One of the most common arguments made in support of using acupuncture on animals is that veterinary acupuncture is an ancient art practiced and refined in China for thousands of years. On one website providing referrals for acupuncturists, the claim is made that,
Acupuncture has been used on animals for over 4000 years. Legend has it that veterinary acupuncture was discovered when lame horses used in battle were found to become sound after being hit by arrows at distinct points. In any event, there is evidence that Chinese “horse priests”, the caretakers of the army’s horses, practiced acupuncture during the Zang and Chow Dynasties around 2000-3000 BC.
Similarly, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) website claims,
Acupuncture may be defined as the insertion of needles into specific points on the body to cause a desired healing effect. This technique has been used in veterinary practice in China for at least 3000 years to treat many ailments. The Chinese also use acupuncture as preventive medicine against such problems as founder and colic in horse.
Of course, the notion that the length of time a methods has been in use is somehow proof of its safety or efficacy is fundamentally unsound. Unsafe and ineffective treatments (bloodletting, various forms of burning or “cauterization,” faith healing and, I would argue, acupuncture) often endure for centuries, even millennia despite having no benefits and even being harmful, due to the many, many reasons people are prone to making inaccurate judgments about such things. Even if acupuncture has endured for thousands of years, it has failed in all that time to extend our life expectancy, reduce infant and childbirth mortality, eliminate any infectious disease, or accomplish any of the other dramatic improvements in human and animal health scientific medicine has given us in the last 200 years.
Still, it is understandable why people might find the tenacity of a method to be a strong argument for it being effective. Unfortunately, in the case of veterinary acupuncture, the appeal to longevity argument is not only misleading, it doesn’t happen to even be true!
A recent article in the German science history journal Sudhoffs Archiv makes a strong and detailed case that most of the sources cited to support the argument that the Chinese have practiced acupuncture on animals for thousands of years are actually describing bloodletting and cauterization practices that have no meaningful relationship to what is considered to be acupuncture today. The authors also argue that many of the veterinary techniques these Chinese sources describe using on horses correspond closely to techniques found at the same time or even earlier in Greek, Egyptian, Arabic, and Indian sources, and that they may have derived originally from Western practices or had common sources. The article’s authors include two professors of East Asian history and an equine veterinarian, Dr. David Ramey, who has written extensively on equine medicine in generally and on complementary and alternative veterinary medicine.
Buell PD, May T, Ramey D. Greek and Chinese Horse Medicine: Déjà vu All Over Again. Sudhoffs Archiv. 94(1);2010:31.
According to the authors, the earliest written records of Chinese veterinary medicine, from the 3rd century BC, concern primarily herbal treatments. By the 6th century recommendations concerning bleeding and cauterization are found, though herbal therapies are still the primary treatments recommended for animals. The earliest surviving Chinese text specifically devoted to veterinary medicine dates from 1384, though much of the material it contains appears to have originated in the 11th and 12th centuries. none of these early texts refer to anything that could be considered acupuncture in the modern sense. The IVAS defines acupuncture as, “the insertion of needles into specific points on the body to cause a desired healing effect.” Though there are a variety of techniques, including using heat, laser light, and electricity on supposed acupuncture points, most commonly veterinary acupuncture takes the form described by the Australian Veterinary Acupuncture Group: “Acupuncture is the technique of using very fine needles that pierce the skin at specific points in order to treat or prevent disease.”
There is no evidence for such techniques in the early Chinese veterinary texts. Though the term “zhen” used in such texts is often incorrectly translated as “acupuncture,” it is clear from a thorough reading of these texts that the term was used to refer to bleeding, cauterization, and even surgical interventions, not acupuncture as applied to people and animals today. Such interventions become more prominent in later Chinese veterinary texts, however these texts also do not describe anything that can be reasonably called acupuncture. Methods resembling modern veterinary acupuncture apparently were not widely practiced in China until the 1960s.
The historical Chinese texts do describe specific interventions at specific points on the body of the horse, and they include detailed charts and diagrams to guide these interventions. Such charts are often presented in modern works, without translation of labels or inclusion of accompanying text from the original works, as evidence of historical acupuncture point designations. Actually reading the text associated with such diagrams makes it clear that these are not charts showing acupuncture points or meridians. In reality, most such charts for animals date back no further than the 1970s. (For a more detailed look at the history of veterinary acupuncture, see Dr. Ramey’s book Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine Considered).
The authors of the Sudhoff Archiv article also describe some of the remarkable similarities between Chinese veterinary practices and those described in Greek, Roman, and other Western cultures. I don’t have the expertise to judge the plausibility of their suggestion that some of this similarity may be due to the spread of ideas from the West into China via Arab or Indian sources. Though I would not be at all surprised if disparate cultures came up with very similar theories about unseen forces responsible for disease and methods of manipulating these forces, it is an interesting hypothesis that the similarities are more direct.
Overall, the article is a detailed scholarly look at the truth about early Chinese equine medicine, and veterinary medicine more generally. It is particularly helpful in challenging the many inaccurate claims about the antiquity of veterinary acupuncture. While I do not believe the antiquity of a medical practice is useful in assessing its validity, it is a compelling argument for some, so knowing the truth about this particular practice is of more than just academic interest.