If your pet is experiencing symptoms like separation anxiety, arthritis pain, vomiting, or allergies, you may be wondering about “alternative” treatments for your pet. The most effective and well-studied holistic therapy for pets is acupuncture – which can improve your pet’s quality of life and overall health!
Many pet owners have questions about acupuncture. What is it? How does it work? Is there any scientific benefit to acupuncture? What is involved in a typical acupuncture session?
Read on for answers to all of these questions.
History of Acupuncture
Acupuncture is one of five parts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The practice of acupuncture on people and horses began approximately 3,000 years ago in China. Treating pet dogs and cats with acupuncture began approximately 100 years ago – which is still much longer than we have been using many of our Western therapies!
Interest in acupuncture (both human and veterinary) in the United States grew significantly in the 1970s, spurring the National Institute of Health (NIH) to sponsor research into the benefits of human acupuncture. Ultimately, the NIH released a consensus statement highlighting the promising future of acupuncture use in human medicine.
What Is Acupuncture?
Simply put, acupuncture is the insertion of tiny, thin needles into specific points on the body called “acupoints.” These acupoints are related to each other and connected by Meridians or Channels, which are located under the skin. These points are thought to be areas that, when punctured, relieve stress or pain.
Several methods are used to stimulate these points:
- Dry needle: This is the use of needle insertion alone, which is the most common form of stimulation.
- Electroacupuncture: This is when the needle is attached to an electrical lead that provides a mild current to further stimulate the meridians.
- Aquapuncture: This is the injection of a liquid (usually vitamin B12) under the skin into the point.
- Moxibustion: This is when you burn the herb Artemesia above the needles to warm them, which provides additional healing properties described in TCM.
Alternative Therapies: How To Get Started
Similar to Conventional Medicine, the success of any Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) treatment plan lies in the correct diagnosis. While your family veterinarian may have diagnosed your pet with “arthritis” or “intervertebral disc disease,” a TCVM diagnosis will be based on a more complex classification that includes any outward symptoms.
A TCVM vet might gather information from the animal’s habits, pulse, tongue color, pressure points, and many more physical changes in order to determine a diagnosis. This is called the Bian Zheng or pattern diagnosis. This may explain why one patient responds to conventional treatment while another pet with the exact same symptoms and disease does not!
Based on assessment of your pet’s diagnosis, your TCVM veterinarian then selects “points” for treatment. Some points have local effects – for example, in treating pain related to a torn cruciate ligament in the knee, the acupuncturist may select a specific point named ST35, which is located at the knee next to the tendon of the knee cap. Other points are distant from the site of disease and are selected based on relation to the Meridian that the problem lies along or a relationship with the organ system involved.
Some acupuncture points have specific actions and can be used as symptomatic treatments as well. For example, the acupoint GV14 located where the neck meets the torso on the top of the back is useful for reducing fever.
A nearby acupoint is used to help stop coughing. One of the most studied points is PC6, located on the inner forelimb above the wrist, which is very effective at preventing nausea. (You may be familiar with the wristbands that help with motion sickness in people!)
How Does Acupuncture Work?
The short answer is: there is no short answer! In general, when we discuss how TCVM works, there are two explanations: Western and Eastern.
The Eastern explanation is rooted in several principles. The most basic principle is something that may sound familiar: Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang represent the naturally occurring dichotomy in nature. Hot and Cold, Man and Woman, Day and Night, Excess and Deficiency are some examples you may be familiar with, but there are infinitely more!
Each half of a dichotomy is the polar opposite of the other, but one half cannot exist without its opposite. We only know what cold is because we’ve experienced hot, for example! Likewise, there is no night without day. What’s more: nothing is ever 100% Yin or 100% Yang.
Under this philosophy, the interactions and flow between Yin and Yang create harmony and health. Disease then occurs during periods of disharmony.
Another basic principle is the Five Treasures Theory. The Five Treasures are Jing (or congenital essence — basically DNA), Shen (the mind/spirit/psyche), Body Fluid (tears, urine, sweat, saliva, intestinal fluid, etc.), Blood, and lastly, Qi.
You can think of Qi as the electrochemical communications throughout the cells of your body. Qi is what gives life to our bodies, and where there is no Qi, there is no life. No, we’re not discussing philosophy — Qi directly refers to that intangible bioelectric force that animates living beings.
Qi flows through the Meridians in TCVM. Disease or pain occurs when Qi cannot flow properly. Think of when you have a pinched nerve: Your leg becomes painful, tingly, and you can’t move it as well. Alleviating this pinching can then allow your body to restore itself to a state of health. Something similar happens when the flow of Qi is restored.
In Western Medicine, we tend to rely on a process called evidence-based medicine that seeks to prove theories through research. Fortunately, there have been numerous studies proving the effects of acupuncture.
Through this scientific research, we are learning that there are many complex biological mechanisms of action to explain the beneficial effects we see from acupuncture. Acupuncture stimulates a series of interactions between the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems.
It has been proven to :
- Increase blood flow
- Reduce inflammation
- Strengthen the immune system
- Improve muscle relaxation
- Stimulate nerves
- Release stem cells
- Stimulate endogenous opioids (natural painkillers)
- Release serotonin (the “feel good” hormone)
Because of this research, Western science has validated the use of acupuncture as a beneficial treatment for many different types of medical conditions.
