Acupuncture for Dogs: How It Can Help, What to Expect & More

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In human medicine, acupuncture is an alternative treatment for chronic pain. It has its origins in traditional Chinese medicine and has been used for thousands of years. It's usually used to treat inflammation and pain, and dog acupuncture side effects are rare.

In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is said to restore the appropriate flow of chi, or energy, throughout pathways in the body. In Western medicine, acupuncture is believed to work by stimulating neural-hormonal pathways to release hormones that reduce pain and inflammation. The needles are also believed to improve blood circulation at the points of insertion.

Acupuncture for dogs, like acupuncture for humans, is an alternative medical practice that involves inserting very small needles into the skin to stimulate points on the body and produce a healing response.

Conditions That Acupuncture for Dogs May Improve

There are many conditions that can benefit from a combination of Western medicine and acupuncture for dogs. These include:

  • Arthritis and degenerative joint disease: Chronic pain and loss of mobility from joint disease are the most common reasons pet parents seek dog acupuncture.
  • Intervertebral disc disease and nerve pain: Dogs who have a bulging disc, spinal arthritis or a pinched nerve may experience relief from acupuncture.
  • Surgery: Acupuncture may help relieve pain and anxiety surrounding surgery and follow-up visits to the veterinarian.
  • Cancer side effects: Acupuncture is often used to help improve energy and reduce pain, nausea and loss of appetite associated with cancer or cancer treatments.
  • Hormonal or metabolic conditions: Dogs who suffer from hormonal conditions like Cushing's syndrome, hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus or Addison's disease may find relief through acupuncture. Dogs with liver or kidney disease may also experience benefits.
  • Trauma: Dogs who've been bitten, hit by a car, broken a bone or experienced other trauma that caused pain and inflammation may benefit from acupuncture.
  • Skin conditions: If your dog is being treated for allergic dermatitis or lick granulomas (a skin lesion that develops from a dog consistently licking or biting in one particular area — commonly on the front legs), acupuncture may be used as a complementary treatment.
  • Gastrointestinal problems: Acupuncture may help dogs suffering from diarrhea.
  • Idiopathic epilepsy: According to Innovative Veterinary Care Journal, acupuncture may reduce seizures in dogs with epilepsy.

In conjunction with other traditional therapies, veterinary acupuncture has been used as an additional type of therapy to help with obesity, behavioral disorders, cognitive decline and overall wellness. When pursuing alternative therapies such as acupuncture, always follow your vet's recommendations for best results.

How Often Should My Dog Receive Acupuncture?

The person best suited to decide how often your dog should receive acupuncture is the vet performing the procedure. In general, acupuncture sessions are scheduled more closely together in the beginning. As your dog begins to feel better, sessions will likely be spaced out further apart.

If your dog is receiving acupuncture for an acute problem, such as healing after surgery or an illness or injury, they may only need a few sessions. If they're being treated for a chronic condition, such as arthritis, then they may need ongoing treatment to alleviate pain.

It may take a few sessions for you to see benefits in your dog, or you may see improvement right away. In general, a minimum of three sessions are recommended to judge effectiveness.

Vet and vet assistant examining a Yorkshire Terrier

What to Expect During an Acupuncture Session

During the first appointment, expect the vet to ask you questions about your dog's health and conduct a physical exam. They may recommend additional alternative therapies, such as massage or electroacupuncture (acupuncture where low levels of electricity flow between the needles). First appointments often take an hour, while follow-up visits may last 20 to 45 minutes.

The vet will insert needles in specific areas of your dog's body. For most dogs, this is virtually painless and not noticeable. Often, they'll become very relaxed and even fall asleep. The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed your dog is likely to be. If you or your vet notice that your dog starts to experience pain or fear during an acupuncture session, discuss sedation, pain control or other options to help your dog feel more comfortable. In general, once a dog realizes that it doesn't hurt and that they feel better during and after a session, they'll calm down and enjoy the session.

Are There Dog Acupuncture Side Effects?

The most common side effects of acupuncture include soreness, mild bleeding and bruising at the site of needle insertion. After a session, some dogs might be tired or seem worse for a day or two, but this is rare.

There are no real contraindications to acupuncture. However, dogs who have heart disease, are pregnant, have a seizure disorder or certain types of cancer shouldn't receive electroacupuncture.

How to Find a Veterinary Acupuncturist

The two most important things to look for in a veterinary acupuncturist are a veterinary license and formal training in veterinary acupuncture.

It's best to get acupuncture for dogs treatment from a vet who's a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist(CVA). A CVA has comprehensive training in acupuncture as well as Western veterinary training. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society has an online database of veterinary acupuncturists that's searchable by city and state. If you think your dog might benefit from acupuncture, you can also consult your regular veterinarian to see if they have additional thoughts or can recommend a good CVA in your area.

Cost may depend on the size of your dog and the demand for services in your area.

While acupuncture isn't a cure-all, it's safe and has a relatively low incidence of side effects. Together with Western therapy, it may benefit your dog.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well-known international speaker in the veterinary and animal health spaces. She has 10 years experience in public speaking, media work and writing for a large number of online and print animal health publications, including but not limited to, petMD, Vetstreet, DVM360 print and online publications, Healthy Pet Magazine, the Bark and various other online outlets. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member in good standing of the AVMA and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. In addition to being a speaker, author, veterinarian and card game creator, she co-owns Elevated Eateries Restaurant group in Greeley with her husband of 21 years and together they are raising three slightly feral mini-humans. When it is time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado, diving with sharks in the Caribbean, or training kenpo karate in her local dojo. Go big ... or go home.