By now, most of us are familiar with
acupuncture, and many folks either have a pet that has been to an
acupuncturist or know someone whose pet has been “needled.” In
addition to herbal remedies and other treatment methods,
acupuncturists insert hair-thin, specialized needles into roughly
the same anatomic points identified by ancient practitioners.
According to traditional acupuncturists, the needles activate and
balance inner systems so the patient’s whole body returns to and is
maintained in a healthy state.
Herbal remedies are used to further enhance the balance of the
patient’s inner organs and systems (see “Favorite Oriental Medicine
Herbs” below). A practitioner of Oriental Medicine tries to aid
this body-balancing act by selecting herbs that enhance and balance
what is known as the yin components of the body (cold, deep, dark,
chronic, feminine, wet) or the yang components (hot, superficial,
light, acute, masculine, dry).
In addition to balancing these primary yin/yang body components,
herbs may be selected to balance one or more of what the Oriental
perspective refers to as “organ systems” — liver, gallbladder,
spleen, kidney, etc.
Finally, herbs and acupuncture needles may be directed toward
enhancing the flow of qi, which is loosely translated as the vital
energy, the breath of life, or the spirit of the animal.
Acupuncture practitioners might diagnose a problem as resulting
from a yin deficiency, for example, or an excess of yang in the
liver or as a blockage of qi (arthritis, for example, is thought of
as a blockage of qi at the site of the painful, bony growth).
Depending on the diagnosis derived from this Oriental system (which
will not be equivalent to a Western medical diagnosis), herbs and
acupuncture points are selected to re-balance the patient’s whole
Modern acupuncture practitioners generally have learned some of
the ancient Oriental concepts which they have translated and
integrated into concepts more aligned with Western medicine.
History of Acupuncture
Acupuncture has been used for at least 2,500 years as a part of
the overall health maintenance system of Oriental Medicine. Early
acupuncture practice in animals was used primarily for farm animals
— oxen, pigs, chickens and horses, as would be expected in an
agrarian society. Recently, practitioners have adapted the ancient
methods to include our more popular pet animals: dogs, cats, birds
and exotic pets.
While acupuncture has a centuries- long history of use in the
East and several hundred years of use in Europe, interest in the
United States really only began after President Nixon’s visit to
China in 1972, when one of the president’s entourage received
acupuncture treatments during his emergency appendectomy.
In 1974, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society was
created. Each year, hundreds of veterinarians now are being trained
under the organization’s accrediting guidance. Acupuncture is used
by several thousand veterinary practitioners in this country and
internationally; practitioners either use it exclusively or
integrate acupuncture therapy into a conventional Western medicine
I have been using acupuncture in my holistic practice for more
than a decade. I have seen a gradual transition from folks being
amazed that such a “far-out” method was actually being used on
pets, to today, when I rarely meet someone — even here in the
Heartland — who isn’t acquainted with acupuncture for animals.
Most of my early clients already had tried Western medicines and
came to me for acupuncture when that didn’t work. Nowadays, more
and more folks are using the “alternatives” as their first
I’ve found acupuncture extremely effective for a variety of
diseases, especially musculoskeletal problems. In fact, I’ve had
such good results, I tell my colleagues I think it is tantamount to
malpractice if they don’t at least offer acupuncture as an option,
especially for chronic skeletal problems, such as the arthritis
case that hasn’t responded to other therapies.
About Safety and Effectiveness
Despite our growing familiarity with acupuncture, many people
still wonder if it really works. It does. Acupuncture has been used
effectively for hundreds of years. In 1997, the National Institutes
of Health confirmed tradition and issued a consensus report on
acupuncture that determined its effectiveness for a number of
While there is not a lot of definitive research data on animals,
veterinarians report frequent beneficial results when treating
conditions including arthritis, hip dysplasia, gastrointestinal
ailments, skin problems, hormonal conditions, some cancers, and
peripheral and central nervous system disorders.
For all intents and practical purposes, it is not as important
to understand or believe Oriental Medicine concepts as it is to
observe their results and decide if the treatments are doing any
good for your pet.
Adverse reactions are extremely rare and generally are related
to the needles: rarely an infection may occur at the needle site; a
needle may break off and act as a benign foreign body that can
eventually cause problems; or improperly placed needles may injure
deep tissues. This is why it is extremely important to know that
your veterinarian is a qualified practitioner (see “Finding a
Veterinary Acupuncturist” below).
A Typical Acupuncture Treatment
After deriving a diagnosis, perhaps using a variety of methods,
the acupuncture practitioner decides on a treatment protocol,
usually consisting of placing the slender, sterile needles in
anatomically specific sites. Additional stimulation may be added to
the needle by applying heat or a mild electrical current. Since the
1960s, low-power laser treatments — applied to acupuncture points
or directly to wound surfaces — have been used for wound healing,
recovery from nerve damage and pain reduction.
Needles are left in place for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the
condition being treated. After some initial concern with the needle
entry, most animals tolerate the treatments well, and many actually
appear to enjoy their therapy times.
It often takes several (four to 10) treatments before
substantial results are seen, but some animals have excellent
response after the first treatment. Initial treatments are spaced
from several days to about two weeks apart.
Depending on the severity of the disease, animals often will
benefit from repeat treatments throughout their lifetime, spaced
anywhere from one to six or more months apart. Costs vary, but are
usually $50 to $100 per treatment.
The most common benefit reported by human acupuncture patients
is relief from pain. When pain subsides, an animal can return to a
more normal gait, and although they can’t talk, critters often
communicate pain relief by becoming calmer, sleeping better and
many demonstrate an increased clarity of their eyes, losing the
“fog” that was caused by pain. Besides pain, other observable
disease symptoms should also ease or disappear with proper
Each animal patient is an individual, and as with any medical
treatment, response will vary among individuals. Finally, look for
the unexpected. Alternative medicines seem to have a habit of
producing unexpected, beneficial results.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and
veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional
veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a
holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website,
www.HerbsForHealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace
the advice of a qualified veterinarian.