How Acupunture Helped Howie Hop

by Sara Busch, DVM, CVA
Brighton, MA

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. Busch was a guest speaker at our RRR/HRS rabbit-care conference in May, 2000, where she presented Howie’s case.

When I first met Howie, a seven-year-old English Angora bunny, his owners were considering euthanizing him. In December of 1999 Howie had progressively lost the use of both of his rear legs. Over the month of December he also lost the use of his left front leg. He was completely unable to "right" himself from side to side, much less walk or hop. Even when he was held upright, his left front leg would "knuckle" over and drag underneath him, and both rear legs would flop like limp rags. No known trauma or accident had precipitated his condition. When I first examined Howie he was extremely thin (5.5lbs.). He had lost all of the muscle mass that usually covers the length of the spine and powers the rear legs. He had bed sores over both rear legs and had practically no wool from his hips down to his toes. He preferred to lie on his right side and as a result his bed sores were worse on that side. He was somewhat distressed when placed on his left side. The skin along his inner thighs was very red and inflamed from urine scald. Veterinarians had x-rayed Howie’s spine and found narrowed disc spaces. His owners were directed to give him steroids daily, and to restrict his movement by confining him to a small area, so he would be less likely to further injure his back. But after 7 weeks of confinement and daily steroids, Howie was not improving. In fact, his owners noticed he was deteriorating.

Traditional Western Diagnosis and Treatment

Howie’s Western medical diagnosis was "intervertebral disc disease." Discs (made of cartilage) normally cushion the bones in the spine (the vertebrae), and give the back flexibility. But when discs are compressed or "pinched," they can protrude onto the spinal cord and pinch the spinal nerves. All of this likely contributed to Howie’s inability to move and hop.

The Western medical approach to intervertebral disc disease usually starts with restricting activity and prescribing steroids. His owners kept him wrapped in a diaper in a dog-bed basket. There wasn’t much need to confine him more than that, since he could not move even if he had wanted to. Steroids are often prescribed to decrease inflammation and the pain accompanying it. However, there are unwanted side effects associated with long term steroid use in any animal, and steroid use in rabbits is generally discouraged. Aware of this, his owners were reluctant to keep him on steroids indefinitely.

Although custom-made pet carts are useful for some animals with disc problems, Howie was not a good candidate for a cart, since only one of his front legs was functional. Disc surgery, which might be appropriate for some species with disc disease, is not generally an option for rabbits, primarily because of difficulties created by their muscle-to-bone ratio. Most veterinary medical texbtbooks recommend euthanizing rabbits that have injured their backs because of their poor prognosis to regain the use of their legs. When Howie’s owners asked about euthanasia in January 2000, I suggested we try acupuncture. After all, at this point, what did we have to lose?

Veterinary Acupuncture

Veterinary acupuncture has been practiced for over 2000 years in China and its use in the United States is rapidly growing. There are hundreds of veterinarians across the country using acupuncture to treat dogs, cats, and horses for a variety of diseases and disorders. However, there are only a few veterinarians using it to help other animal species. As Howie’s case shows, acupuncture has the potential to be tremendously beneficial for rabbits, too.

By definition, acupuncture is the insertion of solid, metal needles into specific points (acupuncture points) on the body in order to balance the body’s Chi or "Vital Energy" to restore health. In Howie’s case, it helped him regain the use of his severely paretic (practically paralyzed) legs.

Acupuncture is only one of the healing modalities utilized by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM). The other therapeutic modalities include herbal/nutritional medicine and bodily manipulation (chiropractics, massage and rehabilitative therapies).

TCVM Diagnosis

From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medical (TCVM), Howie had a "Kidney Yang Imbalance." In TCVM, the Kidney Organ Network is related to the season of winter and maintaining the strength of bone. It is not a coincidence from a TCVM perspective that Howie’s condition became clinically noticeable in the winter and was a disease affecting the bones of his spine.

TCVM Treatment

I decided to incorporate elements from all three TCVM therapeutic modalities into Howie’s treatment plan. I reviewed his diet and recommended increasing his timothy hay and rabbit pellets. Once we discovered that he wasn’t eating his cecal pellets (because he was always wrapped in the diaper, and couldn’t move to get to them on his own), his owners "harvested" them, and fed them to him. I also started him on a neutraceutical supplement, a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin, to help protect the cartilage in the discs along his spine. Then I showed his owners how to provide nursing care for his bedsores. Between acupuncture sessions his owners massaged the muscles along his spine and down the length of his rear legs. They also started him on twice daily physical therapy sessions.

His first three acupuncture treatments were all 24 hours apart and consisted of "dry needling" points that would strengthen Kidney Yang, work locally at the spinal junctions where the disc spaces were narrowed and distally at "Ting points" down on his toes, and on the tip of his tail. After his third treatment we started weekly sessions and added a technique called pneumoacupuncture for his muscle loss. We started tapering his steroids and discontinued them completely over a six week period.

Results of Howie’s TCVM Treatment
Slowly, but surely, Howie’s bed sores healed, his wool started to grow back on his legs and his left front leg became completely functional again. Even more slowly, but surely, he gained strength in both of his rear legs. After eleven treatments, Howie had a big breakthrough: on March 29, 2000, he started hopping again!

Although his recovery was not complete, nevertheless Howie's
response to acupuncture was nothing short of incredible. Granted, this was a single successful case. It does not necessarily mean that every rabbit with an injured back will respond similarly. However, I do think Howie’s response suggests that acupuncture is worth trying, especially when the only other option is euthanasia.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Howie enjoyed four additional happy, hopping months with his owners, and died of unrelated causes in July, 2000, in his eighth year.


Four Paws, Five Directions: A Guide to Chinese Medicine for Cats and Dogs, by Cheryl Schwartz, DVM, ISBN: 0-89087-790-4

Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, by Harriet Beinfield, L. Ac., ISBN: 0-345-37974-8

  • American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association: (410) 569-0795
  • Chi-Institute of Chinese Medicine for Veterinarians: (352) 591-3165

I would also like to thank the following for their help with Howie’s progress:
Bruce Ferguson, DVM, Micanopy, Florida (TCVM diagnosis)
Mary Cotter, EdD, Bronxville, NY (nutrition)
Jennifer Saver, DVM, Kew Gardens, NY (nursing care)
Nancy O’Leary, DVM, Worcester, MA (acupuncture point selection and neutraceutical supplementation suggestions)
His owners, whose devotion never diminished. They kept going long after so many would have given up.

BACK TO INDEX (From 2001 NYC Metro Rabbit News)

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