Analysis

Swiss Cows to Be Given Acupuncture. But Will It Work?

The Swiss goal of cutting antibiotics use is laudable, but acupuncture on animals is presumably as useful as it is on humans: Not at all.

Cow graze in a pasture at a dairy farm operated by Van Diemen's Land Co. in Woolnorth, Tasmania, Australia, on Monday, May 30, 2016.
Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

Acupuncture has never been proven to work, yet the latest wrinkle in Swiss veterinary medicine is to train vets to use it on cows. The program is reportedly starting with trainee vets from the University of Bern practicing on a herd of 80 Holsteins and other bovines living on an organic farm in the town of Sorens.

Some people coo that the cows are going to be very relaxed. Some vets routinely provide acupuncture to a range of animals and argue that it works because qi may be a total figment, but we do have nerves and sticking needles in them causes our body to react.

But anecdotal evidence aside, the fact is, that there is no empiric evidence that acupuncture works. Sticking needles into cows' furry skin is unlikely to achieve much other than to annoy the cow and blunt the needle.

Where the original idea arose is lost knowledge, but therapy by needle in China goes back at least 2200 years. Some think marks on the skin of "Otzi" the 5,300-year-old Iceman found in the Alps are signs of a sort of acupuncture treatment too. Now the practice is everywhere.

However many thousands of years the notion has been around, acupuncture has never been proven to work when rigorous scientific tests are applied. Yet the technique is everywhere: funded by governments as part of public health, and in the west, it's made inroads into veterinary medicine too – chiefly for dogs. Lots of luck getting the cat to sit still for that.

Arguably, the Swiss goal is worthy: to reduce the use of antibiotics. The World Health Organization has warned that overuse of prophylactic antibiotics in the food chain (animal husbandry) is driving superbugs to evolve in humans

So resorting to alternative techniques would be a good idea, if they work. Sticking people, cows or dogs with acupuncture needles in order to cure them is about as predictably efficacious as sticking them with voodoo needles in order to curse them.

If thousands of modern clinical trials have failed to prove the efficacy of acupuncture, why does it remain so popular? Why do Israeli, British and other governmental healthcare services provide it, funded by the state just like doctors who prescribe antibiotics? The state won't pay for faith healing or crystals therapy, so why does it pay for this?

You can probably thank Chairman Mao, who guided the Chinese to resort to traditional medicine, not least because it was cheaper - home-grown, so to speak - and because the masses of ailing Chinese did not have enough western-trained doctors to heal them. Some such as Kim Taylor, researcher of Chinese medicine in communist China, suggest Mao thought that the economic risks outstripped the dangers of promoting ineffective medicine.

Today, scientists suspect that any beneficial effects reported are a form of placebo: that the body reacts to the needle's insertion with the release of biochemicals that make us feel better, such as endomorphins.

Scientific American, for one, asked experts in 2014 whether they believe acupuncture works. One, an acupuncturist, did, for both pain and depression; the other five ranked from deeply skeptical to completely dismissive. "Those that are more rigorous fail to show that acupuncture is more than a placebo in managing depression," one opined.

Arguably, it would be better for Planet Earth and medical budgets to use less prophylactic antibiotics in agriculture. But administering acupuncture to sick cows is about as useful as cupping them. It is arguably animal abuse if an alternative therapy that might actually work on a sick animal is ignored. And, it is an egregious waste of money, time, and the cows' patience.