Broadly speaking, energy work for animals includes practically any approach in which the practitioner directs or channels an unseen force through one’s hands or consciousness to the intended recipient for the purpose of physical, emotional or spiritual healing.
The three most popular types of energy treatment include Reiki, Therapeutic Touch (TT) and Healing Touch (HT).
The Japanese term Reiki refers to “universal life energy,” which the practitioner channels into the recipient. Students learn the technique through Reiki masters, who raise their students’ vibrations and healing capacity through a process called “attunement.” Once they complete three training levels, students themselves become masters who can teach and attune others.1
Reiki and its American-born counterpart, TT, involve either actual physical touch or noncontact energy manipulation; both invite the participation of angels, beings of light and/or spirit guides for assistance with treatment.2,3
HT is another biofield (i.e., energy-field) technique designed to clear, energize and balance the auric field.
All three entered the U.S. arena around the same time (1970s-1980s) and have taken hold in human hospitals across the country. Energy-field therapies rank among the top complementary medical services offered in U.S. hospitals, along with massage, music/art therapy, guided imagery, relaxation training and acupuncture.4 Initial opposition from conventionally-minded medical personnel has softened as demand and evidence of benefit has grown.5
Energy-work practitioners are often already working in human hospitals, as over 100 universities, nursing and medical schools in North America offer training in one or more of these modalities.6 Among veterinary institutions, Tufts is so far the only veterinary college that has publicized involvement with Reiki.7
Jumping from treating humans to animals requires careful consideration. Input from Brenda McClelland, DVM, a Reiki and HT practitioner in Fort Collins, Colo., indicates that most courses teaching Reiki for humans inform students that Reiki cannot do harm, but only provide benefit, because patients take only the energy they need. They therefore cannot get “over-treated.”
However, human patients also provide verbal feedback. They can inform the practitioner about whether hands placed near the head are causing a headache. When this happens, or when the healer receives appropriate palpatory feedback, the practitioner should move on to other regions.
“You should feel that feedback,” McClelland reports. McClelland has found that maintaining palpatory awareness is even more important with animal patients. She has encountered non-veterinarian practitioners who treat companion animals and who have failed to translate a dog patient’s insistent barking or a cat’s walking away as actually saying, “I’m really not into this.”
Occasionally, this blind eye to animal patients’ nonverbal messages has led to negative outcomes. For example, McClelland emphasizes the need to keep Reiki sessions to 20 minutes. Despite her recommendation, a non-veterinarian practitioner from Texas pressed on for a full hour, after which the dog vomited. Next time, the dog vomited again after 30 minutes of Reiki, upon which the client insisted that the practitioner stop treatment.
McClelland interprets this as an over-treatment, but stresses the need for veterinarians to perform rigorous, sham-controlled scientific studies that objectively measure both the physiologic benefits and potential adverse effects of Reiki. A scientist at heart, she refuses to make claims but only offers observations.
With this caveat, McClelland lists several conditions for which she has provided Reiki, usually at the request of clients who have run out of conventional options, and whose animals are still in pain or distress. These responsive medical problems include pain associated with radiation therapy, surgery and cancer.
Veterinary patients have been referred to McClelland with restlessness, inappetance and/or lameness. Following Reiki, their lameness has improved and they could sleep for hours at a time. These outcomes bear consistency with human studies pointing to the value of Reiki, HT and TT in patients with cancer-related tiredness, pain, and anxiety.8–10
Patients with acute or chronic renal compromise have demonstrated improved appetite, vitality and life spans (i.e., years instead of months).
Although no clinical data exist on energy work for veterinary patients, additional studies from the human literature indicate that TT relieves pain from tension headache, neurological complications during bone marrow transplantation, and anxiety, pain and immune suppression in patients recovering from burns.11
On a mechanistic level, a newly published report in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research explains how a group of researchers from the University of Connecticut examined ways in which the energy emanating from a TT practitioner’s hands might indeed promote healing.12 The research involved a TT treatment done twice weekly for 10 minutes each to human osteoblasts (HOB) in culture.
Results indicated that TT increased HOB DNA synthesis, differentiation and mineralization, while it decreased differentiation and mineralization in cells from an osteosarcoma-derived cell line, SaOs-2, compared to controls.
Another 2008 study showed a significant increase in fibroblast, osteoblast and tenocyte proliferation in culture after two weeks of TT treatments.13-14 These studies shed light on possible “dosing” levels required to show objectively measurable cellular responses.
The authors intend to study which cell-cycling molecules TT affects, in order to explore the mechanism of action.
4. Ananth S., Martin W. “Health Forum 2005 Complementary and Alternative Medicine Survey of Hospitals: Summary of Results.” Chicago: Health Forum LLC; 2006. Cited in: National Institutes of Health. “Cam at the NIH – focus on complementary and alternative medicine.” 2006;13(3). Obtained at http://nccam.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2006_fall/hospitals.htm on Aug. 17, 2008.
5. Stephen J.E., Mackenzie G., Sample S., et al. “Twenty years of therapeutic touch in a Canadian cancer agency: lessons learned from a case study of integrative oncology practice.” Support Care Cancer. 2007;15:993-998.
13-14. Gronowicz G.A., Jhaveri A., Clarke L.W., et al. “Therapeutic touch stimulates the proliferation of human cells in culture.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2008;14(3):233-239.