Noreen Ziegler, DVM, CNC
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture may be defined as the insertion of needles into specific
points on the body to cause a desired healing effect.  This technique has
been used in veterinary practice in China for at least 3000 years to treat
many ailments.  The Chinese also use acupuncture as a preventive against
such problems as founder and colic in horses.  Acupuncture is used all over
the world.  Either by itself or in conjunction with Western medicine, to treat a
wide variety of maladies in every species of domestic and exotic animals.  
Modern veterinary acupuncturists use solid needles, hypodermic needles,
bleeding needles, electricity, heat, massage and low power lasers to stimulate
acupuncture points.  Acupuncture is not a cure-all, but can work very well
when it is indicated.

For which conditions is acupuncture indicated?
Acupuncture is indicated mainly for functional problems such as those that
involve paralysis, non-infectious inflammation (such as allergies), and pain.  
For small animals, the following are some of the general conditions which may
be treated with acupuncture:

Musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis or vertebral disc pathology

  • Skin problems, such as lick granuloma
  • Respiratory problems, such as feline asthma
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea
  • Selected reproductive problems

For large animals, acupuncture is again commonly used for functional
problems.  Some of the general conditions where it might be applied are the

  • Musculoskeletal problems, such as sore backs or downer cow syndrome
  • Nervous system problems, such as facial nerve paralysis
  • Skin problems, such as allergic dermatitis
  • Respiratory problems, such as heaves and “Bleeders”
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as non-surgical colic
  • Selected reproductive disorders

In addition, regular acupuncture treatment can treat minor sports injuries as
they occur and help to keep muscles and tendons resistant to injury.  World-
class professional and amateur athletes often use acupuncture as a routine
part of their training.  If your animals are involved in any athletic endeavor,
such as racing, jumping, or showing, acupuncture can help keep them in top
physical condition.

How does acupuncture work?
According to ancient Chinese medical philosophy, disease is the result of an
imbalance of energy in the body.  Acupuncture is believed to balance this
energy and, thereby, assist the body to heal disease.

In Western terms, acupuncture can assist the body to heal itself by affecting
certain physiological changes.  For example, acupuncture can stimulate
nerves, increase blood circulations, relieve muscle spasm, and cause the
release of hormones, such as endorphins (one of body’s pain control
chemicals) and cortisol (a natural steroid).  Although many of acupuncture’s
physiological effects have been studied, many more are still unknown. Further
research must be to discover all of acupuncture’s effects and its proper uses
in all veterinary medicine.

Is acupuncture painful?
For small animals, the insertion of acupuncture needles is virtually painless.  
The larger needles necessary for the large animals may cause some pain as
the needle passes through the skin.  In all animals, once the needles are in
place, there should be no pain.  Most animals become very relaxed and may
even become sleepy.  Nevertheless, acupuncture treatment may cause some
sensations, presumed to be those such as tingles, cramps, or numbness
which can occur in humans and which may be uncomfortable to some animals.

Is acupuncture safe for animals?
Acupuncture is one of the safest forms of medical treatment for animals when
it is administered by a properly-trained veterinarian.  Side effects of
acupuncture are rare, but they do exist.  An animal’s condition may seem
worse for up to 48 hours after treatment.  Other animals may become sleepy
or lethargic for 24 hours after acupuncture.  These effects are an indication
that some physiological changes are developing, and they are most often
followed by an improvement in the animal’s condition.

How long do acupuncture treatments last and how often are they
The length and frequency of acupuncture treatments depends on the
condition of the patient and the method of stimulation that is used by the
veterinary acupuncturist.  Stimulation of an individual acupuncture point may
take as little as 10 seconds or as much as 30 minutes.  A simple acute
problem, such as a sprain, may require only one treatment, whereas more
severe or chronic ailments may need several or several dozen treatments.

When multiple treatments are necessary, they usually begin intensively and
are tapered to maximum efficiency.  Patients often start with 1-3 treatments
per week for 4-6 weeks.  A positive response is usually seen after the first to
third treatments.  Once a maximum positive response is achieved (usually
after 4-8 treatments), treatments are tapered off so that the greatest amount
of symptom free time elapses between them.  Many animals with chronic
conditions can taper off to 2-4 treatments per year.

Animals undergoing athletic training can benefit from acupuncture as often as
twice a week to once a month.  The frequency depends on the intensity of the
training and the condition of the athlete.

How should I choose an acupuncturist for my animals?
There are two important criteria you should look for in a veterinary

  1. Your veterinary acupuncturist must be a licensed veterinarian.
  2. Your veterinary acupuncturist should have formal training in the
    practice of acupuncture for animals. (For example, the International
    Veterinary Acupuncture Society is the only accredited certification
    program for veterinary acupuncturists.)

In most countries, states, and provinces, veterinary acupuncture is
considered a surgical procedure that only licensed veterinaries may legally
administer to animals.  A veterinarian is in the best position to diagnose an
animal’s health problem and then determine whether an animal is likely to
benefit from an acupuncture treatment, or whether its problem requires
chemical, surgical, or no intervention.

In the USA, the American Veterinary Medical Association considers veterinary
acupuncture a valid modality within the practice of veterinary medicine and
surgery, but extensive educational programs should be undertaken before a
veterinarian is considered competent to practice acupuncture.  Ask you
veterinarian about their training.  The more veterinarian knows about the
traditional Chinese philosophies and Western scientific basis for acupuncture,
the more sure you can be that your animals will be properly treated.

The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society gratefully acknowledges the writings of Richard
Panzer, DVM, MS in the preparation of this information.