Getting the Point : Acupuncturists Give the Needle to Ailing Fish

Times Staff Writer

Cho Sheng-gung, a Chinese acupuncturist who has been treating human beings for the last 40 years, gripped a slippery goldfish between his fingers and slowly brought his needle downward.

The two-inch sliver of stainless steel pierced the fish next to its spine and went in about half an inch before Cho let go. The fish wriggled, the needle twitched, Cho let out a sigh.

“Fish are so sensitive,” he said.

Ever since acupuncture became fashionable in the early 1970s, practitioners have used this centuries-old Chinese craft to treat an array of maladies, including arthritis, diabetes and even tobacco addiction.


Now, Cho and his partner, Wu Li-hsia, have turned the craft to a new use--healing fish. While acupuncture has been used in Asia on farm animals, Cho and Wu believe they are the first to treat fish, largely because they cannot imagine why anyone else would be interested.

“To tell you the truth, fish are not very important,” Cho said. “If they die, they die, and you buy a new one.”

But the two acupuncturists, who run the Garfield Acupuncture Center in Alhambra, were curious about acupuncture’s effect on fish and wanted to help 12 of Wu’s goldfish. The fish had been seriously ill and seemed headed for death.

All of Wu’s fish recovered after acupuncture treatments, she said, and the two acupuncturists are inviting other fish owners to bring their sick goldfish and koi in for free treatment.

“It’s just for fun,” Wu said. “Bring the difficult cases.”

Fish Were Ailing

Their experiment with fish acupuncture began three months ago after Wu’s pets developed red patches on their bodies and began losing scales. One had died, and several pet store owners advised them to expect the worst.

Ronald Hedrick, a professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis who specializes in fish pathology, said the symptoms describe several bacterial or parasitic infections. The infections can be fatal if left untreated, he said.

Wu believed that acupuncture could help her remaining 12 fish, although her relatives feared that she would simply be sending them to watery graves. “I still wanted to try,” she said. “It was better than letting them die.”

The problem was trying to decide where to insert the needles.

Acupuncture involves harmonizing life forces in the body through the insertion of needles at strategic points. There are 365 basic points on the human body, and the placement of the needles, in many cases, must be exact.

Stimulates Immune System

In human beings, the treatment to stimulate the body’s immune system involves three points, said Wu, who has been practicing acupuncture for more than 12 years. The first, on the shin, about three inches below the kneecap, is called zu san li, or three measures of the leg.

The problem, of course, is that fish have no shins. So, Wu picked a spot near the fish’s tail and hoped for the best.

The other critical points are the da zhui, or the great vertebra, on the upper spine, and the ming men, or life’s door, on the lower spine. Fish do have spines.

The acupuncturists inserted one or two needles in each fish and then returned them to their tank with the needles still dangling in place.

To their surprise, the fish regained their appetites and were far more energetic, they said. After several treatments, their scales began to grow back.

‘We Were Surprised’

“Sure, we were surprised,” Wu said. “I didn’t think they were going to live.”

Patients marveled at the goldfishes’ recovery. The Chinese-language World Daily News trumpeted the pair’s success with a story headlined: “Acupuncture Points the Same in Humans and Fish.”

Today, all 12 fish are doing fine in a tank in the clinic’s waiting room.

Given the number of skeptics about acupuncture’s effect on humans, there are probably just as many, if not more, who doubt acupuncture’s ability to cure fish.

George Matsumoto, a veterinary microbiologist for Los Angeles County, said it is impossible to determine whether the fish were saved by acupuncture, although he did not dismiss the idea.

“Acupuncture has been around for many years,” he said. “Using it on fish is not a surprise.”

First He’s Heard Of

Hwang San-hong, president of the 200-member Acupuncture Medicine Assn. of Southern California, said he has never heard of anyone using acupuncture on fish before Cho’s and Wu’s experiment, but he added that there is no reason it should not work.

“Most animals have a spine and nerves and a blood system. They’re almost the same as humans,” he said. “It should be no problem.”

If you believe acupuncture works on humans, Cho said, it also should work on fish and other living things. In fact, he said, he has successfully used acupuncture on a variety of sick household pets, although those cases are only mildly intriguing.

“Dogs and cats are so easy,” he said.