, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, respiratory, urinary, skin and neurological issues. For cancer patients, it can also help alleviate pain, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and lack of appetite.
The goal of acupuncture is to help the body heal itself. From a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) perspective, acupuncture encourages healing by correcting energy imbalances in the body. Acupuncture enhances blood circulation, nervous system stimulation, and the release of anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving hormones.
Liljegren takes extra time with her acupuncture patients, especially during the first appointment, asking questions of the human client to get to know her new patient’s medical history, typical behaviors and personality, along with current health status, before beginning any treatments.
One of Liljegren’s newest patients, a 13-year-old Beagle-mix named Sammi, has a history of chronic ear infections and a few bouts of illness with vomiting and diarrhea, but until about a year ago when he began to develop arthritis along his middle and lower spine, he lived most of his life without any major medical issues.
About one week before his first appointment with Liljegren, Sammi experienced a sudden and very painful episode in which he began to stumble around, losing control of his back legs.
After ruling out a stroke or a ruptured disc, Sammi’s traditional “Western” veterinarian prescribed a medication to treat overall pain and another drug to treat any possible nerve pain, in addition to the joint inflammation medication he was already taking.
Within about 24 hours, Sammi was walking more normally again and he continued to show some small improvements. His appetite, however, was almost non-existent. After about three days, the general pain reliever was discontinued because it was likely causing him nausea or other stomach upset. His appetite improved some, but Sammi’s overall condition didn’t seem to be improving much beyond walking more normally.
It was obvious Sammi needed more help to heal, but without some extensive diagnostic tests, the cause of the episode couldn’t be known. After it became clear that the episode would have some long-lasting implications for him in terms of mobility and physical discomfort, Liljegren’s advice was sought to see if acupuncture might help Sammi.
Liljegren tends to ask some non-conventional questions compared to veterinarians whose practice is more traditional, such as whether the dog seeks out sunny spots or tends to avoid them.
In discussing Sammi’s history, she asked, “How about heat or cool preferences, in general, over his lifetime?”
For dogs that tend to be strongly affected by heat or cold, she mentioned that some simple dietary changes can help balance out an animal’s body temperature.
Liljegren continued to ask questions about Sammi’s history in order to determine which areas of his body to target with the acupuncture needles.
“As I’m listening to you — and I ask weird questions sometimes — as I’m listening to you talk, I’m thinking of the different Chinese organ systems. So when you’re telling me he’s not eating very well, that can just be plain old Chi deficiency. With geriatric people and dogs, their appetites tend to not work very well … But if we have chronic G.I. issues over the years, that can be what we call a spleen Chi deficiency.”
Liljegren also spends a bit of time explaining the acupuncture process and why it works.
“The Chinese call any kind of pain ‘stagnation,’” she said. “So the energy is stuck in his back. If it’s acute pain like he had the other day, they call that ‘blood stagnation.’ If it’s more of a chronic pain (like arthritis), that’s a Chi stagnation situation. Not that I necessarily would treat them differently, but I might be a little more aggressive to try to move the Chi in a blood stagnation situation. If they’re really painful, you just do as much as you can to help balance the energy.”
Although the practice of acupuncture originated in Eastern cultures centuries ago, there is a solid scientific basis for why it can be an effective treatment for many health conditions.
“There certainly is lots of Western medical evidence about why this works,” said Liljegren. “Each point — each acupuncture point — and there are very specific ones, corresponds to a nerve. Each of these points is the end of a nerve. So there’s a neuron and you put a needle over the neuron — and it’s stainless steel; there’s nothing in it or on it — and of course you have electricity running through your nervous system. So you have a metal needle and electricity and you’ll get ion exchange. You’ll get a little bit of stimulation to that point, which sends a signal to the brain that says ‘we need chemicals here, please send.’ The brain tends to know what (the body) needs, whether it’s endorphins, catecholamines, or many other neurotransmitters.”
She explained that dogs and humans share a common physiology when it comes to acupuncture.
