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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 named 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.

Her folks insisted she was brighter at home than she’d been in a long while.

An Unconventional Blend

Acupuncture for pets is steadily increasing, according to Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM, author of Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live.

Perhaps people are realizing, as he puts it, that “no one form of medicine has all the answers. We must look at the individual needs of each animal. Sometimes the best answer is medication; sometimes it’s surgery; sometimes it’s acupuncture; sometimes it’s a blend.”

But if I’m to be true to science, I have to disregard what I’ve seen anecdotally with Penny the Rottweiler and other pets.

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 their 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:

YouTube player

Acupuncture in Pets

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.

Acupuncturist Becca Seltz explains that cats and dogs don’t experience any pain from the needles. They feel an unfamiliar sensation, yes, but that’s it. So she doesn’t anesthetize them beforehand.

Nor does she believe in restraining her patients.

“My feeling is that restraining the animal undoes many of the benefits of acupuncture,” she says. “Animals are very sensitive. When they are restrained, it causes them to tense.”

Seltz tells the story of a cat who had suffered from constipation since kittenhood. “It always involved lots of enemas and stool softeners,” the acupuncturist says. “She started seeing me for acupuncture, and after 2 weeks her constipation completely resolved.”

Cats, she says, are surprisingly relaxed about acupuncture. Many even fall asleep during their sessions.

Acupuncture is not an overnight remedy — you wouldn’t really trust it if it was, would you? But people do claim positive changes in their pets.

By: Arthur40A
Can acupuncture help your cat? By: Arthur40A

Acupuncture in the Future

Now, 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. Writer T.J. Banks contributed to this article. It was last reviewed and updated May 19, 2019.