Helps Vanquish Pet Anxiety and Pain, No Risky Pills Needed

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

acupuncture for dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Acupuncture continues to gain acceptance among veterinarians, and has been shown to help a wide variety of canine diseases and disorders
  • Many practitioners use acupuncture to provide relief for dogs with painful conditions — without the side effects of opioids
  • Veterinarians are also finding that acupuncture in conjunction with other treatment modalities and behavior modification can help dogs with anxiety disorders

Acupuncture for pets is slowing gaining acceptance within the veterinary community. Despite the reluctance of conventional veterinarians to embrace it, it's hardly a passing fad. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing art that has been practiced for thousands of years.

Two Slightly Different Perspectives on Acupuncture

There's a difference in the way Eastern and Western medicine explains how acupuncture works. The Western viewpoint is that we are electrical beings — our brains and spinal cords are wired with electrical or nerve-based synapses. The nerves are connected by nerve bundles, which are used as acupuncture points.

The bioelectricity that travels through the nerves of the body can be controlled to some degree by inserting a metal needle (metal conducts electricity) into nerve bundles. Insertion of an acupuncture needle into a nerve bundle is the equivalent of plugging into an electrical outlet in your home to bring electricity to a specific appliance or electronic device.

Acupuncture has the ability to reroute bioelectricity to different parts of the body, allowing for modulation of the neuro-electrical system with a metal needle.

The Eastern explanation is that this bioelectricity, called Qi (alternate spelling is chi, pronounced "chee"), is the body's vital energy force. Qi flows along nerve pathways called meridians. In Eastern medicine there are 12 major meridians in the body and 365 acupuncture points (nerve bundles).

By guiding the flow of Qi or energy around the body through the use of metal needles, acupuncturists can help reduce inflammation, block pain, improve organ function and balance the body's energy systems.

Canine Disorders That Respond to Acupuncture

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

Acupuncture for Pain Relief

One of the most widespread uses of acupuncture in veterinary medicine is in alleviating the pain that accompanies a wide variety of diseases and disorders. 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 & Biomedical Sciences, "including pain, skin disorders, and problems in the liver, kidney, heart, respiratory system, nervous system, gastrointestinal, ocular, urinary tract and reproductive system."

Acupuncture is great to use for pain control. Recent studies have shown that acupuncture can be equally as effective as opiates but with no addictive side effects."1

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.

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Acupuncture to Treat Anxiety in Dogs

Increasingly, veterinary acupuncturists are using the technique to treat anxiety in dogs. Estimates are that about 30% of dogs show signs of anxiety, and there's evidence that the stress of living with a fear or anxiety disorder can have negative effects on the health and lifespan of your dog.

When dogs feel anxious, their bodies release an excessive amount of norepinephrine, the fight or flight hormone, which has the potential to alter gut bacteria and interfere with gastrointestinal (GI) tract motility.3 This flood of norepinephrine can result in physical symptoms like diarrhea.

In humans, dogs and other animals, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is comprised of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Information is received from the body and external environment and either the SNS responds by sending excitatory signals, or the PNS responds with relaxation signals.

As you might expect, your dog's body reacts very differently to these two types of signals. If excitatory signals are received from the SNS, the response is an increase in heart rate; if the PNS is signaling, the result is a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate. According to the website Evidence Based Acupuncture,4 studies in humans show acupuncture has an effect on both SNS and PNS signaling.

For example, one of the most important measures of our ability to cope with stress is called heart rate variability (HRV). A higher HRV is associated with better overall health, including mental health and low levels of anxiety. Acupuncture has been shown to improve HRV and therefore the body's ability to manage stress effectively.

In addition, when we're under stress, the brain's hypothalamus releases neurochemicals, and research shows that acupuncture can calm this response. Acupuncture also increases the release of endorphins, the body's "feel good" hormones that play a significant role in regulating physical and emotional responses to stress.

"In addition to positive reinforcement training, acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy have been shown to greatly reduce canine anxiety," writes integrative veterinarian and acupuncturist Dr. Rachel Barrack in an article for Bark magazine.

"Acupuncture produces a physiological response. It can provide pain relief, stimulate the immune and nervous systems, increase microcirculation, and decrease inflammation. Acupuncture can also help restore balance between organ systems for optimal health and overall well-being. In addition to these benefits, it has a noticeable calming effect. Often, dogs find acupuncture sessions so relaxing that they fall asleep once the needles are inserted."5

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.

It's important to realize that acupuncture isn't appropriate or successful for every dog or for every condition, disease or situation. Statistically, about 25% of patients have an amazing response to acupuncture, with major improvement up to and including full recovery.

Another 50% of animals experience dramatic improvement, but there are still some symptoms present. The remaining 25% have little to no response.