Phila. Zoo experimenting with acupuncture

Held by keeper Amy Ivans, Jackson, a black-necked swan suffering from bumblefoot, undergoes an acupuncture session with veterinarian Christina Fuoco.
Held by keeper Amy Ivans, Jackson, a black-necked swan suffering from bumblefoot, undergoes an acupuncture session with veterinarian Christina Fuoco.
Posted: September 29, 2013

Donna Ialeggio, a staff veterinarian at the Philadelphia Zoo, has been trying to cure a black-necked swan's bumblefoot for 31/2 years.

She's finally found something that seems to be working: acupuncture.

"The speed with which this is healing is just phenomenal," she said Wednesday as she watched Christina Fuoco, a vet in private practice with training in acupuncture and canine rehabilitation, prepare to treat Jackson, a nine-year-old swan.

The back of his pale pink foot - what would be a heel in humans - had a hard, swollen lump that was once badly infected and three or four times larger. He's had surgery three times and is on anti-inflammatory medicine, but he's made his best progress since January, when Fuoco started doing weekly acupuncture and laser treatments.

"This is the first time we have been able to watch healing happen week by week," Ialeggio said.

The zoo turned to Fuoco because she had been a student there. Jackson is only the second acupuncture patient at the West Philadelphia institution. The first was Emily, an elderly dwarf mongoose with a back problem who got electroacupuncture. She's also doing better.

"We've just started to branch out," Ialeggio said of the zoo's new interest in alternative medicine.

Fuoco said people have been using acupuncture on animals for thousands of years. Initially, they focused on working animals, but several local veterinarians now advertise acupuncture for pets.

The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, which cares for large animals, recently announced it will offer acupuncture for hospitalized patients. It costs $100 per treatment in the hospital. Acupuncture has been offered to animals visited at home for several years.

Corinne Sweeney, New Bolton's associate dean, said there was a "reasonable amount of evidence" that acupuncture helps relieve pain. "There's not a wealth of science documenting why," she said.

The theory is that acupuncture needles create tiny areas of inflammation that lead the body to send healing chemicals and extra blood to the site.

Fuoco, who runs the Whole Animal Gym in Queen Village, said interest in animal acupuncture had increased since she started doing it 10 years ago. People who have undergone it are more comfortable trying it on their pets. And sometimes, after they see how comfortable and relaxed their pets look during treatment, Fuoco said, the owners want to try it themselves.

Jackson, a regal creature weighing about 10 pounds, sat calmly in keeper Amy Ivins' lap while Fuoco fussed with his foot.

Swans like him can live 30 to 40 years, so he is still young. He has a dark side. "He actually is one of our meanest swans," Ivins said. He came to the zoo with a heart problem and takes an ACE inhibitor.

Bumblefoot, or ulcerative pododermatitis, typically starts with irritation or an injury to the foot that becomes infected. It has the potential to cause deeper infections in tissue or bones that might require amputation.

Before treatment, the lump on Jackson's heel was bigger and topped by an ugly, cracked brown knob. Ialeggio feared he might lose some of his web.

After undergoing operations to remove diseased tissue, he wore bandages cushioned with bubble wrap that seemed to relieve his discomfort.

During treatment, Fuoco first zapped his foot for about 45 seconds with laser light. That, she said, is meant to help activate cells in ways that promote healing. Then she pushed five 13-millimeter needles into Jackson's foot. He squeaked a little with each one, but then rested quietly for 10 minutes with the needles in place.

Ivins placed Jackson near his pool after removing the needles. He no longer needs a bandage and may now get treatments only every month or two. Jackson jumped in and powered through the water like an athlete in a big race.



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