An Israeli zoo is making headlines for using acupuncture to try to ease the pain of one of its mature tigers, but is this really in the tiger’s best interests?
Pedang, a 14-year-old male Sumatran tiger who is housed at the open-air Ramat Gan Safari zoo near Tel Aviv, has suffered from a chronic ear infection for more than a year now and antibiotics have so far failed to clear up the problem. Frustrated by this, his keepers have now decided a different approach is warranted.
On Sunday, after Pedang was put under general anesthetic, a team cleaned his ears, took various blood and skin samples, and then the keepers allowed Mor Mosinzon, described as an “alternative medicine specialist” who works at the park, to administer the therapy.
The video below shows the process:
Mor Mosinzon is quoted as saying she believes the acupuncture will aid Pedang in “[dealing] with his own medical issues by himself, to strengthen his immune system,” and claims that the acupuncture will open the ear canal to make the antibiotics treatment more efficient.
She is also quoted by the Telegraph as saying there will now be a significant break in Pedang’s medical treatment to allow staff to “really see that the acupuncture works.”
So, will Pedang benefit from this treatment? Let’s take a look at what acupuncture involves and whether the claims of practitioners stand up to scrutiny.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is one of the most recognizable forms of Chinese medicine.
It involves penetrating the skin at certain pressure or “meridian” points with specialized needles that are then manipulated either by hand or by electrical stimulation in the hopes of correcting a supposed imbalance in the flow of “qi” or “life force” of the patient.
Modern practitioners may or may not adhere to the idea of qi or the meridian points. Science has never found a basis for belief in their existence.
Regardless, many recipients of acupuncture swear by it, and it is particularly praised for its ability to work where so-called conventional medicine has been less successful, such as in the treatment of chronic back pain or migraines.
More recently, a minority of veterinarians has begun recommending acupuncture for pets such as cats and dogs, while U.S. race horses have also been subjected to acupuncture all in the hopes of clearing up physical ailments, including pain localized in the limbs, as well as chronic conditions.
Does Science Support Acupuncture?
It is true that practitioners of this so-called ancient Chinese art claim to be able to treat a variety of medical ailments, from repeated sinus infection to even helping in cancer recovery.
It is also true that, for instance, the UK’s National Health Service offers acupuncture in some limited circumstances as a supplementary treatment for back pain.
Also, some studies, with the caveat of there being limited data, have shown some apparent benefits of acupuncture, that it can prevent nausea and vomiting post-surgery for instance, and that it may be effective in treating headaches and chronic pain.
However, such studies have failed to prove that acupuncture confers any significant benefit. So why do people feel better after the treatment? The much documented but still not widely understood placebo effect is in play.
How do we know this? Well, beyond being able to see little to no physiological healing response which in itself should be proof enough, a number of meta analyses of highly randomized control studies show that the same increased wellbeing and reported pain decrease can be elicited simply by tricking the patient into believing they have had an acupuncture treatment.
For instance, studies have shown that a reported improvement in health can come from a patient who is given the treatment by an unqualified person who simply applies the needles wherever they feel like without adherence to the principles of Chinese medicine, and also someone who does not in fact use needles to penetrate the skin at all but simply simulates the act with a toothpick.
To put it in blunt terms, it appears to be belief in the ritual’s power that matters more than the so-called treatment or any manipulation of unseen and unproved energy flows.
It may also alarm you to read that systematic meta-analyses have not only shown that the benefits of acupuncture have yet to be demonstrated but that serious ailments, a few of them even leading to fatalities, have resulted from acupuncture sessions as a result of bad practice and insufficiently sterilized needles.
The most common among these ailments are pneumothoraces that impair breathing, and bacterial and viral infections. This is not meant to scaremonger, but rather to illuminate the fact that acupuncture can and does go wrong, a fact that is not often mentioned.
It also serves us to point out that while many humans will readily attest to feeling better following an acupuncture session, it is unlikely other animals can glean the same placebo benefit, and whether other animals experience the placebo effect and to what extent is a subject of ongoing research.
Nor is there any evidence beyond the anecdotal that shows there is a medical benefit for animals subjected to acupuncture, and this includes those applications such as in cases of canine arthritis and equine health.
With that in mind, we have to ask whether subjecting other animals to this unproven practice is really worth it.
Could Acupuncture Risk More Harm Than Good?
If we accept that Pedang’s treatment was administered without risk of medical complication, and it appears it was, it will not directly harm the animal, so what’s the big deal?
Here’s the thing: in order to administer acupuncture to a 220 to 310 lb tiger you must, for obvious safety reasons, first anesthetize it. Anesthetic carries certain risks, and Pedang is 14 and approaching his twilight years.
It is unclear whether the team specifically sedated Pedang to administer the treatment as they may have needed to clean his infected ear anyway, but certainly this is a concern. Regardless, the main point is this: Pedang may now recover marvelously from his ear infection but given that he has already had presumably several courses of antibiotics, this attempt to “prove” the efficacy of acupuncture, as Mosinzon is quoted as saying she intends to do, is flawed.
What’s more, waiting to treat the infection and withholding further rounds of medical treatment as Mosinzon has said will now happen could undermine Pedang’s recovery and ultimately seriously compromise his health.
This is something that, for anyone concerned with animal welfare and regardless of their position on holistic medicine, should be a serious point of protest.
Image taken from YouTube video, no infringement intended.