Welcome to the first entry in a monthly series about the ins and outs of Chinese medicine for your pet. Our aim is that this blog is mildly amusing and somewhat informative, or at the very least provides some answers to those obscure questions at trivia night.
Doc, what’s TCVM stand for?
TCVM stands for Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine and has four main components: acupuncture, herbal medicine, food therapy and Tui na (special massage and acupressure techniques). TCVM can be used as a sole therapy and in conjunction with conventional treatments to maintain and enhance health and improve quality of life. It is a system of medical practice with its roots in ancient China. In fact, the first documented acupuncture tool dates back to about 6000 BCE.
Ancient China? Medicine has come a long way since then, Doc. Does it actually work?
As a system, it has been practiced in people and animals for thousands of years in China and has grown in use in Western countries as modern research has provided more and more insight into how it works to establish health in the body. For example, acupuncture uses precise points to stimulate an effect in the body. Scientists have found that these points have concentrations of nerve endings, mast cells and muscle fibers that have local and systemic effects on the body. Functional MRI studies have also shown that these points are connected via a network of nerves and neurotransmitters that correspond with TCVM concept of meridians or channels.
So how does it work?
It all starts with balance. In TCVM, disease happens when the body is out of balance, so the goal of treatment is to return the body to balance.
Balance? Like Yin and Yang?
Exactly! We’ll get into the specifics of Yin and Yang in a separate post, but for now consider Yin and Yang as opposite forces that keep the body in check. A body in check is a healthy body.
You mentioned acupuncture, Doc? I hate needles, so I can’t imagine a dog or a cat would go for that sort of thing…
Most pets actually do really well with acupuncture. The acupuncture needles come in various sizes, but the needles we use for dogs and cats are generally no bigger than a hair. Usually what our pets react to is the sensation of the local nerves and muscles being stimulated. In TCVM, this is called De Qi or ” the arrival of Qi”. It is what we look for to be sure we are at the appropriate point and that what we are doing will ultimately have an effect. Afterwards, our pets usually relax. There are some cases where we might need a muzzle or sedation, and this can alter the effects of the acupuncture. In other cases, a pet may not be able to tolerate the acupuncture needles regardless of what we do, so in these cases we may choose another approach like acupressure, aquapuncture (injecting an acupoint with a solution), laser therapy, or herbal formulas.
How do I know what will work for my pet?
Great question! That’s where the Chinese medicine exam comes in handy. It’s a bit more involved than a conventional exam, mostly because we ask a lot of questions (and I mean A LOT) about previous illnesses, diets, treats, activity levels, interactions with people and other pets, even your pet’s favorite place to nap. All of these seemingly unrelated things help paint a complete picture of what your pet encounters day to day, what they might be susceptible to and trends that may be subtle but indicate an underlying imbalance (See? There’s that balance thing again). Then comes the physical part of the examination. We look for all the same thing in a traditional exam but we also place special emphasis on the appearance of the tongue and the quality of the pulse. With all this information, we are able to get a diagnosis or pattern and the pattern is what guides our treatment recommendations. Two pets may have the same symptoms but not the same pattern, or two pets may have the same pattern but the symptoms are different. A little confusing but I promise I’ll explain more in follow up posts.
Which is better – conventional medicine or TCVM? Be honest, Doc…
You’ll get a lot of opinions on this, depending on who you talk to. There are pluses and minuses to each system. Conventional medicine is excellent for acute and emergency cases where you need methods and drugs that work fast, but long term some drugs may have side effects or deplete the body’s ability to heal on its own. Chinese medicine works great for chronic conditions, conditions where you may not have a precise diagnosis or signs are vague and nonspecific from a conventional perspective, but the effects are not immediate so may not be ideal for conditions that deteriorate quickly. In my opinion, using both systems together you get the best of both. Conventional medicine can get certain conditions to a manageable point quickly and Chinese medicine can offset side effects or be effective in cases where conventional approaches are lacking. That’s why I like the term integrative medicine – these seemingly disparate systems complement each other and provide a thorough and personalized plan to keep your pet healthy.
TCVM trivia: Licorice root (scientific name: Glycyrrhiza glabra), the flavoring agent in some of your favorite or not so favorite candies,is an ingredient in many Chinese herbal formulas. It is used to “harmonize” the other ingredients in a formula and make sure it treats the appropriate channel. Think of it as the recess monitor on the playground, making sure everyone plays nicely. While it is similar in taste to anise, star anise and fennel, it not botanically related to any of them.