What is Pet Acupuncture?

What is Pet Acupuncture?

Written by: Jacqui Olson, DVM

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 in 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–along with why setting aside an emergency fund for alternative treatments like acupuncture, is something all pet owners should consider. 

History of Acupuncture

First, let’s talk about the history of this increasingly popular treatment modality. 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, Anyway?

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. Several methods are used to stimulate these points:

–Dry needle (just the needle alone), which is the most common form of stimulation

–Electroacupuncture (the needle attached to an electrical lead), which provides a mild current to further stimulate the meridians

–Aquapuncture (the injection of a liquid – usually vitamin B12 – under the skin into the point) 

–Moxibustion (burning the herb Artemesia above the needles to warm them), which provides additional healing properties described in TCM

Similar to Conventional Medicine the success of any TCVM treatment plan lies on 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, as well as information gathered from the animal’s habits, pulse, tongue color, pressure points and many more physical changes. 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 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!)

What is Pet Acupuncture?

How Does Acupuncture Work?

The short answer is: there is no short answer! In general, when we discuss how Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (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. They are all equally important but I’m going to focus on 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 and 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 is Acupuncture Used For in Pets?

Treatment with acupuncture can be performed for virtually any disease! The most well-supported and well-known uses for acupuncture are for treating pain and nerve dysfunction. However, acupuncture can be used to treat skin conditions such as acral lick granulomas, reduce anxieties and other behavioral problems, 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.

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, 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/

CuraCore: https://curacore.org/vet/find-a-practitioner/

IVAS: https://www.ivas.org/vets/

CRI: https://www.caninerehabinstitute.com/Find_A_Therapist.html

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