I get lots of questions about this: How does it work? How can you do it on animals? Do they have to hold still? Does it hurt? Will it help with my pet’s issues?
Wait you can do acupuncture on animals?! Yes! Acupuncture is safe and effective for all kinds of pets: dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, donkeys, mules, llamas, sheep, goats, alpacas, cattle, birds, reptiles, amphibians, even fish! It’s used in zoo and wildlife rehab medicine as well.
So how does it work? Acupuncture works in animals the same way it does in people. A veterinarian with advanced training in acupuncture* places special acupuncture needles in specific points in the body. There are many studies that show it to be safe and effective and have found some of the physiologic changes that it produces in the body. The Western explanation is that these needles cause a physiological response in the body and all sorts of substances get released causing changes happen which basically reduce inflammation, improve blood flow, and tissue healing in the area. Acupuncture actually causes the body to release of endorphins, serotonin, and other pain relieving substances so it provides pain relief and makes whoever is getting the acupuncture, human or animal, feel good. The Traditional Chinese Medicine explanation is that there is energy (called Qi) flowing through the body (and our environment) all the time, but when there's a problem (disease, pain) the Qi is stuck. Acupuncture at specific points is used to get the Qi “unstuck” and flowing properly again and to try to prevent it from getting “stuck” again. Getting the Qi flowing properly causes pain relief and reduces inflammation and symptoms of disease. So just different ways of looking at the same process.
*You might have noticed the asterisk up above about having a veterinarian who is actually trained in acupuncture do acupuncture on pets. That’s because unfortunately acupuncture is still not really taught in vet school. So most vets don’t know anything about it. Unfortunately while human acupuncturists may be very knowledgeable in human acupuncture, they aren’t trained in animal anatomy and veterinary medicine and in many states it’s actually not legal for them to do acupuncture on animals. But there are several intensive veterinary acupuncture training courses that teach veterinarians about veterinary acupuncture and how to practice it safely and effectively to treat various conditions in animals. You should look for a vet who is certified in acupuncture. You can search for certified vets through International Veterinary Acupuncture Society: https://www.ivas.org/vets/ or through the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine: http://www.tcvm.com/Resources/FindaTCVMPractitioner.aspx.
So if you've ever been to an acupuncturist (and everyone should!) they probably had you lay on a comfortable massage table for a while with the needles in. But you don’t think your pet will hold still, can they still get acupuncture? Definitely! Pets don't need to stay still. People don't really have to stay still either we just tend to feel weird if we move a lot with the needles in. There’s also nothing special about laying on a massage table; it’s just a nice comfortable experience for people so our human acupuncturists do that for us. But animals don't seem to mind if it feels a little weird to move with needles in, so it’s fine for them to move around if they want. Pets can stand, sit, lay down, roll over, walk around, or whatever they want to do while they get acupuncture! Animals are actually much more responsive to acupuncture than people are so they don't need to have the needles stay in for that long. In fact in animals the needles do about 95% of their work when they first go in. In really strong points we actually don't even try to leave the needle in but just put it in and take it out immediately since that's all they need.
Will it hurt them to have all those needles put in? No. Just like in people we use special, sterile, single use, very tiny acupuncture needles. They’re much, much smaller than any needle used for injections. Even in horses the needles are smaller than the smallest injection needles. They're also a totally different type of needle than ones used for vaccines or other injections. Hypodermic needles for injections are actually designed to cut the skin and muscle so that they can quickly get into the tissue and deliver the injection. Acupuncture needles are completely different. Not only are they much smaller than a hypodermic needle, they’re not designed to cut at all. They're tapered and fairly blunt on the end so they just kind of gently push aside the skin and muscle rather than cutting it. Occasionally if we put an acupuncture needle in a really sore spot they may feel the needle right as it goes in but most of the time animals don't even notice the needles being put in. There is something called “De Qi” which is basically the body responding with all those physiologic changes we talked about above to the acupuncture needle. This response isn’t noticeable in every point, every patient, or every acupuncture session, but when it is felt it can sometimes be a feeling of tingling or warmth and sometimes animals will look at the spot but it’s not painful, just a weird feeling.
Will acupuncture help with my pet’s issues? This is a complex one. Acupuncture isn’t magic. It can’t reverse the aging process or cure all diseases. But what it can do is reduce inflammation, reduce pain, and improve the function of the immune system and other organs. So it can help reduce symptoms and improve performance, function, mobility, and Quality of Life. Of course there are times where acupuncture isn’t going to be the best option for a patient. For example, if a dog eats something toxic they need to go to an emergency vet right away for treatment; acupuncture is not going to be helpful! But for the vast majority of pets in the vast majority of situations acupuncture is a great option! If you’re not sure if it would help your pet specifically, ask a trained veterinary acupuncturist. People think of it for arthritis and back problems or “slipped disks” and it is a really effective treatment for those, but it’s helpful for much more! Since it reduces inflammation and helps the immune system it can be helpful for skin issues, allergies, and asthma. It can help with GI issues like “picky eating”, vomiting (including hairballs), and diarrhea. It can also help with diseases like diabetes, Cushings, and thyroid problems, and kidney disease. It can help reduce symptoms and maintain Quality of Life for pets with cancer. But it’s not magic; it won’t cure these diseases. However, it can be a really powerful tool to help reduce inflammation and pain, which can reduce symptoms of disease and allow the body to function as well as it possibly can and your pet to have the best life they possibly can.
So find a certified veterinary acupuncturist near you and schedule an appointment for your pet!