In Canada, acupuncture for pets has gained popularity in recent years but it's definitely not a new healthcare treatment. As a fundamental component of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), acupuncture has been used on animals for thousands of years. Practitioners of TCVM largely believe that illness or pain is influenced by an imbalance of energy. By inserting thin needles to the animal's skin, the energy can be redirected. It's the same process as acupuncture for humans but requires more treats and patience.
To find out more about acupuncture for dogs and cats, we spoke to Dr. Sarah Thornton at West End Mobile Integrative Veterinary Services (learn more about mobile vets in our Guide to mobile vets and house calls). Dr. Thornton specializes in integrative therapies for dogs with chronic pain. Some of her services include photobiomodulation (low level lasers), electrical stimulation, rehabilitation exercises and, of course, acupuncture. She told us about how much pain it causes pets, conditions that cause issues and why consultations are important.
"The needles are typically used on areas of the body that have a high density of blood vessels or free nerve endings. This allows the animal's body to produce a stimulation — increased circulation, immune response or neurologic inputs," says Dr. Thornton. It can have both a local effect (i.e. where the needle goes in) or it can be a more widespread response someone else in the body.
The general goal is to alleviate acute and chronic pain, and increase mobility. Some vets also use acupuncture to treat gastrointestinal or dermatological conditions.
"People who have experienced acupuncture treatments will usually tell you that they don't feel the needles unless it's a highly sensitive area, and the same is true for animals. There are some areas that are more sensitive, but generally animals tolerate the discomfort well."
To help distract pets from any discomfort, Dr. Thornton uses frozen popsicles. Dogs will focus on the treat and not the treatment. The duration of acupuncture sessions are relatively short as well, around 15 minutes.
Although there's not a wealth of research to support acupuncture for pets, the only downside will be some wasted time and money. If your dog is struggling with a condition that's not being helped by conventional medicine, it won't be harmful to try out this traditional approach.
"It's generally considered a very, very safe treatment," says Dr. Thornton. "You do, however, want to make sure it's being administered by a veterinarian who has been specifically trained in acupuncture."
If your dog is pregnant or being treated for cancer, Dr. Thornton doesn't recommend acupuncture. When it comes to efficacy with different dog breeds, there's no general rule. The positive effects of acupuncture are case-by-case and so is your dog's sensitivity. "I've seen big breed dogs that were too sensitive or nervous for larger needles and tiny dog breeds that are fine with any gauge needle.
Acupuncture can be incredibly impactful for some pets but it's not guaranteed to help all dogs with all conditions. Dr. Thornton says that pet parents should reach out for a consultation to see if it's the right treatment for their animal and manage expectations. The vet can also learn about other treatments your pet is receiving as traditional medicine is not usually a replacement for conventional medicine, rather it's a compliment.
"In cases where we've run out of options, and we're not getting the results we want with Western treatment, acupuncture and other traditional modalities can give your pet an extra boost — that little bit of pain relief or stimulation that makes them feel better."