Managing chronic pain in dogs can be challenging and a genuine source of worry. It’s natural to search for solutions to help your companion be as comfortable as possible, especially if you want to minimize the potential long-term side effects of pain meds. You might be considering holistic complementary therapies. One of the most well-known of these is dog acupuncture, which is growing in popularity and credibility. Learn more about the potential benefits and limitations of this low-risk treatment.
What Is Acupuncture For Dogs?
Acupuncture has been around in some form for thousands of years, but it’s only in recent decades that veterinarians have started prescribing it as a treatment for dogs. What’s involved in the procedure?
“Acupuncture needles are inserted into specific points where the nerves and blood vessels travel closely together. Stimulation of these specific ‘acupoints’ can trigger a response in the circulation and nervous system,” says Dr. Patricia Khor, DVM, a certified veterinary medical acupuncturist and veterinary pain practitioner. This increase in circulation can alter nerve activity and help heal the nervous system, which should help decrease pain and inflammation.
Acupuncture isn’t a one-and-done type of treatment. Typically, your dog will have multiple individual sessions, ranging from 5 minutes to half an hour, as it’s believed that the benefits are cumulative. Depending on your dog’s response and the condition acupuncture is treating, your vet might stop sessions once you see improvements or when your dog’s underlying injury or condition improves. Sometimes acupuncture sessions continue on a less frequent, long-term basis.
Does Acupuncture For Dogs Work?
There are two main acupuncture philosophies—Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and medical acupuncture.
Dr. Tara Edwards, DVM, is a veterinary medical acupuncturist, canine rehabilitation therapist, certified veterinary pain practitioner, and Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. She explains that TCM focuses on energy imbalances and how the flow of “Qi” energy—the body’s essential life energy— can impact health. Instead, Dr. Edwards applies scientific, evidence-based integrative medical acupuncture. “It focuses on the influence that specific neuroanatomical points can have on underlying physiology,” she says.
Clinical trials in human acupuncture are wide-ranging. And while how acupuncture works and its true effects are still not fully understood, the results of many of these studies are promising. For example, acupuncture has a clinically relevant effect on patients with chronic pain, including reducing pain from osteoarthritis.
Clinical trials in the veterinary world are more limited, with less consistent results. For example, single studies showed acupuncture could have a positive effect when treating conditions including Cushing’s syndrome, spinal cord injuries, and liver damage. These encouraging results mean that more rigorous trials are underway. However, the combined evidence from the human and animal studies still shows that medical acupuncture may be helpful for several pain conditions in dogs.
Potential Benefits of Acupuncture For Dogs
As in human medicine, veterinarians use acupuncture for various conditions, not just to manage pain and assist with rehabilitation. Dr. Edwards explains that good acupuncture research studies are inherently challenging for many reasons. This means that not all the conditions it is prescribed for have scientific data to back acupuncture’s use. However, given acupuncture is minimally invasive with little to no side effects, owners may be happy to try using it alongside other conventional treatments.
Below are some of the most common reasons you might want to book your dog in for some acupuncture sessions.
“Acupuncture can trigger the release of endogenous opioids, the body’s natural painkiller, which can help lower the need for prescription medications,” Dr. Khor says. According to Dr. Edwards, the needles influence the nervous system, so pain management assistance happens locally (targeting a specific area or organ of the body), centrally (through the central nervous system), and systemically (throughout the entire body).
There are several ways in which acupuncture does this. Dr. Edwards notes that it can cause the release of neurotransmitters (the body’s chemical messengers), cytokines (signaling proteins that help control inflammation and protect the immune system), and growth factors (molecules affecting cell growth). “The release of these local substances can improve circulation and reduce muscle tension,” she says. She also explains that the needles can interfere with incoming pain signals in the central nervous system and produce beta-endorphins that can have a systemic analgesic (pain-relieving) effect.
This makes acupuncture a popular supplementary treatment option for painful musculoskeletal conditions such as canine arthritis, injuries that limit range of movement, and even post-operative pain.
While there are no studies to support acupuncture “treats” canine cancer, Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the American Kennel Club, says that acupuncture may help with side effects such as nausea and pain. In human patients, studies suggest acupuncture could help to regulate the immune system, manage pain, and reduce some unpleasant radiation and chemotherapy side effects (such as nausea and lack of appetite).
With a top competing agility dog or one involved in another high-impact activity, you might consider regular acupuncture. These sessions may help reduce problems with sports-related aches and strains.
If your dog’s anxiety is a major concern, you could use acupuncture alongside behavioral support and traditional medication. “It maintains homeostasis, and there are specific points we can use to calm the mind and body,” Dr. Khor says.
Are There Risks Associated With Acupuncture for Dogs?
The low risk and minimal invasiveness are part of acupuncture’s appeal. “It is a safe, cost-effect option to support the body either by itself or with primary medical treatments,” says Dr. Khor.
You might worry that the needle placement will cause discomfort during an acupuncture session. “Most pets do not notice the needles being placed and can often relax during a treatment,” says Dr. Edwards. It’s not uncommon for dogs to fall asleep during or immediately after a session.
Look For a Certified Medical Veterinary Acupuncturist
You want to make sure the person performing acupuncture on your dog knows what they are doing. Unqualified acupuncturists could cause injury, infection, and unnecessary stress. By selecting a certified veterinary acupuncturist (CVA), you can be sure they have solid medical experience. On top of this, Dr. Edwards says they should have an extended knowledge of pain physiology, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, and the importance of myofascial assessment (evaluating the supportive connective tissue of the muscles).
Your local veterinary practice may already have a CVA on their staff or may be able to refer you to one. Alternatively, the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncturists is a good jumping-off point for your search. “A certified veterinary acupuncturist is the most qualified professional to assess your pet, determine a diagnosis, and develop a treatment plan that takes into account all of your pet’s medical history and concurrent medical concerns to provide the most comprehensive care,” Dr. Edwards says.