Stuns Veterinarians, Relieves Pain Without Side Effects

dog acupuncture

Story at-a-glance -

  • Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing art that is growing in popularity among veterinarians for its ability to help treat pain and other conditions in pets
  • For pain relief, acupuncture can be just as effective as opiates, without the side effects
  • Acupuncture is also beneficial in treating veterinary patients with intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), seizures and cancer
  • Other conditions that respond well to acupuncture treatments include hip dysplasia and arthritis
  • Treatments should be performed by a trained, experienced and licensed veterinary acupuncturist

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Acupuncture for pets is often viewed as a trendy treatment, but the truth is it's hardly a new science. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing art that has been practiced for thousands of years, though it's been slow to take hold in Western medicine.

Simply put, acupuncture is the act of inserting small needles in certain parts of the body. The needles can also be augmented with gentle currents of electricity, medication (or vitamins), or burning herbs. And while acupuncture seems as though it should be painful, it usually isn't. In fact, most pets tolerate it quite well, with some even dozing off during treatments!

As long as treatments are performed by a trained and experienced veterinarian, it's a safe procedure in which side effects and complications are rare.

Acupuncture and Pain Relief

Research has shown that acupuncture triggers the release of hormones, increases blood circulation, stimulates nerves, relieves muscle spasms and more, and there's growing interest in its ability to help relieve pain and other conditions in pets.

"Acupuncture can be used to treat many conditions," explains veterinarian Dr. Daniel Eckman of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, "including pain, skin disorders, and problems in the liver, kidney, heart, respiratory system, nervous system, gastrointestinal, ocular, urinary tract and reproductive system."1

Acupuncture can also be beneficial for anxiety disorders and pain management.

"Acupuncture is great to use for pain control," says Eckman. "Recent studies have shown that acupuncture can be equally as effective as opiates but with no addictive side effects."

Corpus Christi, Texas veterinarian Dr. Carie Allred uses acupuncture primarily as a pain relief tool, especially for patients with back pain. She also uses it in animals with neurological damage to help stimulate peripheral nerves in the spinal cord. Allred says she sees big improvements after performing acupuncture treatments:

"Sometimes it surprises me how successful it can be, and certainly when I first started doing acupuncture, I was surprised time and again when we would get feedback from the client saying that their pet was much improved with just one session or two sessions."2

Allred also likes acupuncture because there are no negative side effects, unlike pain medications. "This is a really good way of improving quality of life," she says, especially in patients for whom other approaches haven't worked.

Acupuncture and Intervertebral Disc Disease

A spinal cord disease commonly seen in pets, especially dogs, is intervertebral disc disease (IVDD). Intervertebral discs are cushioning pads of fibrocartilage that sit between most of the vertebra of the spinal column.

The discs have an outer layer of tough fibrous tissue and a center that is more of a gel-like substance. They act as shock absorbers for the bones called vertebra in the spinal column. Unfortunately, intervertebral discs are subject to degeneration, bulging outward, and even bursting or rupturing.

When something goes wrong with a disc, the material inside escapes into the spinal column, pressing against the spinal cord or nerve roots, which causes pain, nerve damage and sometimes, paralysis. This is the condition known as intervertebral disc disease or IVDD. Acupuncture and electroacupuncture, which sends a microcurrent of electricity to and from acupuncture points (which are really big nerve bundles), can be very beneficial at helping to re-establish the nerve connections in pets with IVDD.

In a study of 40 dogs with long-standing clinical signs of severe neurologic disease attributable to IVDD, researchers compared the effects of surgery alone, electroacupuncture alone and surgery followed by electroacupuncture.3 The results showed that treatment success was significantly higher for the electroacupuncture-only dogs than the surgery-only dogs (79 percent versus 40 percent). The dogs treated with both surgery and electroacupuncture had a 73 percent success rate.

In another study, a dog who could no longer walk due to intervertebral disc disease recovered mobility after 15 days of treatment with only electroacupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.4

The patient showed marked improvement after just 10 treatments, and over the next six months, he remained stable and had no recurrence of symptoms. The researchers concluded the combination of electroacupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine was responsible for the dog's recovered ability to walk.

Thankfully, cats suffer less from IVDD than dogs. However, they do acquire spinal cord injuries, and respond just as positively to acupuncture treatments. This is one of my feline patients, Guido, receiving acupuncture for IVDD:

cat acupuncture

Acupuncture and Seizures

In a small University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital study, researchers examined the effectiveness of acupuncture in five seizuring dogs, and found the treatment significantly decreased the incidence of seizures in a majority of the dogs.5

The dogs received acupuncture with three small gold implants6 placed over three acupuncture points on the body. Following treatment, all five showed a change in seizure patterns. Two had a decrease in seizure frequency, but continued to take seizure medication. Sadly, the benefits of treatment in these dogs only lasted five months.

The other three dogs experienced a decreased number of seizures and were able to take reduced dosages of anticonvulsant medications. I have found that traditional acupuncture (no gold bead implants) provides more lasting results for my seizure patients. It's possible that scar tissue forms around the gold beads over time, hindering a long-term beneficial response.

Acupuncture for Cancer Patients and Pets in Hospice

In humans, research has definitively confirmed the value of acupuncture in alleviating chemotherapy-induced nausea as well as postoperative pain after tumor removal.7 Some veterinary oncologists believe that based on human studies, acupuncture can be beneficial in veterinary cancer patients as well.8

Acupuncture may prove helpful in alleviating the severity and duration of the side effects of traditional cancer treatments. Since acupuncture increases endorphin levels and helps reduce nausea, it may also benefit canine cancer patients with gastroenteritis, poor appetite and generalized pain.

Veterinarians who care for hospice patients, like the wonderful Dr. Ella Bittel, use acupuncture to relieve pain and improve mobility in aging dogs and dogs at the end of their lives.

Additional Conditions That Benefit From Acupuncture

In the integrative veterinary community, and also increasingly among traditional vets, there's a growing body of documented cases of animals with full or partial paralysis recovering their ability to walk. Even dogs that have lost deep pain perception, which is considered an indicator of a poor outcome, have regained motor function.9

Many spinal cord-injured animal patients whose guardians wouldn't or couldn't consider surgery or euthanasia are up and moving around comfortably.

Veterinary acupuncture is beneficial for small animals like dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets, as well as in large animal medicine for use with cows, horses — even exotics and zoo animals like camels, elephants, alligators and even penguins. A partial list of conditions proven to respond to veterinary acupuncture includes:

Hip dysplasia

Reproductive problems

Traumatic nerve injuries

Seizures/epilepsy

Degenerative joint disease

Endocrine disorders

Lick granulomas

Asthma

Arthritis

Immune function

Allergic skin conditions

Systemic inflammatory conditions

Spinal cord disease

Performance

If You're Considering Acupuncture for Your Dog

There are many different acupuncture techniques, and each veterinary acupuncturist performs the treatment a little differently. The amount of time the needles are left in your pet's body, the needling technique and the acupuncture points used should be based on the specific condition being treated.

My advice is to find an acupuncturist you are comfortable with who has received formal training, and is licensed (this is extremely important). The success of acupuncture depends on the practitioner's skill level, the duration and intensity of the condition being treated, and the number, length and consistency of treatments.

Statistically, about 25 percent of patients have an amazing response to acupuncture, with major improvement shown up to and including full recovery. Another 50 percent of animals experience dramatic improvement, but there are still some symptoms present. The remaining 25 percent have little to no response.