The History of Veterinary Acupuncture
Acupuncture dates back thousands of years. Sources trace veterinary acupuncture back to ancient Chinese dynasties who first used this modality to treat horses injured in battle. Many believe that acupuncture for dogs traces back centuries as well.
Today acupuncture is used worldwide, on people and animals. In the United States, more and more veterinarians are offering acupuncture as a treatment for a wide variety of conditions.
Studies on Acupuncture
There aren’t many high-level scientific studies about acupuncture on dogs. That said, a large amount of anecdotal evidence exists about acupuncture that cannot, and should not, be ignored.
In addition, many scholarly articles point out that when administered by a certified and experienced practitioner, acupuncture is not harmful. Anecdotal evidence suggests it may help certain conditions, and has no negative consequences.
For those of you who like to read scholarly discussions, here are two studies about acupuncture in dogs that may pique your interest. Research published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal and the Journal of Veterinary Medical Science support the theory that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system, releases pain relieving and calming hormones, improves the removal of toxins, and increases blood flow and oxygenation.
What is acupuncture
Acupuncture, in a nutshell, enables the body to heal itself by unblocking and balancing the energy in the body.
Acupuncture focuses on channels of energy in the dog’s body called meridians. Meridians are “pathways” that run in patterns through the body and over its surface.
Each meridian is associated with an organ or an organ system.
A common analogy used to describe the meridian energy pathway is water flowing in a stream. In a healthy body, water flows freely in all the energy “streams.” The flow of energy, called “Qi” (pronounced “chi”), keeps the body systems in balance.
When the energy flow becomes blocked, it is as if a dam has blocked the stream. Your dog’s energy backs up, just as water backs up in a blocked stream.
Your dog’s energy becomes imbalanced, causing disease in the body.
To restore unblocked energy flow in the body, an acupuncturist places tiny needles into specific points along the meridians associated with the problematic organ or organ system. This process unblocks the pathway and re-establishes the energy flow.
The needles stimulate the release of pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory hormones, and the restored energy circulation enables the dog’s body to use its own healing systems to correct imbalances.
Benefits of Dog Acupuncture
By restoring energy flow in the body, acupuncture for dogs is believed to enhance the function of body systems such as:
- Nervous system
- Cardiovascular system
- Endocrine and immune systems
- Digestive system
Stimulating these systems can result in resolved pain, better sleep, improved digestive function, a heightened sense of well-being, and more.
In the process of researching this article, I came across a book that is filled with anecdotal stories of how acupuncture and other holistic treatments helped animals in this holistic veterinarian’s care. After reading the glowing reviews I ordered a copy, it sounds absolutely fascinating and will be a great way to learn more about the benefits of acupuncture for dogs.
Conditions Treated with Dog Acupuncture
It helps to get a feel for how acupuncture helps dogs. This list gives a brief overview of conditions treated and how acupuncture can help:
- Arthritis: Acupuncture stimulates blood flow and the release of pain-relief hormones, which reduces pain stemming from arthritis and increases joint mobility.
- Anxiety: Acupuncture has a calming effect on the recipient. My dog actually fell asleep during most of his acupuncture treatments despite being very nervous during needle insertion.
Research conducted by Dr. Bruce Pomerantz at the University of Toronto showed that one effect of the acupuncture needle insertion at specific points is the release of endorphins (commonly called “feel-good” hormones) in the brain.
- Cancer: There are very few studies on acupuncture for dogs with cancer, but human studies such as this one on symptom management of postoperative cancer patients show promise. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the benefits for dogs mirror the benefits proven in studies on humans.
Human randomized clinical trials have shown acupuncture improves quality of life and recovery for cancer patients by reducing effects such as chemotherapy-induced nausea/vomiting, chemotherapy-induced leucopenia (low white blood cells), fatigue, dryness of the mouth, anxiety, and insomnia.
- Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD): When I read about acupuncture for IVDD, the anecdotal and study results were impressive. In a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine that compared acupuncture to surgical IVDD treatment, the clinical success rate was 79% for acupuncture patients and 40% for dogs receiving surgical treatment.
The theory for this success is that the acupuncture reduces swelling and pain, which decreases cord compression, scar formation, oxygen deprivation of tissue, and helps restore damaged nerves.
- Aggression: Acupuncture can be part of an integrative treatment plan to treat dog aggression, addressing common causes of aggression such as pain, anxiety, and fear.
My reactive dog was so much calmer after acupuncture; it was amazing. Unfortunately, because his reactivity was partially in response to food and environmental sensitivities, the calm would only last a few days to a week.
- Allergies: When I took my golden retriever in for his severe skin allergies, my acupuncture practitioner told me that allergies are some of her tougher cases. I read this on other practitioner’s websites as well.
That said, many websites talk about the increase in circulation from acupuncture reducing symptoms of skin issues such as dermatitis and hot spots.
- Digestive Relief: Acupuncture can stimulate digestive secretions, helping to normalize digestive activity. It also increases blood flow, helping reduce gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea and nausea.
- Incontinence: Acupuncture is one of the top natural remedies for urinary incontinence in dogs. In Chinese medicine, urinary incontinence is caused by a kidney qi deficiency. In addition to treating the kidney qi deficiency, acupuncture can facilitate the release of substances that strengthen the bladder and rectum muscles.
- Injury Recovery & Rehab: Acupuncture can be an effective treatment during injury recovery and rehabilitation. It helps by increasing blood flow, decreasing inflammation, and stimulating the release of endorphins which reduce pain.
- Strokes: Evidence is mostly anecdotal with some promising preliminary studies; both demonstrate a strong potential for acupuncture in stroke recovery.