What Can Acupuncture Do for Pets?
Treatment with acupuncture can be performed for virtually any disease! The most well-supported and well-known uses of acupuncture are for pain management and pain relief.
This alternative therapy can help to regulate nervous systems and the musculoskeletal system. Acupuncture can be used to treat skin conditions such as acral lick granulomas, reduce anxieties and other behavioral problems, relieve pain from hip dysplasia, gastrointestinal tract disorders like IBD and vomiting, kidney disease, and cancer.
Additionally, acupuncture can be done concurrently with the conventional therapies for all of these diseases so our pets can benefit from both Western and Eastern Medicine to live longer, healthier, and happier lives.
Conditions That Could Benefit From Acupuncture
There are some conditions that are used more frequently than others when it comes to pet acupuncture. If your dog suffers from the following, they might be a good candidate to try acupuncture treatment:
- Arthritis: Acupuncture helps your dog’s body to release endorphins which can alleviate pain from arthritis. Depending on how well this pain relieving technique works for your dog, your DVM might take them off some pain medications.
- Cancer: Acupuncture stimulates blood flow and naturally improves the body’s ability to heal itself. This can help alleviate pain from cancer treatment or medications used to treat unwanted symptoms.
- Degenerative Joint Disease: If your pet is beginning to struggle with joint mobility, acupuncture might help to support flexibility and decrease tension to help them move better.
- Trauma: If your dog is suffering from pain caused by some sort of trauma, acupuncture can be used to pinpoint the spots that hurt and try to help alleviate chronic pain.
- Metabolic Diseases: Acupuncture is known to help regulate the endocrine system and relieve oxidative stress. This can help to increase blood circulation and help eliminate toxins inside the body.
Before you decide to move forward with acupuncture for your pet, you should always consult with their licensed veterinarian to discuss the benefits and any potential side effects (though there aren’t really any).
Is Acupuncture Safe?
Acupuncture is considered very safe! There are virtually no side effects when acupuncture is performed by a trained professional. The needles are extremely thin (typically smaller than the needles used to give vaccines), sterile, and single-use only for your pet’s comfort and safety.
Some animals notice the prick as the needle is inserted, but most do not mind the process. In fact, quite a few even fall asleep during an acupuncture session! Some animals experience fatigue the day of or the day after their acupuncture treatment, but otherwise, no significant side effects have been detected after years of study.
Do All Veterinarians Perform Acupuncture?
Veterinarians can become trained and certified in acupuncture through several schools, including Chi University, CuraCore, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS), and the Canine Rehabilitation Institute (CRI). The classes can take anywhere from months to years to complete. In addition to acupuncture, some veterinarians become certified in herbal medicine, Tui-Na, and Chinese food therapy to help their patients heal.
If you think your pet may benefit from animal acupuncture therapy, discuss this with your family veterinarian! Since not all veterinarians are trained in veterinary acupuncture treatment, your family veterinarian may refer you to a local practitioner who offers this treatment.
You can also look up practitioners on the websites of the individual acupuncture schools:
Chi University: https://www.tcvm.net/
What To Expect From the Procedure
Before you can be treated with acupuncture, your veterinarian will discuss your treatment options before recommending you to a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist with training in TCVM. Any information that is beneficial to understanding your pet’s issue will be sent over to the acupuncturist before the consultation, and during the consultation, any concerns should be voiced.
At the consultation, your dog might undergo blood work, lab testing, and x-rays to determine where the issue is. Once the acupuncturist has determined what the issue is and where the best points to be punctured are, you can go forward with the treatment. These sessions will last anywhere between 20 minutes and one hour.
While your dog might notice the prick of the needle as it’s being inserted, afterward, it can be fairly relaxing. Some animals even fall asleep during the procedure, which is totally okay. It should be a relaxing and comforting experience.
After the procedure is over, your dog might be a little sore and tired. You will want to allow them to rest up and drink plenty of water for the next day. Every dog is different and will be treated specifically based on their needs.
Some dogs might need several treatments a week or just a few a month to help keep them feeling healthy and happy. This is something that your acupuncturist will be able to discuss with you before starting the treatment.
Get to the Point With AskVet
No one expects you to be an expert when it comes to acupuncture, let alone for your pet (unless you literally are one). It can be scary to think about sticking needles into your beloved pup, but it’s painless and does a lot of good for your pet’s health and wellness.
Acupuncture is often where people end up when other pain medications and treatment methods aren’t relieving their pet as much as they hoped for. It’s not a “last ditch effort,” but it might not be the first thing you think of. In fact, you might want to bring it up with your vet at your next check-up.
If you have more questions about pet acupuncture, consider signing up with AskVet. Here, pet parents have 24/7 access to Certified Pet Lifestyle Coaches™, who can provide you with answers to any questions you might have – related to acupuncture or not. With this kind of access, you don’t have to worry when you have a question in the middle of the night.
AskVet’s goal is to provide you with quality care and answers so that you don’t have to spend any more time worrying about your pet than you already have. Plus, we don’t just have answers for cats and dogs — we include care for all (ranging from hamsters to snakes). Join for just $9.99/month and feel a sense of ease the next time you need some reassurance.