Veterinary acupuncture is an exciting and welcome addition to modern veterinary medicine. Now animals, both small and large, can receive the same benefits from acupuncture that humans do, including relief from pain, bolstered immunity, and increased athletic performance.
For many years, acupuncture was considered a mystical, “fringe” medical treatment (unfortunately, in some circles it still is). It was not well-understood, and wasn’t taken seriously by practitioners of western medicine. However, as acupuncture becomes more accepted and the evidence of its benefits continues to grow, many veterinarians are not only open to acupuncture as a valid treatment option, they’re also becoming certified to use it on their own patients.
Acupuncture has been around for centuries, and it’s practiced in many different parts of the world. The oldest written documentation about acupuncture is a Chinese medical compendium that is believed to date back to around 300 BC.
What makes acupuncture so intriguing is that it combines the holistic view of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with the scientific, evidence-based approach of western medicine, creating a viable option for pets with medical conditions that haven’t responded to drugs or surgery.
The Art Of Veterinary Acupuncture
TCM sees all living bodies as being made up of an energy, or life force, referred to as Qi (pronounced “chee”). According to Chinese medicine, Qi flows smoothly along the surface of the skin and throughout the entire body via energy pathways called meridians. If the body experiences any type of blockage, reduction, or increase in this energy flow, the resulting imbalance can cause various problems that manifest as illness or specific medical conditions.
The goal of acupuncture is to encourage the body to heal itself by correcting this imbalance of energy. This is accomplished through the insertion of very small needles into specific areas of the body, called acupuncture points, where nerve bundles and blood vessels come together. These areas are also thought to have lower electrical resistance and higher electrical conductance compared to the surrounding skin.
The Science Of Veterinary Acupuncture
From the western medical view, acupuncture works by creating numerous physiological changes in the body. According to an extensive 2003 study conducted on human patients by the World Health Organization, acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system to release natural chemicals that alter pain perception, bodily systems, and other biological processes. The study concluded that acupuncture impacts the body by:
- Stimulating the conduction of electromagnetic signals in the brain, which releases hormones that suppress pain and inflammation and increases the number of immune system cells in the body.
- Causing changes in the secretion of neurotransmitters that positively affect brain chemistry.
- Stimulating the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which control numerous body functions and organ systems.
- Activating the body’s natural opioid system, which can help reduce pain and enhance sleep.
Other research shows that acupuncture increases blood circulation and induces minor tissue damage, which temporarily stimulates local inflammation and leads to enhanced immunity.
Acupuncture has also been shown to deactivate certain parts of the brain’s limbic system, a unique effect that can actually alter an individual’s perception of pain. In studies, this effect was not seen when superficial “sham needling” was done on human research subjects.
What Can Veterinary Acupuncture Do For Your Pet?
Veterinary acupuncture can be performed on almost any animal, including dogs, cats, horses, livestock, reptiles, and exotic animals. It can be used to treat and manage a variety of conditions, especially those involving pain and inflammation.
Below are just a few conditions that have been proven to respond to veterinary acupuncture:
- Musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis, disease of the spinal cord, degenerative joint disease, or traumatic nerve injury
- Muscle spasms
- Pain due to trauma (accidents, hit by car, or surgery)
- Respiratory problems (particularly feline asthma, pneumonia, and sinus inflammation)
- Skin problems, including allergic skin conditions and lick granulomas
- Urinary disorders such as cystitis (inflammation of the bladder)
- Gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, vomiting, colic)
- Neurological disorders (stroke, vestibular disease, nerve paralysis)
- Kidney and/or liver failure
- Endocrine disorders (Cushing’s disease, hypothyroidism, feline hyperthyroidism, diabetes)
- Immune system problems
- Complications from hip dysplasia
- Systemic inflammatory conditions (such as pancreatitis)
- Swelling, pain, nausea, and decreased appetite related to cancer
Veterinary acupuncture can also contribute to enhanced performance for animals involved in athletic activities such as dog agility, flyball, or racing, and it can even be used in emergency cases such as cardiac or respiratory arrest. Dr. Belinda Parsons, DVM uses acupuncture in emergency medicine to increase heart rate, stimulate respiration and improve blood pressure. Dr. Parsons says “GV26 (the needle in the nose), has been studied and proven to help increase heart rate, increase stroke volume, increase mean arterial pressure and reduce peripheral resistance. There is also an 88% response rate to apnea (the temporary stoppage of breathing) compared to placebo acupuncture.” 1
Is Acupuncture Painful?
