A tiger tale takes a turn for the better with acupuncture treatments at the College of Veterinary Medicine
The first few months of Madras’s life weren’t easy, although she didn’t seem to mind. During birth, her mother Buljba, an older tiger having her first litter, sat down as the cub was partially out of the birth canal. When the trainer tried to get Buljba to stand, the tiger swung around and slung the newborn cub against the bars of the cage. The result for the cub, Madras, was a severe head tilt.
“We had gone down to Florida to pick up another tiger when we saw this little cub,” says Mary Lynn Haven, executive director of Tiger Haven, a sanctuary and rescue facility for more than 270 big cats. “There was Madras–her head tilted so much her little ear was almost parallel to the floor. Since her mother had rejected her, she was being bottle-fed but getting liquid in her lungs and having trouble breathing.” According to Haven, Madras’s brother kept trying to play with her, but she wasn’t responsive. Haven brought her home to Kingston, Tennessee. She was sure Dr. Ed Ramsey of the UT College of Veterinary Medicine would be able to help the cub.
Ramsay, professor of avian and zoological medicine, says Madras underwent complete orthopedic and neurological exams. “Nothing from the X-rays or CT scan offered any definitive reason for Madras’s severe head tilt,” says Ramsay. Another cub from Tiger Haven that experienced the same condition had responded quite well to chiropractic adjustments, but that didn’t work with Madras.
Haven says Madras didn’t seem to be in pain, but mobility was an issue. “She couldn’t see where she was going and would bump into things. I mean, here she was, looking at the sky and ground at the same time. She had a hard time eating.”
Haven wanted the college’s certified acupuncturist, Dr. Chris Egger, to try to help. Ramsay had never seen acupuncture used on tigers. “Arguably, performing acupuncture on big cats is a dangerous thing,” Ramsay deadpans. “They don’t really lend themselves to that hands-on treatment.”
But when Egger heard about the case, her response was, “Sure, I’ve never acupunctured a baby tiger before, but I’ll go for it.” The plan was to let Madras decide how the treatment would go. “We found out very quickly that we couldn’t restrain her to put needles in her; she wasn’t having any of that,” Egger says. So Haven held Madras under her armpits, and the cub would relax. “I could put all the needles in and then she would wander around the room,” Egger says. “She tolerated the treatments extremely well each time”–and she gradually got better.
“I would say her head tilt was improved by 40 percent after the first treatment,” says Haven. After her treatments, Madras would be drowsy the rest of the day and euphoric the next. “After seeing that, I always thought it would be a good idea for Dr. Egger to demonstrate acupuncture on me,” laughs Haven.
After six treatments or so, Madras became too heavy to hold. Haven says the head tilt is 95-percent improved and the condition only recurs when the tiger is tired. “Her temperament is very docile, one of the most docile cubs we’ve had,” Haven says. “While she’s completely functional, I told Dr. Ramsay she’s missing a few stripes upstairs. He agrees.”
“Acupuncture is an ancient modality that has great potential benefit as long as it’s used wisely and objectively,” says Egger. “I think it has given Madras a great quality of life, and now she gets to hang around Tiger Haven and be a cat.”
East or West for Pain Relief?
Long before the UT College of Veterinary Medicine created a collaboration with Chinese Agricultural University in 2006, Dr. Chris Egger, a board-certified anesthesiologist and associate professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, had an interest in acupuncture.
“I had a chronic pain syndrome, and several doctors told me it was all in my head,” Egger says. She was later diagnosed with a GI disorder and found a progressive gastroenterologist who suggested she try Chinese medicine.
“Acupuncture helped me in terms of my pain and quality of life. Of course the pain was all in my head; the division between body and brain doesn’t exist in Chinese medicine. Western medicine is very reductionist–which allows us to do amazing things like heart transplants, but it can’t solve some problems. There is a place for alternative medicine in the Western world.”
While the holistic approach of Chinese medicine appealed to Egger, she didn’t blindly jump on the acupuncture bandwagon. Instead, she approached Eastern medicine with a healthy dose of Western skepticism. “There really aren’t many peer-reviewed scientific articles related to acupuncture, although there are thousands of years of anecdotal evidence. The scientific evidence is starting to accumulate, however.” Egger’s treatment of Madras adds another chapter to that record.