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Dog Tip: Acupuncture for Companion Animals

By Robin Tierney

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Acupuncture and how it works
Acupuncture principles
Acupuncture for companion animals
Gold bead therapy
Chiropractic for companion animals
Related Resources

Acupuncture and how it works:

The following includes information from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) of the National Institutes of Health.

Acupuncture originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest medical procedures in the world. Interestingly, it's also among the most commonly used, and increasingly so as an adjunct to Western-style medicine.

The term acupuncture connotes procedures involving stimulation of anatomical points on the body by a variety of techniques. These anatomical points are often referred to as acupoints or acupuncture points.

Most acupuncture points are located at the site of major nerve bundles and blood vessels. By inserting needles, nerves are activated with the intention of spurring a healing reaction resulting from invigorated circulation, which releases anti-inflammatory chemicals and natural painkillers. The needles may be rotated, raised and lowered, and/or kept stationary during treatments.

The acupuncture technique that has been most studied scientifically involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the hands or by electrical stimulation. The needles are to be sterilized.

Typically, most patients feel no pain, or minimal pain, as the hair-thin needles are inserted. Some individuals are energized by treatment, while others feel relaxed. Improper needle placement, movement of the patient, or a defect in the needle can cause soreness during treatment. Relatively few complications are reported, but some arise from inadequate sterilization of needles and improper delivery of treatment. Thus, it is important to seek treatment from a qualified acupuncture practitioner.

A 1997 conference report from the National Institutes of Health stated that acupuncture is being used for pain relief and other health conditions by thousands of U.S. physicians, dentists, acupuncturists, and other practitioners. That includes veterinary medicine practitioners.

Acupuncture principles:

Acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In the TCM system of medicine, the body is seen as a delicate balance of two opposing and inseparable forces: yin and yang. Yin represents the cold, slow, or passive principle, while yang represents the hot, excited, or active principle.

Among the major assumptions in TCM are that health is achieved by maintaining the body in a "balanced state" and that disease is due to an internal imbalance of yin and yang. This imbalance leads to blockage in the flow of qi - vital life energy - along pathways known as meridians. Qi is thought to provide immunity to disease, channel toxins from the body, repair physiological damage, and dissipate negative emotions. The meridian network is said to consist of 12 main meridians and 8 secondary meridians, and that more than 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body connect with them.

Disease and pain arise when qi, the harmonious flow of life energy, is impeded along the meridian (also called track). Qi can be disrupted by injury, illness or trauma. Healthy bodies are able to cope with interruptions in the balance of Qi , readily restoring the dynamic equilibrium. For beings who are not in optimal health, acupuncture specialists strive to manipulate blood flow and restore the energy flow by inserting thin needles at certain points along the meridian or energy path.

Substantial focus is placed on the body's organs (heart, kidneys, spleen), their function and dysfunction in the diagnosis of problems and development of treatment plans.

Acupuncture is thought to produce its effects through regulating the nervous system, thus aiding the activity of painkilling biochemicals such as endorphins and immune system cells at specific sites in the body. In addition, studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones and, thus, affecting the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes that regulate blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature.

Acupuncture for companion animals:

In 1996, the AVMA formally recommended that acupuncture be an integral part of veterinary medicine. For companion animals and humans, many report acupuncture to be effective as a primary or adjunct treatment for various conditions, from spinal injuries to musculo-skeletal disorders, reproductive issues and neurological problems. It has been used for treating chronic conditions that less-responsive to conventional medicine, including skin diseases and problems, arthritis pain, allergies, asthma and other noninfectious inflammation, and gastrointestinal disorders. Some animal guardians turn to acupuncture and/or other holistic treatments when conventional medicine has failed.

According to Donna Kelleher, DVM, a Seattle veterinarian specializing in acupuncture and other forms of complementary medicine, acupuncture is a well-documented method to controlling pain by releasing neurotransmitters and hormones, and affects gastric motility, liver, and kidney function.

Ask your acupuncture specialist to explain the treatment and the likelihood of success for you animal's condition or disease. You can check via the internet and other sources for studies on the effectiveness of acupuncture for a particular health condition. Also let your regular vet know about any treatment you are using or considering, including acupuncture.

