This Vet’s Opinion: Acupuncture Actually Works on Pets

And it’s not all pins and needles — in fact, this age-old alternative therapy is about to go high-tech.

By: Monika Wisniewska
Acupuncture can help quell the pain of your pet’s arthritis or symptoms stemming from other ailments, such as liver disease. By: Monika Wisniewska

I’ve seen cases (both animal and human) that responded well to acupuncture. Specifically, I’m thinking of an elderly rottweiler called Penny, who was crippled by arthritis. But her sunny temperament had earned her humans’ devotion and, desperate to improve her quality of life, they decided to try acupuncture.

After acupuncture, Penny didn’t start running around like a puppy, but she did get up and move around, whereas before she would just flop onto the floor — and stay flopped. And her folks insisted she was brighter at home than she’d been in a long while.

But if I’m to be true to science, I have to disregard what I’ve seen anecdotally. And what makes me prepared to accept that there is a place for pet acupuncture is the evidence provided by MRI scanners.

Evidence for Acupuncture Effectiveness

Take an ancient therapy like acupuncture that’s been around since 3000 B.C. and subject it to modern scientific analysis. How will it stand up to inspection?

Very well, actually.

While the theory behind acupuncture sounds a bit hocus-pocus to my jaded ear, the amazing thing is that there is some truth in it. Scientists investigating acupuncture studied patients in an MRI scanner. What they found was that acupuncture needles created actual changes in the brains and nerves of the patients.

For example, they found that the treatment made it easier for messages to pass along the nerve stimulated by the needle and for feel-good hormones (endorphins) to be released from the pituitary gland in the brain.

These scientists also found that acupuncture made it more difficult for pain messages to pass along some nerves. In other words, it gave pain relief. This means acupuncture isn’t about the placebo effect or wanting to believe it’s helping — it actually inhibits pain and helps the patient feel better.

Evidence shows that acupuncture can provide effective pain relief. By: markhillary

How Does It Work?

Let’s take a look at the traditional theory of how acupuncture works.

The ancients believed that points on the surface of the body are linked to the organs by energy lines called meridians (like a landline telephone connected to the telephone exchange by a wire).

In practical terms, this means if a dog has liver disease, stimulating the meridian point on the body’s surface joined to the liver produces changes in that organ.

The Benefits of Acupuncture

So what are those changes, and how can they benefit your pet? Again, let’s ask modern science to step in. Studies looking at the benefits of acupuncture are adding up nicely, and the list of helpful actions is growing as well.

To date, it’s believed that acupuncture provides pain relief by encouraging the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers. In addition, it stimulates the immune system, mobilizing white cells to fight off infection. Plus, it helps reduce inflammation.

What Can Acupuncture Treat?

If you have a sore dog with arthritis, then acupuncture could be a good treatment to add to his existing regime. It may not provide sufficient pain relief on its own — so don’t ditch the prescription medications just yet — but there is a real possibility it will decrease the dose he needs to take.

But acupuncture isn’t just for treating joint pain and arthritis. It can helps sprains and strains, neck and back pain, stimulate the liver and kidneys, relieve constipation, alleviate allergies and increase energy levels. You name it, acupuncture is said to help.

Watch this dog receive acupuncture therapy for sudden paralysis:

Acupuncture in the Future

Think of acupuncture, and you think of fine needles bristling out of a patient like spines on a porcupine. Indeed, the effectiveness of the treatment depends on hitting the right trigger point, how long the needle is left in place and how much stimulation is applied to the needle (such as a gentle rotating movement).

If the thought of needles puts you off, be aware that animals tolerate the needle placement exceedingly well, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. Many cats and dogs seem to find acupuncture actively relaxing.

But it looks like laser acupuncture is about to steal the limelight. Studies run on people (rather than animals, for a change) show laser stimulation of the trigger points is just as effective as physical needles. This makes laser acupuncture truly a blend of ancient and modern therapies — and anything that is shown to benefit our pets has to be good.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats and a bearded dragon.

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