Acupuncture for Pets: Your questions answered

As a holistic veterinarian, I use acupuncture on a daily basis to treat a variety of illnesses in pets. 

For some pets, acupuncture is a miracle treatment that instantly improves their pain, cough, mobility or anxiety. For others, the effect may be more subtle. Owners may report that after a few acupuncture treatments, the animal did something that they had not seen in a long time, such as jump on the bed or play with their toys. And for some pets, acupuncture may not help at all.

Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing which patients will have miracle results versus which will only respond slightly. But because acupuncture is relatively inexpensive and has no negative side effects (it is extremely rare for a pet to get worse after a treatment), it is generally worth trying.

For this post, I decided to compile the list of the most common questions I get asked about acupuncture for pets:

How do pets keep still during an acupuncture treatment?

Surprisingly, most animals tolerate acupuncture needles quite well. They do not need to be sedated (and this is generally not recommended).

The pet owner or technician will hold an animal while the needles are inserted. Some pets, especially small dogs, may be squirmy and this can be a challenge. Some cats may become irritated and twitch their back while the needles are being inserted. However, the vast majority of animals tolerate acupuncture quite well.

Once the needles are inserted, they are kept in place for anywhere between 10 – 20 minutes (some veterinarians may prefer longer treatments). 

Acupuncture for Pets: Your questions answered
Kitty acupuncture in the clinic

In most situations, pet owners will remain with their animal during the duration of the treatment. Some pets will be fidgety while others will fall asleep. Owners can hold their collars or hold small dogs in their laps. Cats will often go into their pet carriers where they can feel safer.

Most pets will leave their needles in place and not bother with them. The needles will bend with the body, and so a pet is able to move around, sit, lay down, etc. However, if they move around too much, the needles may fall out and need to be replaced. 

Some dogs, especially the larger ones, like to do a big “wet dog” shake after the needles are placed, and this may result in flying acupuncture needles. This also requires replacing the needles and placing a hand on pets to keep them from this maneuver.

Is acupuncture painful for my pet?

This depends. 

The acupuncture needles themselves are tiny. Inserting a needle into your skin feels about as painful as plucking a strand of hair.

Acupuncture for Pets: Your questions answered
Small size of acupuncture needle

However, inserting a needle into an actual acupuncture point, (especially a point that needs it) can sometimes be painful. In other words, if you were to poke a needle into your finger tip, the pain would be less than if you stuck a needle into a tender acupuncture point.

A painful acupuncture point can often be a good thing. Inserting the needle results in a release of tension at that point and can cause an overall release of pain in the muscles or the body.

What are acupuncture points? 

Thousands of years ago the Chinese documented specific acupuncture points along the body that perform specific functions in the body. Some relieve pain, some stop a cough, and some are good for nausea.

Science is still debating the significance of acupuncture points. One of the current theories is that acupuncture points are locations on the body where there is a high density of free nerve endings. By putting a needle into that spot, the body releases a whole set of signals that lead to a decrease in pain, or other healing effect.

Recent studies show that the Chinese were onto something, and that where you insert the needle does indeed matter. Using an acupuncture point, versus a “sham acupuncture point” (ie inserting the needle randomly), results in a more profound modulation effect on the body. Receptors will either be up-regulated or down-regulated based on what is needed to reach homeostasis, or a balance in the body.

This means, that inserting a needle into an acupuncture point will create the result that that particular body (person or animal) needs. If there is too much of something (pain, nausea, etc), it will lesson it, and if there is not enough of something, it will increase it. 

Acupuncture for Pets: Your questions answered

How do we know where animals have acupuncture points?

When people ask me this question, they usually mean one of two things: How do I know where to put the needles? And, how do people in general know where animal acupuncture points are located?

I learned how to use acupuncture in animals at a training course called IVAS, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. There are two main schools of Chinese veterinary medicine training and acupuncture in the United States for veterinarians: The Chi Institute and IVAS. The certification training varies, but runs anywhere from 4-6 weeks and includes a final examination and internship training. Besides acupuncture, these schools also offer training in Chinese herbs and chiropractic. 

To answer the other question, the Chinese have been using acupuncture to treat their horses and livestock for thousands of years. Using this information, we extrapolated acupuncture points on small animals such as dogs and cats around 100 years ago.  

What does acupuncture treat in animals?

The most common reason that people seek acupuncture for their pets is to treat pain and arthritis. Acupuncture can definitely help these animals, however, the effects do tend to wear off and are not always permanent. 

For pet owners who have both the time and the financial resources, bi-weekly acupuncture treatments can significantly improve the quality of life for older pets. A large number of patients that I see on a regular basis receive treatments for their arthritis.

The second most common condition that I treat with acupuncture is intervertebral disc disease. There are many names for this, such as “a slipped disc” or a “pinched nerve” or “back pain.”  When disc material moves and impinges on the spinal cord, this can create intense back pain or even paralysis in some animals. Acupuncture, along with pain medications and other treatments can be effective at decreasing pain or helping animals to regain mobility.

Acupuncture is also effective at treating anxiety. While it does not work for every patient, the animals that do respond, can have quite dramatic improvements. The nice thing about treating anxiety with acupuncture is that the effects are often long-lasting, if not permanent in some cases.

Likely using a similar mechanism, acupuncture is effective at treating vomiting and digestive issues that are due to emotional stress. I have also seen acupuncture completely eliminate a chronic cough in older animal patients.

Acupuncture for Pets: Your questions answered

Acupuncture is a very useful tool to have when it comes to treating animals. It is very safe and well tolerated.

Hopefully this post answered some of your questions and I look forward to sharing more details about how I use acupuncture in my patients in future posts!

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