- Limping: Acupuncture can reduce inflammation and stimulate the release of pain-reducing endorphins, both which can help a limping/lame dog.
Side effects of Acupuncture for Dogs
Side effects are unusual. Occasionally, the dog may seem worse for up to 48 hours post treatment. Other dogs may be sleepy or lethargic for 24 hours post treatment.
These symptoms can be a sign that physiological changes are happening in the body. They are usually followed by improvements in the dog’s condition.
What is the Cost of Dog Acupuncture?
This will of course differ by clinic. My dog’s acupuncture clinic cost is $130 for the initial appointment, then $80 thereafter. If I combine a chiropractic adjustment the cost may be higher.
When I visited the veterinary acupuncture “expert” at a leading university veterinary clinic, visits were $180.
Did Acupuncture Help My Dogs?
I thought it might be helpful for readers to hear about my experience with acupuncture. The 3 issues I have used dog acupuncture for are reactivity, allergies, and incontinence.
As with any natural health approach, I am learning as I go. Based on past mistakes, the biggest thing I would change going forward is to wait until I have enough money to continue visits for 1-2 months before starting acupuncture, as you have to commit that long to see results in some cases.
Acupuncture for Reactivity
My dog Tico exhibits fear reactivity.
His reactivity triggers include dogs, approaching people, bikes, cars, and far-off movements that he thinks might be dogs, people, bikes, or cars. Sigh.
We started with an acupuncturist at a local vet office, who after repeated treatments referred us to the big-bucks highly regarded acupuncturist at the state university’s veterinary school.
The needle insertion was painful for Tico and he snapped at the acupuncturist sometimes. We had to use a muzzle and a lot of high-value treats to get through each session. Snapping at someone was extremely unusual for him, his reactivity normal consisted of scary barking and nothing more. His snips were a clear sign to me that the needles hurt.
During the sessions, he would fall asleep once the needles were in. It was pretty amazing to watch him go from terrified and snapping when the needles went in to falling asleep 10-20 minutes later.
Tico’s reactivity decreased after each acupuncture treatment, and training was productive during that time period. Unfortunately, within 24-48 hours the benefits would dissipate and he would go back to his normal temperament.
After 9 months, I had to stop for financial reasons. Because Tico’s reactivity is triggered by certain foods and environmental triggers as well, the progress of the acupuncture was constantly reduced.
I do think that in more “normal” reactive dogs (i.e. dogs that aren’t reactive in part based on extreme sensitivity to certain foods and environmental factors) that the effects of the acupuncture would have been long-lasting and beneficial.
Acupuncture for Skin Allergies
I fostered a dog named Moose who suffered nutritional and care neglect in his first 10 years of life. When he came into rescue at age 10, his skin was black and horribly itchy. Over time I had some success reducing his itchiness, but the itchy skin would still periodically flare and make him miserable.
When I took him to the veterinary acupuncturist, she was up front that allergies are among her toughest cases. And since Moose had 10 years of poor nutrition and maltreatment, his issues were more deep-seated and would be tougher yet.
After a month of acupuncture I discontinued treatment, mainly because his other medical issues were a financial drain and I couldn’t afford it all. In hindsight, I wished I would have continued acupuncture another month or two to give it more of a chance… but this is how we learn I guess.
For the rest of his life we managed Moose’s allergies with frequent bathing to rinse off the allergens (this probably had the most beneficial effect), food adjustments, supplements, and medication.
Acupuncture for Urinary Incontinence
I am currently doing acupuncture for my dog Rose, who developed intermittent incontinence at age 11.
After a chiropractic adjustment to release pressure on the nerves controlling her bladder muscles, we began acupuncture.
It was interesting – I knew that possible side effects of acupuncture include worsening symptoms for 24-48 hours, and sure enough, her incontinence got worse for 24 hours, then disappeared.
My veterinary acupuncturist had me do 3 sessions, 2 weeks apart, and now we are on an as-needed basis. Every so often she will start leaking again when she gets up from a nap, and I take her back in for another session.
Finding a Dog Acupuncturist
If you go to a holistic veterinarian, they may have acupuncturists on staff or have a specific practitioner that they recommend. Asking your holistic vet is a great place to start.
If you go to a conventional vet, these websites can help you find a veterinary acupuncturist in your area:
- American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture
- International Veterinary Acupuncture Society
- American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association
- Chi Institute
How Does Pet Acupuncture Work?
When you have an acupuncture appointment, the acupuncturist will examine the dog before they start putting any needles in.
To begin, they will look at your dog’s tongue and take his pulse. Then they will ask numerous questions about your dog, such as what his sleep habits are and if he has eye discharge.
At first you wonder why they are asking such detailed questions about something that doesn’t seem like a big deal. For example: does your dog sleep on cool (tile, wood) floors or does he sleep curled up in a ball? Your answer helps the acupuncturist determine if the dog feels cold or hot.
They combine this information with the details they have noted about the dog’s pulse and the physical condition and look of the tongue.
Once they have gathered all of this data, as well as information about the dog’s current issue, they determine your dog’s body type and which meridians are blocked.
They choose the placement of their needles based on this information.
Ready to Try Dog Acupuncture?
Preliminary studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that the benefits of dog acupuncture are similar to those studied in human acupuncture.
Side effects are rare, and are minimal when they do occur.
The potential for improvement in your dog’s quality of life, as well as longevity, are significant and worthy of consideration.
Have you used acupuncture for your dog? Tell us about your experience in the Comments section below, and let us know how acupuncture helped your dog.