Animals. Acupuncture. Huh?

As coincidence would have it, I finished reading the terrific new book, “Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science,” by physicist Robert Park, on the very morning that I came across a story about using acupuncture in animals. The coincidence is this: among the fascinating debunking that Park engages in (intercessory prayer, homeopathy, ESP . . . ) is the obligatory chapter on acupuncture, which has been shown to be effective for such things as relieving lower-back pain and headaches. Acupuncture works, Park explains, because it triggers the placebo effect: patients believe in it, and that belief releases endogenous opioids, among other effects.

Which brings us back to animals. Are the minds of horses, dogs and cats sophisticated enough that when they see someone approach with needles, and gently swirl them around various entry points, the beast thinks, “ah, this smart person is trying to help me,” and presto—placebo effect?

Dr. Mark Crisman, a professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, administered acupuncture therapy to a horse named Gypsy, who had an infection in her ankle. Crisman was using acupuncture (plus traditional therapy) to help strengthen her bones and immune system, and relieve pain--successfully, apparently. The college offers acupuncture to animals large and small, for conditions from skin disorders to musculoskeletal issues to neurological problems.

So I ask again: if acupuncture in people works by inducing a placebo effect, what’s going on in animals?