Updated - Oct 5th, 2021
Animal acupuncture is an ancient therapeutic practice that offers health benefits for animals outside of traditional veterinary medicine.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical therapy that’s grown popular in recent years as a complement to traditional medicine. Mostly used for pain management, acupuncture has been shown through anecdotal evidence to help treat health problems for many dogs and cats.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is one of the therapeutic pillars of Traditional Chinese Medicine. According to Chinese medical philosophy, maintaining a free flow of energy through the body’s energy channels – or meridians – improves your balance and health. When this free flow of energy is disrupted or blocked, you end up with a surplus of energy in one place and a deficiency of energy in another. This can lead to problems like inflammation and illness.
Energy meridians are intersections of nerves and blood vessels at specific points on the body, known as acupuncture points. An acupuncturist inserts very fine, sterilized needles into meridians with blocked or disrupted flows of energy, restoring their balance. By guiding vital energy through the body’s meridians, acupuncture helps the blood circulate and promotes efficient healing.
Beyond this, stimulating the nervous system releases endorphins that relieve pain. It also improves blood flow, increasing the oxygenation of tissues and letting the body expel more metabolic waste.
Many veterinarians find that combining Western Veterinary Medicine (WVM) with Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) allows them to provide the best possible care for our dogs and cats.
Benefits of acupuncture for dogs and cats
Acupuncture is most commonly used for pain management. In fact, pain management guidelines published by the American Animal Hospital Association and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association endorse the use of acupuncture for pain management in dogs and cats. They believe it’s effective and safe when used as an additional treatment resource.
Dogs with hip dysplasia, degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, or some spinal cord conditions can benefit from acupuncture because it relieves chronic pain and can increase their range of motion.
Unlike pain medications – which can affect your dog’s organs – acupuncture has no side effects, which makes it especially helpful as a treatment for pets in poor health. It may also let a veterinarian decrease the amount of pain medication they need to prescribe to help your pet feel comfortable.
Skin problems such as dermatitis – or issues like Lick Granulomas (aka lesions from continuous licking that can expose nerve endings) – can also benefit from acupuncture treatments.
Western medicine should be your first line of defense against cancer, infections, or major diseases. These are serious health problems that may require medications, dietary changes, or surgical procedures to treat. However, issues associated with these problems – such as tissue inflammation, gastrointestinal upset, or decreased appetite – may benefit from acupuncture. The same is true of metabolic or hormonal problems such as Cushing’s disease, hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, Addison’s disease, and liver or kidney disease.
Respiratory issues like allergies and asthma are inflammations caused by pathogens in the respiratory system. Acupuncture therapy can help treat inflammation. It can also help treat anxiety and stress in both dogs and cats – and can even help animals exhibiting trauma in the wake of accidents, as well as animals recovering from surgical procedures. (In some cases, it can also relieve or reduce idiopathic epilepsy in certain dogs and cats.)
What can you expect at an acupuncture session?
Before starting acupuncture therapy, discuss your options with your primary vet. If your vet agrees that acupuncture is a promising treatment option, they’ll refer you to a Certified Veterinarian Acupuncturist with training in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. You may also find resources in your state online at The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society or The American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture.
Prior to your pet’s first acupuncture treatment, your primary veterinarian will send over all the medical information your acupuncturist will need, including lab tests, x-rays, and any current medical treatments. Your acupuncturist will then do an overall health assessment.
Each session will last between 20 and 40 minutes. Most dogs and cats are comfortable with the needle insertions and will relax once the treatment starts. (Some cats will fall asleep!) Your dog or cat may be sore, tired, or stiff after the treatment, but they’ll improve over the next 24-48 hours. Giving them extra water can speed up their recovery.
With acupuncture treatment, your goal is to maintain the greatest improvement in your pet’s welfare over the smallest number of sessions. Some dogs and cats may require 2-3 treatments per week for several weeks. But since the effects of acupuncture are cumulative, your sessions will become less frequent as your pet’s health improves.
Other alternative therapies associated with acupuncture
Acupuncture is the most widely known alternative therapy, but several others are used to help dogs and cats manage their pain.
Acupressure is treatment using pressure instead of needles. The acupuncturist applies pressure to the various acupuncture points.
Laser acupuncture uses lasers instead of needles. This technique removes the pain and discomfort associated with needles and is just as effective.
Electro-acupuncture packs a big punch for pain relief. It involves attaching electrodes to needles, causing them to pulse with small amounts of electricity across the affected area. This procedure stops pain signals from reaching the brain, causing instant relief. It’s often used for dogs and cats with neurological problems that cause their brains to have trouble communicating with their nervous systems.
Aquapuncture is a process in which Vitamin B12 is injected into the acupuncture points. It’s a quick procedure – your pet only needs to sit still for 20-40 minutes – that most animals find painless and free of discomfort.
Can acupuncture work for your cat or dog?
As you can see, acupuncture is effective not only for treating a wide variety of pain issues, but for treating the side effects of chemotherapy and other radiation treatments for cancer. It can also help treat skin problems, illnesses, and behavioral issues like stress and anxiety.
Most dogs and cats tolerate acupuncture well. Many pet parents rave about the benefits their pets have derived from this ancient Chinese medicinal therapy.
Talk to your vet if you think acupuncture will help your dog or cat. It may make your four-legged friend a happier and more comfortable member of your family.