Animal Pain Awareness Month – Acupuncture

September 9, 2021

Veterinary Acupuncture: Getting to the Point of Your Pet’s Pain

By Michel Selmer, DVM, MS, CTCVMP

LIVS | Plainview, NY

Many common pet medical conditions, from osteoarthritis to dental disease, cause pain that can interfere with your pet’s ability to live a happy, active life. September is designated Animal Pain Awareness Month, which makes this a perfect time to help you understand the many options available to manage your pet’s pain, so they can enjoy a full, pain-free life.

 Veterinary acupuncture is one of many pain management treatments NVA Compassion-First hospitals offer to keep your pet comfortable. Acupuncture has been used in human medicine for thousands of years, but has been commonly used in pets only in the last several decades.

What is veterinary acupuncture?

Veterinary acupuncture, which involves inserting small needles into specific points on the body surface to produce a healing response, is one component of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM). According to TCVM, the body’s Qi (i.e., energy flow) is responsible for all dynamic and resting functions, and Qi excess or imbalance can cause pain and illness. By stimulating acupuncture points, proper Qi flow can be re-established, restoring balance and flow throughout the body. 

Acupuncture uses the body’s own ability to heal, which not only can cure many chronic conditions, but also prevent problems. Acupuncture is commonly used in conjunction with Western medicine to treat a wide variety of conditions in many animal species. I often combine acupuncture with herbal medicine for the best results.

Scientific studies have shown that acupuncture blocks transmission through pain receptors, increases blood flow to organs, and releases substances in the body that stimulate the immune system. Clinical research shows positive results in animals treated with veterinary acupuncture, which may not help resolve every pet’s condition, but can work well when indicated.

 What pet conditions can benefit from veterinary acupuncture? 

 Acupuncture can treat a variety of conditions by restoring balance in the body’s various systems. Where there is imbalance, there is disease, and where there is balance, there is good health. Acupuncture can help treat pain directly by blocking pain transmission, and indirectly by correcting the underlying problem.

The most common conditions I treat with acupuncture include: 

  • Chronic pain and decreased mobility — Arthritis, neck and back pain, and other types of chronic pain
  • Musculoskeletal problems — Osteoarthritis, infectious joint disease, hip dysplasia, rheumatoid arthritis, muscle pain, tendon, ligament, and soft tissue injuries, muscle weakness, stiffness, and weakness caused by paresis and paralysis
  • Neurologic problems — Intervertebral disc disease, spinal cord compression, nerve inflammation, paralysis, seizures, stroke, and vestibular disease
  • Behavior disorders — Separation anxiety, fear, hyperactivity, barking at night, tail chasing, inappropriate urination or defecation, and destructive behavior
  • Urogenital problems — Kidney failure, urinary tract infections, incontinence, difficult or frequent urination, prostate disease, urinary stones, and some reproductive problems
  • Cardiac and respiratory problems — Asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, respiratory infections, difficulty breathing, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), rhinitis, sinusitis, and heart disease and failure
  • Endocrine disorders — Diabetes, Cushing’s disease, Addison’s disease, hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism
  • Skin problems — Lick granulomas, allergies, dermatitis, ear infections, chronic itching, and eczema
  • Gastrointestinal problems — Vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, inappetance, regurgitation, nausea, pancreatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Liver disease — Hepatitis, hepatic lipidosis, cholangitis, and cholangiohepatitis
  • Ocular disorders — Conjunctivitis, keratitis, keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), uveitis, glaucoma, and cataracts
  • Autoimmune diseases —  Lupus, and pemphigus
  • Cancer — Acupuncture can be used to increase immunity, decrease pain, improve life quality, stimulate appetite, and slow cancer spread and progression. Acupuncture can also be used with chemotherapy and radiation treatments to increase white blood cell counts, and decrease treatment side effects.
  • Surgical recovery — Acupuncture can improve recovery, help decrease pain, and promote healing.

How should I choose a veterinary acupuncturist for my pet?

Look for two important criteria in your veterinary acupuncturist:

  1. They must be a licensed veterinarian.
  2. They should have formal veterinary acupuncture training.

In most countries, states, and provinces, veterinary acupuncture is considered a surgical procedure that only licensed veterinarians can legally perform. A veterinarian is in the best position to properly diagnose an animal’s condition and determine whether they will likely benefit from acupuncture. A veterinary diagnosis is critical, because acupuncture can mask pain or other clinical signs, and may delay proper diagnosis, or worsen the condition. Additionally, if incorrect acupuncture points are chosen, needles are inserted to the wrong depth, or treatment duration is inappropriate, the patient’s condition may worsen. 

Proper veterinary acupuncture training involves an extensive post-doctoral educational program. The more your veterinarian knows about traditional Chinese philosophies and the Western scientific basis for acupuncture, the more assured you can be that your pet will be treated properly.

Is veterinary acupuncture safe for my pet?

In the hands of a knowledgeable veterinary acupuncturist, veterinary acupuncture is considered extremely safe for pets. Adverse reactions are rare, but may occasionally occur. Such reactions may include mild bruising or swelling at the needle insertion site, mild worsening of the pet’s condition for 24 to 48 hours, difficulty removing needles because of muscle spasms, injuring underlying tissue or an organ, and needle site infection. Certain acupuncture points are contraindicated in pregnant animals. Exercise caution if specific drugs, such as narcotics or corticosteroids, are used, or if the animal has a clotting disorder.

If your family veterinarian suspects that acupuncture may help your pet, contact your local NVA Compassion-First emergency and specialty hospital to discuss treatment options that may offer your companion more time, and a better quality of life.