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Healing with Needles

I have one of those professions that can stop conversations in their tracks, especially at parties. Telling people you are a veterinarian that specializes in acupuncture elicits all sorts of reactions, but the single most common question I get is, “Do animals really let you do that?”

It actually amazes even me that the vast majority of my patients do allow me to poke needles in often sensitive areas of their bodies, sit quietly with the needles in for 15 to 20 minutes, and then accept a treat or a chin scratch before they bound out the door after the appointment.

In fact, many of my human clients tell me that mine is the only vet office their dogs or cats (yep, cats too) actually donʼt mind visiting — in fact, the animals often will snooze during their appointments, completely content. Of course this isnʼt always the case, but it is quite common.
If you live in the Bay Area, youʼve probably heard of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine. You may have even heard of it for dogs. But many people have no idea how it can help their pets or even if it is worth trying. These are really important questions to answer, as we all want our dogs and cats to live healthy and happy lives for as long as possible.

It is not known exactly how acupuncture was developed, but it has a recorded history of well over 2,000 years. There are acupuncture point maps for both humans and horses from that time, so it clearly has been used on animals for just as long as people. However, the United States is the first recorded place it was used on dogs and cats, and that appears to have started only in the last sixty years or so.

There are many theories about how acupuncture works, but because our knowledge of the nervous system is still evolving, our theories about acupuncture keep evolving, as well. The most common is the “gate” theory, which describes the stimulation of the nerve with the needle, blocking that nerveʼs ability to transmit messages of pain. This is a very simplistic view, but it does suggest a plausible reason why acupuncture can be so helpful for pain control.

So, what is acupuncture good for? The answer to this question – that it can help treat a wide variety of illnesses – surprises a lot of people. Many, many chronic diseases can be relieved by acupuncture. The most common use, bar none, is helping stop pain and inflammation. The majority of my animal patients come to me with discomfort due to back injuries, arthritis, joint injuries, or neurologic pain, and acupuncture is often the only thing that gives them relief. Sometimes their standard medications have stopped working, or the pet doesnʼt tolerate a prescribed drug very well, or the animal has another disease for which the medication they need is contra-indicated. In all these situations, acupuncture can provide relief.

Another common use is relief from allergies. Itchy skin can make a dog miserable, and to see him scratching all night long is a horrific sight – not to mention the sleep deprivation! Although I often find that skin problems need to be treated with several different modalities, regular acupuncture treatments can provide relief from the symptoms while things like herbs and food changes work from the inside out.

Acupuncture is often an effective treatment for nausea, autoimmune disease, asthma symptoms, chronic diarrhea, and incontinence. It can speed recovery from surgery and even help manage the side effects of pharmaceuticals, including chemotherapy drugs.

When you come to your first appointment, it is a good idea to have a summary of symptoms and observations you have made over the course of your petʼs illness. This, along with veterinary records, can help your practitioner plan an effective treatment plan.

The first treatment may be a bit disconcerting, but often the dog or cat will relax within a few minutes, as the needles trigger the release of endorphins.

People sometimes donʼt notice much change in their petʼs condition after the first treatment, although many will see immediate improvement followed by a gradual return of the symptoms. This is a common pattern and explains why most acupuncturists recommend seeing your pet every one to two weeks for three to six treatments, depending on the type and severity of health issues.

After this initial period, spreading out the treatments on an “as needed” basis is the most common recommendation, although staying ahead of the worst of the symptoms is a good idea. I had one client who noticed that the minute she could hear her dogs nails scraping on the floor, she knew it was time for his “tune up.”

Acupuncture isnʼt for everyone, but it can be a very effective way to help your pet enjoy his or her golden years without a lot of invasive treatments. And think of the stories youʼll have for the next dinner party!

Anne Reed has been practicing holistic medicine in the Bay Area for 15 years. She graduated from UC Davis Veterinary School in 1998 and has been trained in both Homeopathy and Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. Her passion is helping all her patients achieve health and balance naturally, without invasive procedures whenever possible. Her current practice, All Paws Holistic Veterinary Clinic (, is in Point Richmond.

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