Acupuncture for dogs

Acupuncture can help treat a wide range of canine conditions, from osteoarthritis and epilepsy to incontinence and asthma.

Coco is a five-year-old poodle cross who had a prolapsed intervertebral disc. Even after surgery, her prognosis was poor, and her family was told it was unlikely she would ever walk again. Coco came to our clinic for acupuncture and rehabilitation. She received dry needle acupuncture, laser acupuncture and electroacupuncture. After seven treatments, Coco was able to walk with help. She has since totally recovered.

Increasing numbers of people are embracing acupuncture as the treatment of choice for their own aches, pains and illnesses, so it’s not surprising that it’s the fastest growing complementary therapy practiced on animals.

An ancient modality

Acupuncture was developed about 5,000 years ago by the Chinese. By inserting needles into certain parts of the body, these early doctors learned they could cause physiological changes, control pain and stimulate organs or body parts.

Needles are inserted into acupoints. The Chinese mapped these acupoints on humans and horses along with the effects produced by their stimulation. The first acupuncture text book, Nei Jing, was written by the Yellow Emperor around 4,700 years ago. This was the oldest medical textbook in the world and included references to treating horses as well as people.

The practice of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) in the Western world differs from its ancient Chinese origins. The points that veterinary acupuncturists use in dogs today are called transpositional points. Very few ancient acupuncture texts have survived showing the exact anatomical location of acupoints in non-human species. The few that have survived focus on acupuncture for agricultural animals. For this reason, modern acupuncturists have had to transpose the location of canine acupoints from their human counterparts. This can present a challenge, considering the anatomy of the dog in many ways differs from that of a human being.

Although often practiced as such in the West, acupuncture is not a stand-alone procedure, but rather part of a framework that encompasses Chinese medical massage (Tui-na), food therapy, herbal medicine and Qigong. Disease results when the Qi (or life force energy) is out of balance. TCVM uses all the above methods to rebalance the body and create harmony of Qi.

Acupuncture points are not random but run along channels or meridians. These meridians connect the entire body and are the pathways through which the Qi circulates. Although the meridians run deep in the body, they surface at certain points on the skin. These acupoints are where the meridians can be accessed in order to create change in the associated organs or structures.

How does it work?

Acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to help the body heal itself. When acupoints are stimulated by tiny needles, chemicals are released. These chemicals act centrally on the nervous system to release natural pain-killing substances called endorphins. The body’s defense system is stimulated and white blood cells and natural anti-inflammatory cells are released. Circulation is also increased by the release of these chemicals. Because the nervous system goes all over the body, chemicals released from one spot may affect an organ or muscle farther away.

What does a treatment involve?

Acupuncture is usually performed with small, very thin needles. Most dogs do not even feel the needles being inserted and many relax and fall asleep during treatment. The treatment may be given while the dog is lying on the floor or a table, or in any other comfortable position. Sometimes the dog will be fed treats by an assistant or given something to chew on to redirect his attention and help him stay still.

Each treatment is individualized to each patient. The points selected, the number of needles and length of treatment all depend on the dog’s condition. Generally, most cases are seen once or twice a week at first, then the number of treatments is tapered off. Although a response may be seen after only one treatment, usually four to six are needed. The treatments last for ten to 20 minutes.

• Aquapuncture may be performed with some patients. This involves injecting the acupoints with a solution of vitamin B12 and saline. It stimulates the point for a longer period and is a technique that may be used if the patient does not wish to lie still for 20 minutes.

• Electroacupuncture is another technique that may be used to stimulate the acupoints. Electrodes from a small battery-operated unit are connected to needles in different acupoints. A gentle current is passed through the points and down the meridians. Electroacupuncture encourages the flow of nervous energy, blood and lymph along the meridians, thereby speeding healing.

What conditions does acupuncture treat?

Most of the conditions I treat with acupuncture are musculoskeletal and neurological. Osteoarthritis, disc disease and tendon/ligament problems are the top three I have treated, but there are many more.

• Musculoskeletal disorders: chronic degenerative joint disease, intervertebral disc disease, hip dysplasia, tendonitis, sprains and muscle spasms

• Neurological disorders: epilepsy, stroke, deafness, coma, paralysis from disc disease

• Urinary disorders: incontinence, cystitis, urine retention.

• Reproductive and metabolic disorders: uterine prolapse, mastitis

• Gastrointestinal disorders: gastroenteritis, colitis, rectal prolapse, chronic idiopathic diarrhea or vomiting.

• Respiratory problems: rhinitis, sinusitis, laryngitis epistaxis, bronchial asthma, chronic coughing, pneumonia Acupuncture is also effective for immunosuppressive and allergic disorders and can be used in hospice care following chemotherapy or for cancer support.

Case study

A 13-year old shepherd/collie mix named Boots ate a hambone two days before presentation at our hospital. Conventional treatment was not successful in resolving the constipation. The dog had quite a bit of pain and conventional pain medication was contraindicated. Boots’ person thought she might have to euthanize him.

Acupuncture was done using a combination of dry needle, electroacupuncture and aquapuncture with vitamin B12. Boots immediately became more comfortable and within 24 hours was passing stool. With stool softeners, enemas and more acupuncture, the constipation was resolved.

Those ancient doctors knew what they were doing when they developed acupuncture. Thousands of years later, it remains an effective treatment for a variety of problems, sometimes even in cases when other forms of therapy don’t work.


Veterinarian Dr. Janice Huntingford is a graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, and certified in animal chiropractic and acupuncture. She received her certification in Veterinary Rehabilitation through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute, and opened Ontario’s first saltwater canine therapy pool and rehabilitation center. She is a Certified TCVM Practitioner, a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner, and a board certified specialist, earning a Diploma from the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. She practices in Essex, Ontario (