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Consider Acupuncture to Ease Your Pet’s Stresses and Strains

This ancient Chinese practice is gaining popularity among veterinarians

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​Pets get aches, pains and anxiety just like the rest of us. To help furry friends feel better, some pet owners are turning to veterinary acupuncture.​

This traditional Chinese health practice is similar to the treatment lots of humans seek out: thin needles are inserted into muscles, tendons and other parts of the body to enhance blood circulation, stimulate the nervous system and release anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving hormones. ​

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Pet acupuncture can be used to treat a host of issues, from joint pain to age-related appetite loss and separation anxiety — something many pets are grappling with as owners trickle back to office work instead of hanging out at home. ​

Acupuncture is also helpful “with conditions that Western medicine has had limited success with, especially organ disease, neurological problems, quality-of-life improvement for cancer patients or chronic pain issues, to name a few,” says veterinarian Fredric Schlesinger, 66, who practices acupuncture on pets in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

A practice growing in popularity

​Veterinary acupuncture has a long history. Acupuncture in general predates written records, but it’s believed to have originated in China during the Stone Age, with sharpened stones and bones used as instruments for puncturing and draining abscesses, according to the article “A Brief History of Acupuncture,” published in Rheumatology.

In 1939, with the publication of his book L’Acuponcture Chinoise about acupuncture as a cure for cholera, George Soulié de Morant ignited interest in the practice that continues today. ​

Veterinary acupuncture reportedly started during the Zang and Chow dynasties, around 3000-2000 B.C., when “horse priests” were caretakers of the Chinese army’s horses, the article notes. ​

In modern times, it “is definitely becoming more popular,” says Lori Bidwell, 50, a veterinarian in Lexington, Kentucky, and president of the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture. Membership in the AAVA has quadrupled over the past two decades and continues to grow steadily. “It was difficult to find someone to do acupuncture on horses or pets just 10 years ago. Now, there are options in most areas.”​

Bidwell practices acupuncture primarily on horses, dogs and cats but has also worked on primates, a rhinoceros and an ostrich.​

Cats in particular tend not to relish acupuncture, and that includes Bidwell’s own 4-year-old gray domestic shorthair named Howard. She treats him occasionally, particularly after Howard’s vigorous romps with two small dogs that share the house.​

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Bidwell’s husband, Duncan Peters, 69, has noticed that Howard is more receptive to some sessions than to others: “Sometimes he’s like, ‘No, I’m good, I’m good. Leave me alone,’ and other times it’s, ‘Hey, I need this now.’ I may be anthropomorphizing, but there may even be an awareness there that he’s a little bit sore and it’s going to benefit him.”​

While some pet owners remain skeptical of its value, pet acupuncture is recommended for pain control by the American Animal Hospital Association. Studies have shown it reduces pain for chronic conditions such as hip dysplasia in dogs, according to the Open Veterinary Journal, and the practice is taught in a number of veterinary colleges. ​

Bidwell adds: “As animals are becoming more than just pets for most people, acupuncture is becoming a useful tool for maintaining active health and prolonging a healthy life in geriatric patients.”​

Sessions, which can range from 15 minutes to one hour, typically cost from $50 to hundreds of dollars, depending on the pet’s personality and the nature of their condition. Be sure to choose an acupuncturist who is a licensed veterinarian and has had formal training in the practice of veterinary acupuncture. The AAVA has listings of trained veterinary acupuncturists by name, clinic and state. ​

“Too often Western medicine only looks at one complaint,” Bidwell says. “Eastern medicine looks at the bigger picture: Why is this problem happening? What else is being affected? And how can we improve the whole body?”​

Dog is ‘more content and perky’

Judy Asman figured if acupuncture had helped her own muscular pain, allergies and asthma, it might help Max, her 11-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback mix, who was diagnosed with arthritis in his spine. The dog was dragging his hind legs, which caused the nails in his back paws to scrape against the pavement and bleed.​

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spinner image Max the dog receives acupuncture treatments with veterinarian Fredric Schlesinger.
Max receives acupuncture treatments with veterinarian Fredric Schlesinger.
Courtesy Judy Asman

Asman, 52, who lives in Albuquerque, brought Max to Schlesinger for weekly or twice-weekly appointments at first — and kept up maintenance visits for several months.​

“He’s improved,” Asman says. While Max continues to have issues dragging his feet during walks because of weak muscles in his hind legs, he can lift his hind legs and paws better than before the treatment. He has more energy and is more flexible, and his disposition is “more content and perky,” she says.​

Some pet owners may also turn to acupuncture to avoid overmedicating their pets. Schlesinger, who is certified through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, says acupuncture “is a more natural modality for healing than just using pharmaceuticals.” ​

But pet owners shouldn’t overestimate the power of the practice, he says. “It may not cure a permanent condition or cancer, but it may often help,” Schlesinger says. ​

And those seeking an instant cure should keep in mind that several acupuncture sessions may be needed to see improvement, especially if a pet’s condition is chronic. ​

That said, Schlesinger said he has seen dogs paralyzed from herniated discs in the spinal cord wind up being able walk and run again after treatment.​

Asman says that Max, who tends to be stoic, is cooperative during his treatments.​

“Even though he may twitch a little bit at first, ultimately he's pretty cooperative as the needles go in,” Asman says. “After about 10 minutes, the chi is starting to flow, and it becomes really obvious that Max is getting relaxed. He lies down, puts his head in my lap and at that point he’s falling asleep. This is absolutely a worthwhile investment.”​​

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