I’ve written before about so-called Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM). It is the adaptation for veterinary patients of a hodgepodge of pre-scientific folk theories and practices cobbled together for largely political reasons by Mao in the 20th century. The most popular TCVM therapy is acupuncture, which I have discussed in exhaustive detail many times. TCVM herbal therapies are also fairly common, and its variety of massage (Tui Na) as well as some dietary practices are sometimes recommended by TCVM practitioners, though they have not become as common outside this community as acupuncture.
There is one Chinese Medicine treatment that I haven’t discussed before, largely because I had never heard of it being used in veterinary patients: cupping. Cupping has had a moment in the limelight lately because it is the alternative medicine fad du jour among some Olympic athletes this year (much as kinesio taping was in 2012, though that seems less popular this year.
Cupping is basically the practice of placing a glass or plastic container on the skin and creating a partial vacuum, with heat or a suction pump. Sometimes, the skin under the cups is cut or scarified (so-called “wet cupping”) to induce bleeding. This leaves a visible bruise, which is often impressive, and is supposed to prevent or treat injury by increasing blood flow, expelling toxins, moving Ch’i, or any of a number of other purported mechanisms. Others have written about cupping, explaining why it is implausible in theory and entirely unproven in practice. And though it is probably mostly harmless, it can be the cause of serious injury if improperly done.
After the news media starting discussing cupping by Olympic athletes, I was asked about the use of this practice in veterinary patients. I had assumed it would not be practical since most of my patients are covered in hair, which would impede the creation of a seal necessary for generating a partial vacuum. Unfortunately, even I had underestimated the lengths to which some TCVM practitioners will go to inflict their methods on animal patients. Here is an example of a dog subjected to cupping.
To be fair, cupping does seem pretty uncommon even among TCVM practitioners however, there are references to it on practice web sites along with acupuncture and other TCVM therapies, and lectures on cupping have been given at a number of continuing education conferences for alternative medicine vets (e.g. from the Ch’i Institute, the leading organization teaching and promoting TCVM, and the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture and International Veterinary Acupuncture Society joint conference).
So once again, while it shouldn’t need to be said:
There is no legitimate evidence that cupping is effective for any medical condition in any species.
- Human patients report it to be moderately uncomfortable, so there is no excuse for applying to animals who cannot give their consent to a painful procedure when there is no reason to believe there will be any benefit.
- It can cause serious injury, and while this appears to be rare it is not a risk that it makes any sense to take when, once again, there is no good reason to believe it has any benefits.