Acupuncture and Your Dog Part 2

By: DogTrekker Staff

Vet Buzz from Dr. Jennifer Yamamoto, DVM, CVA
Muller Veterinary Hospital, Walnut Creek, CA

vet holding dogs paw

An increasing number of people are seeking out holistic options to care for themselves as well as their canine family members. Acupuncture tops the list of popular alternative therapy options due to its long history of safety & effectiveness. This is part two of our in depth look at acupuncture for animals. 

Acupuncture has been practiced in many cultures for thousands of years. Acupuncture began its evolution as a metaphorical description of patterns of energy flow within the body. However, modern science is now able to explain many of the effects of acupuncture in terms of our physiologic wiring. Acupuncture appears to work by normalizing function at multiple levels of the nervous system. At the needle insertion point, there is blood vessel dilation, decreased inflammation, and activation of tissue repair mechanisms. As the peripheral nerves transmit the needle stimulus to the spinal cord, we see opioid release, blockage of pain sensation and stimulation of neural regeneration. Due to overlap of peripheral (external) and visceral (internal) nerve pathways in the spinal cord, our external needle stimulation can also modulate abdominal organ function. At the level of the brain, there are alterations in blood circulation, interruption in patterns of pain perception, and hormone regulation.

So what canine conditions respond well to acupuncture? In general, the diseases more closely tied to the nervous system respond more consistently to acupuncture:

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)—in mild to moderate cases of IVDD, acupuncture has been proven to be as successful as surgery at alleviating symptoms (and it is much less invasive & expensive).

Arthritis—Some dogs cannot tolerate arthritis medications or are not responsive to them. Most of these patients will experience improvements in comfort, strength and/or coordination with acupuncture.

Postoperative pain management and rehabilitation (especially for orthopedic or neurologic surgeries)—Dogs that are not regaining function quickly after surgery will greatly benefit from acupuncture. This is due to better pain control, normalization of immune system function and stimulation of neural repair mechanisms. The earlier that postoperative acupuncture is initiated, the more improvement we see in the short and long term.

Gastrointestinal disease—Conditions like inflammatory bowel disease often respond well to acupuncture due to the high degree of nerve supply to the digestive tract.

Immune system deficiencies—Acupuncture has been shown to increase antibody levels and improve the efficiency of immune cells.

Therefore, acupuncture can be a very helpful adjunct to treating infectious diseases and supporting a cancer patient. It is also a good tool to counter the negative side effects of chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Many practitioners also use acupuncture to treat common problems like allergies, heart disease, behavioral disorders, dry eye and epilepsy. I personally find these conditions to be less consistently responsive to acupuncture than the previously discussed conditions. However, even a modest response to acupuncture may result in a lowering of required medication doses.

To determine acupuncture effectiveness, I recommend a series of 3-4 treatments usually spaced 1 week apart. If a positive response is seen, we continue acupuncture treatments with the eventual goal of tapering treatment frequency. Chronic problems like arthritis may need to be treated longterm every 1-6 months. Sometimes, additional forms of acupuncture point stimulation, like aquapuncture or electrical stimulation, can speed patient response or lengthen the duration of positive response.

The majority of dogs tolerate acupuncture very well. We use very thin, single use, sterile needles. The needles are usually left in place for 15-20 minutes, and many pets will become very relaxed or sleepy during this time. If pets are very agitated by acupuncture or if they have extremely anxious or fearful personalities, we may not see the desired response to our acupuncture treatment. We could then discuss alternatives to acupuncture such as cold laser therapy or pulsed electromagnetic field therapy.

Most importantly, acupuncture is very safe. Because acupuncture is tapping into the body’s innate ability to heal itself, rather than administering chemicals or drugs, complications rarely develop. The most common side effect is sleepiness. Keep in mind that dogs and cats are not small people. As such it is important that your pet receive acupuncture from someone trained in the medical care of animals. Veterinarians that have gone through the appropriate training receive a certification in acupuncture and are the most qualified professionals to perform acupuncture on your dogs.