“For dogs we pretty much transpose all the people points onto the dog,” she said, while pointing to a chart that depicts each acupuncture point on an illustration of a dog.
Dogs may actually be better candidates for acupuncture than humans in at least one regard.
“The cool thing about dogs,” said Liljegren, “is you don’t ever have a placebo effect. So when I see dachshunds who couldn’t walk a month ago and now are walking, that wasn’t because the dogs had certain expectations about the treatment.”
Liljegren doesn’t claim that acupuncture is a cure-all for all animal medical conditions, nor does she believe it’s a replacement for “Western” veterinary medicine.
“Is there going to be a cure for Sammi? No,” she said, explaining that of course his advanced arthritis cannot be reversed, but that acupuncture could help ease his discomfort and possibly increase his mobility, energy, appetite and overall functioning.
“With Sammi, we’re not necessarily trying to cure a disease,” she said, “we’re just supporting the whole dog to try to make him more comfortable and give him a better quality of life.”
Liljegren also explained that it takes more than one acupuncture treatment session to see results.
“I generally try to encourage people to commit to four treatments,” Liljegren said, although for Sammi, she recommended a slightly more aggressive approach because of the recent acute episode, followed by a reevaluation of his condition.
The effects of acupuncture are cumulative so several treatments are usually necessary for chronic medical conditions, then tapered down as needed for maintenance, with acute conditions typically needing fewer treatments.
“We’re not going to have one treatment and then he’s gonna be fixed,” she said. “It’s a chronic condition. He’s got degenerative joint disease, degenerative myelopathy to some extent … and I’m just trying to tap into his body’s own healing and pain mechanisms.
“The body kinda just knows what it needs … And the other interesting thing is, as you go along, like after his third or fourth treatment, the effects are going to last longer. So the first treatment, you might only see a response for a couple days. The second treatment, we’re hoping to get closer to a week; the third treatment we might get 10 days.”
After getting to know Sammi and explaining a bit about acupuncture and expectations of the treatment, Liljegren then gave him a brief examination, checking his vital signs and general condition, before inserting the first acupuncture needle. The needles come in different sizes for small and larger animals, but even the largest needles are still very slim.
Liljegren begins most acupuncture sessions by inserting the first needle in the middle of the animal’s head, slightly above the eyes.
“The point I usually start with is a calming point,” she said, as she gently but quickly inserted the needle into Sammi’s forehead. “I call it the unicorn point.”
She then proceeded to place needles at numerous other points along his spine, down his legs and the sides of his feet. Although the reaction of individual animals will vary, most tolerate acupuncture treatments very well. And although certain points may be sensitive, insertion of the needles usually isn’t painful.
As she went about inserting the needles, Sammi barely noticed and even though he chose to remain standing during the treatment, he became visibly relaxed. Some animals even fall asleep during treatment sessions.
Liljegren said the length of time she leaves the needles in varies, depending on the animal’s condition and whether she uses electrical stimulation to enhance the effects of the acupuncture needles.
“It varies a bit depending on condition,” she said. “Like if he were really debilitated, I would not leave the needles in as long because I would not want to stimulate him too much. But my average time is between six and 10 minutes if I use electro stimulation. If I don’t use electrostim, they should stay in 10 to even 20 minutes (depending on treatment goals.)"
Adding a bit of electrical stimulation to acupuncture treatments is something Liljegren does often and was part of Sammi’s treatment as well. After the needles had been inserted for a few minutes, she attached an electrode to each one. The electrodes were, in turn, attached to a small, rectangular device with wires through which the electricity was delivered to the needles.
“The electricity sort of pulsates, stimulating the point more quickly,” Liljegren said, as she slowly turned a dial on the device. “I turn it up slowly, to the point where I can see (the needles) move and then back it off … And part of the reason I use the electrostim is it helps the points stay stimulated longer.”
Once the prescribed amount of time has passed, the needles are easily and painlessly removed.
The Animal Medical Center of Park Hills is located at 105 Strauss Dr., across the road from the Save-A-Lot shopping center.
Amy Patterson is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3616 or firstname.lastname@example.org.