Acupuncture/Acupressure for Dogs

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

What is acupuncture?

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the philosophy that illness is caused by an imbalance of vital energies in the body. Acupuncture is one aspect of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) that focuses on restoring the energy balance in the body to promote healing.

The technique requires the insertion of fine needles into the dog’s body at specified points, called acupuncture points, where nerves and blood vessels converge. TCVM calls the pattern of these sites “meridians”, which are believed to be energy channels that transmit energy throughout the dog’s body.

The inserted needles are thought to guide “chi” or vital energy along the meridians. Placed in these identified points, the needles enhance blood circulation, which improves healing ability. Acupuncture also stimulates the nervous system and increases the release of anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving substances, to reduce a dog’s discomfort.

Select research has demonstrated that the physical interaction between the needle and the nerve fibers in the skin and underlying tissues may exhibit a modulating effect on the nervous system (neuromodulation). This neuromodulation can result in the release of beneficial chemicals from the brain and spinal cord, as well as the tissues surrounding the needle, that encourage blood flow to the area, interrupt pain signaling, and relax trigger points that cause painful spasms.

Similarly, another technique called acupressure involves applying pressure to acupuncture points rather than inserting a needle. This less invasive technique is preferred for locations that are hard to reach with needles, or for dogs that may not tolerate the needles.

Laser acupuncture is also used to target specific acupuncture points for deeper tissue effects than acupressure.

How can acupuncture and acupressure help my dog?

Acupuncture improves blood flow, which increases oxygen delivery to the tissues and removes waste products more efficiently. Acupuncture can relax muscles where the needle is inserted and elsewhere in the body, relieving pain caused by muscle tension. By stimulating the release of naturally occurring, pain-relieving, and anti-inflammatory substances, acupuncture may decrease the amount of pain medication needed to treat these dogs.

"Veterinarians who practice acupuncture believe it is an effective adjunctive therapy to routine treatments."

Most pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs are quite safe, but they may affect organ function, so veterinarians closely monitor organ function through routine laboratory testing to minimize the risk. Veterinarians who practice acupuncture believe it is an effective adjunctive therapy to routine treatments. Acupuncture appears to have no systemic side effects. It may be helpful for dogs who don’t tolerate traditional therapies.

As with most medical protocols, a combination of treatments often provides the best results. Fortunately, acupuncture and medical therapy can be safely used together, which is beneficial when neither method can provide the desired response alone.

What conditions can acupuncture treat?

Acupuncture is often used to treat dogs with arthritis and joint inflammation. For example, dogs with hip dysplasia or degenerative joint disease may be good candidates for acupuncture. Dogs with chronic back pain and even dogs with serious spinal cord conditions may also benefit.

Lick granulomas are lesions on the legs of dogs that continuously lick a spot, causing an irritated sore and exposing superficial nerve endings. These lesions are often difficult to heal and acupuncture may be a good complement to antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications.

"Although acupuncture may reduce pain and inflammation associated with many medical conditions, traditional medicine is the first line of treatment for infection, cancer, and major organ disease."

It should be noted that, although acupuncture may reduce pain and inflammation associated with many medical conditions, traditional medicine is the first line of treatment for infection, cancer, and major organ disease. However, acupuncture  may help some issues associated with cancer, or the side effects of cancer treatment (chemotherapy and radiation), such as tissue inflammation, nausea, and decreased appetite.

Veterinary acupuncturists have treated patients with metabolic diseases associated with impaired organ function. Dogs with diabetes, kidney or liver failure, pancreatitis, Cushing’s disease, and Addison’s disease have experienced a decrease in nausea and increase in appetite after acupuncture sessions. Acupuncture or acupressure may make chronic diseases more tolerable by reducing clinical signs (symptoms).

What can I expect an acupuncture treatment process to be like?

The first appointment with a veterinary acupuncturist involves a general medical assessment. The primary care veterinarian will send medical records to the acupuncturist that outline the history of the dog’s condition. Lab results, X-rays, and current medical therapy will be documented, so the acupuncturist is fully informed. The veterinary acupuncturist will perform their own physical examination, discuss treatment options, and explain exactly what happens during an acupuncture session.

Even though dogs may be nervous in a new clinical setting, most become very relaxed after needle insertion. Depending on the conditions addressed, the actual session may last 20–30 minutes. The doctor outlines a treatment protocol that may involve one to three sessions per week for several weeks. Often, the number of sessions is tapered off as the dog improves, so visits are scheduled less frequently.

The effects of acupuncture treatment are cumulative, so there is a benefit to repeated sessions, but the goal is to achieve the greatest degree of improvement and maintain that level with the fewest treatments necessary. There are few side effects with acupuncture, but some dogs may be sore or stiff following a treatment session, while other patients appear tired. These symptoms usually resolve within 24–48 hours.

How can I find a veterinary acupuncturist?

Your dog’s primary care veterinarian can help you find a local veterinary acupuncturist. The two veterinarians will communicate so that each doctor stays updated on your dog’s condition. There are more than 150,000 certified veterinary acupuncturists in the US, as well as many in Canada, who have completed an extensive course of study, so locating one close by is usually not difficult.

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