While most treatments go smoothly, be aware of the risks, which include:

  • Penetration of an organ or blood vessel
  • Infection from unsterilized needles
  • An underlying serious illness or disease could be overlooked or misdiagnosed.
To reduce the risks and improve the chances of success, choose only an experienced, licensed veterinarian who has completed at least 120 hours of formal training in animal acupuncture. In addition:
  • Choose a veterinary acupuncturist with whom you feel comfortable and who answers your questions.
  • Expect the acupuncturist to give your animal a thorough examination before developing a treatment plan. Typically, x-rays are taken. You should be asked specific questions about your animal's behavior, eating habits, water intake, elimination frequency, medical history, and of course, all changes in behavior and habits.
  • Ask specifically what the treatments will involve, along with benefits and risks.
  • Request information on the use of the particular treatment for the individual condition, and its record of success.
  • Ask how long the needles will remain inserted. For some treatments, it may be just 30 seconds; for others, it may be as long as 30 minutes. Your veterinary acupuncturist should share a plan outlining the estimated number and frequency of treatments. A limited, acute condition, such as a sprain, may require just a single session, while chronic conditions will require multiple treatments. Treatment intervals can vary quite a bit - for example, one to four sessions a week for four to six weeks. Often, initial treatments are given at greater frequency, and then treatments taper off as improvements become evident. Typically, the acupuncturist will scale back on treatments with the goal of extending the duration of the animal's symptom-free periods.
  • Stay with your pet during all of the treatments.
  • Typically, when acupuncture is performed by a good specialist, the animal appears calm and not in any pain.
  • Observe your pet following treatment. Be prepared for the possibility of the condition worsening for a day or two after treatment, and a day of fatigue. Such temporary effects can result from the physiological changes occurring in the animal's body.
  • Signs of a successful response to acupuncture include the subsiding of symptoms, as well as increased energy and vitality, more consistent eating, and more restful sleeping. Share progress with your specialist. And do not hesitate to contact him or her with any concerns.
  • Realize that treatment is likely to involve more than one acupuncture session, and that it may take days or even weeks for benefits to become apparent. However, if several visits do not yield visible improvement, the treatments may not be working - indicating it is time to move on to some other form of treatment.
Gold bead therapy:

A related therapy involves the use of gold beads. According to Dr. Kelleher, these are implanted into key acupuncture points, permanently stimulate the acupuncture sites and offer a relatively safe, drug-free alternative for treating many severe, otherwise degenerative conditions including degenerative myelopathy, severe spondylosis ("back arthritis"), hip dysplasia, elbow or knee arthritis, and epilepsy. The implants points are chosen based on the medical condition and the individual animal.

Chiropractic for companion animals:

Chiropractic involves musculo-skeletal manipulations and adjustments. This healing art has been practices for thousands of years, and the techniques are continually being refined as practitioners' knowledge grows.

Chiropractic strives to improve operation of the nervous system through physical manipulations, addressing conditions arranging from pain to crooked spines. Typically, drugs are not used, thus avoiding the potential side effects associated with potent drugs. For example, spinal nerves exiting the spinal cord form spaces in between each vertebra, and then feed into all organs of the body. When nerve impulses are disrupted, organ dysfunction and digestive disturbances can result.

According to Dr. Kelleher, who is also the author of "The Last Chance Dog", the chiropractor restores normal range of motion and releases pressure from pinched nerves, surrounding ligaments and musculature. These adjustments should not hurt animals, and in fact most animals find great comfort in the relief of pain. There are ways to restore normal vertebra position without using a controlled thrust or typical "adjustment", and some animals benefit from gentle massage techniques that restore normal spinal health.

Related Resources:


Case studies in the use of acupuncture and other holistic medicine techniques on Dr. Donna Kelleher's website

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health report

Pets on Pins and Needles

Holistic Health Tips

Touch Therapies

Flower Essences and Essential Oils

Vaccination and Vaccinosis


American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncturists

International Veterinary Acupuncture Service including Certified Veterinary Acupuncturists locator

American Veterinary Chiropractic Association

American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association

Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine (AltVetMed)

The information in this tipsheet is not intended to be a substitute for veterinary care.


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Last Updated: April 23, 2018 (LET) PawSupport