For most small animals, the use of acupuncture needles is virtually painless. For large animals, larger needles are needed, so there may be some initial pain when the needles pass into the skin. However, once they’re positioned, there is usually not any pain. Needles are left in place anywhere from 30 seconds to as long as 45 minutes before they are removed.
Many pet parents are surprised to see how well their pets tolerate veterinary acupuncture. Many pets are very relaxed during treatment and may even fall asleep. However, in some pets, acupuncture treatments can cause a tingling sensation, numbness, or cramping that may be slightly uncomfortable, but this is not the norm.
Is Acupuncture Safe For Pets?
When performed by a properly trained veterinarian, acupuncture is one of the safest forms of medical treatment for animals. Sterile, single-use needles practically eliminate any risk of infection, and no anesthesia or drugs are necessary during treatment. Statistically, approximately 25% of patients show “major” improvement after treatment, and around 50% of patients experience “significant” improvement (the other 25% don’t respond to treatment).
Although rare, there may be some side effects of veterinary acupuncture. A small number of animals can experience a “rebound effect”, where their symptoms temporarily get worse for up to 72 hours after treatment, but this is usually followed by noticeable improvement. Some pets also experience sleepiness or fatigue for up to 48 hours after treatment.
You can see how well pets tolerate veterinary acupuncture in the video below of a cat being treated for feline asthma:
Getting Started With Veterinary Acupuncture
If you elect to have your pet treated with veterinary acupuncture, first make sure that the acupuncturist is a licensed veterinarian who has also received formal training and licensing in acupuncture. Do your homework: obtain referrals or recommendations from your regular vet (if he or she does not perform acupuncture), and make sure you feel comfortable with the acupuncturist you choose.
The effects of veterinary acupuncture are cumulative over time, so it usually requires several consistent treatments to be effective. Most patients start with 1 to 3 sessions weekly for a few weeks, then are gradually able to taper off to less frequent sessions. Periodic maintenance may be recommended, but the schedule will be based on your pet’s condition.
The cost for veterinary acupuncture can vary, depending on who performs it, your pet’s health status, and how complex the medical condition is. The average cost for a single session can range from $50 to over $200. However, many practices offer discounted packages for multiple sessions.
A Marriage Of Art And Science
So is veterinary acupuncture for real?
Many well-respected veterinary experts seem to think so. The American Veterinary Medical Association considers acupuncture a valid mode of treatment in veterinary medicine, and the American Animal Hospital Organization’s pain management guidelines include acupuncture as a complementary procedure for pain management.
What I find most compelling about acupuncture treatment in veterinary medicine is that with animals, there is no placebo effect. Unlike humans, dogs, cats, or horses don’t enter into treatment with any mental or emotional expectations that may skew the results of that treatment. If 75% of treated patients show minor to significant improvement with acupuncture, and consequently their quality of life is improved, in my opinion that’s a successful integration of holistic and western medicine!
Although veterinary acupuncture won’t necessarily cure disease, when used in conjunction with other more traditional medical treatments, it may very well make our pets more comfortable and their conditions more manageable – the very definition of successful treatment.
Has your pet ever been treated with veterinary acupuncture? What was the outcome? Please share your story with us in the comments below!
1 Thank you to Dr. Joanna Paul, DVM from Creature Clinic for this quote.