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How Needles Can Help Pet Ferrets

Wonder no more about how acupuncture might benefit your pet ferret!

Christine Eckermann-Ross, DVM, CVA, CVCH
Posted: May 19, 2014, 9:50 p.m. EDT

ferret with acupuncture needle
© Courtesy Christine Eckermann-Ross, DVM, CVA, CVCH
A ferret with chronic gastrointestinal problems relaxes during an acupuncture treatment. The needle that is visible in the photo has been placed in an acupuncture point commonly used to calm patients of all species.

Acupuncture is a key component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) involving the insertion of extremely fine needles into precise points on the body. It has been practiced in both humans and animals for more than two thousand years. In TCM, acupuncture is explained as a way to balance the flow of energy, known as Qi (pronounced "chee”), through the body to promote health and healing and relieve pain. In scientific terms, acupuncture works by stimulating the release of substances known as neurotransmitters. This is a diverse group of substances that regulate a variety of functions in the body from heart rate and blood pressure to normal function of the gastrointestinal tract, pain control, normal sleep patterns and much more.

Acupuncture is best known for its use in pain control. It is known to increase the release of the body’s natural pain killers, such as endorphins, by 20 to 100 times. Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) dates back to at least 659 to 621 BC, when the first text book on TCVM was written. While acupuncture was traditionally used to treat horses, oxen, chickens and other farm animals, today it is widely used to treat dogs, cats and horses, as well as non-traditional pets including birds, reptiles, fish and small mammals including ferrets.

Though typically non-painful, pets do feel a sensation of pressure or tingling when acupuncture needles are inserted through the skin. Some ferrets tolerate this very well and even seem to relax and enjoy it, while others simply cannot stop moving long enough to tolerate an acupuncture treatment.

To accommodate the active and inquisitive nature of ferrets, several different techniques can be used. Dry needling is the traditional insertion of acupuncture needles that are then left in place for a period of time to achieve the desired effect. For ferrets that relax and enjoy this therapy, you can even add heat by gently applying heated herbs to the treatment area (moxa), or by using very mild electrical stimulation to the needle (electroacupuncture).

For active ferrets and for those that are inquisitive and tend to remove the needles on their own, a technique called aquapuncture is often used. Aquapuncture involves injecting a fluid, often vitamin B12, into key acupuncture points to achieve stimulation more quickly. Therapy lasers, now very commonly used to treat wounds and painful conditions, can also be used to stimulate acupuncture points without the need for long periods of rest or restraint.

Acupuncture can be used alone or in combination with conventional medicine to treat a variety of conditions. Most commonly, TCVM and Western medicine are used together. This can often result in a decreased need for prescription medications and shorter healing time.

ferret getting electroacupuncture treatment
© Courtesy Christine Eckermann-Ross, DVM, 
A young ferret receives electroacupuncture therapy for a spinal injury after being trapped in a recliner.

Perhaps the most common use of acupuncture in ferrets is for the treatment of gastrointestinal complaints. Scientific studies have shown that electroacpuncture is effective in relieving nausea and vomiting in ferrets, and acupuncture can also help relieve diarrhea. It is an effective appetite stimulant as well. Constipation is also responsive to acupuncture, particularly in combination with certain herbal medications. Acupuncture is very effective for quickly reducing temperature in ferrets that are sick and running a fever. Treating pain due to trauma or helping a ferret recover from surgery is another common use of acupuncture. It can also be used to help control seizures.

It is important to note that acupuncture is not a replacement for medical or surgical treatment of conditions such as insulinoma. Similarly, itching and difficulty urinating, which are often problems for ferrets with adrenal gland disease, may be reduced with acupuncture therapy, but medications and/or surgery are still needed for long-term control of the disease. Acupuncture can be used to help relieve symptoms associated with cancer such as pain, nausea and loss of appetite, but needles should never be inserted into or very close to a tumor.

Some problems, such as nausea or decreased appetite, may only require one acupuncture treatment, depending on the cause. For chronic conditions such as chronic pain, ongoing therapy may be needed. It is common to start out with three treatments on three consecutive days or within one week, then gradually increase the length of time between the treatments as the ferret improves. The points selected, the time between treatments, and the number of treatments needed may be different for every ferret.

What Does That Mean?
Are you wondering what the designations CVA and CVCH stand for after Dr. Eckermann-Ross' name?
CVA stands for certified veterinary acupuncturist
CVCH stands for certified practitioner of Chinese Veterinary Herbal Medicine
Dr. Eckermann-Ross practices at Avian & Exotic Animal Care in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Acupuncture should be performed by a licensed veterinarian who is also a certified veterinary acupuncturist, and ideally is also familiar with ferrets. Organizations such as the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture, and the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society can help you locate a veterinary acupuncturist in your area. And for further reading, check out the book Four Paws Five Directions by Cheryl Schwartz.

For more articles about ferret health, click here>>
For questions and answers about ferret health, click here>>

Posted: May 19, 2014, 9:50 p.m. EDT


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