Acupuncture—the act of placing tiny needles at specific body points to stimulate a healing response—may seem like a new age fad, but is an ancient Chinese practice that has been performed on humans and pets for thousands of years. Veterinary acupuncture is well-tolerated in pets and a non-invasive way to manage many chronic conditions. Acupuncture can also be used as part of a multimodal preventive care plan.

Central Houston Animal Hospital is proud to offer acupuncture as a treatment or therapeutic option for our pet patients. However, we know this service provokes many questions, so we answer the most common.

Question: What happens during a veterinary acupuncture visit?

Answer: The acupuncture experience is unlike any other veterinary visit or service, because the entire process promotes calmness and relaxation. You’ll notice that our team always interacts with you and your pet using low-stress handling techniques, calming body language, and gentle tones of voice. In the exam or treatment room, we’ll situate your pet on a soft, comfortable bed, and the veterinarian will begin placing acupuncture needles at specific locations on their body. The needles are so small that most pets don’t notice their insertion, and many relax and fall asleep. Depending on your pet’s condition, the needles are left in place for a specific time (e.g., 10 to 20 minutes).

Q: How does veterinary acupuncture work?

A: Acupuncture’s physiological effects occur below the surface, but they have been clinically proven through multiple scientific studies. When inserted at key body landmarks, the needles stimulate nerves and trigger central nervous system (CNS) changes, which can include:

  • Blood and lymph flow enhancement — Increased blood and lymphatic fluid circulation helps flush accumulated or trapped toxins, improve tissue health, and enhance sensation in the area.
  • Muscle relaxation — Muscle rigidity and spasms can occur as the body protects a painful area or because nerves are misfiring or signaling inappropriately.
  • Hormone release — Feel-good hormones, such as endorphins and cortisol (i.e., the body’s natural steroid), can relieve pain, stress, and tension, which encourages healing, rest, and restoration.

Modern medicine has confirmed what ancient cultures knew about acupuncture and its health benefits, but many aspects remain a mystery, and researchers continue to explore this fascinating and effective therapy. 

Q: Is acupuncture safe for pets?

A: Acupuncture for pets is incredibly safe and well-tolerated. After needle insertion, some pets may experience an unfamiliar sensation and react mildly, with temporary attention (e.g., turning their head to look at or touch) the affected area. Based on human acupuncture responses, we assume that these sensations include benign tingling or numbness as the acupuncture needles create a physiological effect below the surface.

Acupuncture side effects are rare, mild, and similar to other pain relieving modalities, such as laser therapy, massage, or chiropractic adjustment, and the pet’s condition may worsen temporarily . The pet may show post-treatment fatigue or lethargy, but these signs generally subside in 24 to 48 hours and the pet then visibly improves. 

Q: When is acupuncture recommended for pets?

A: Acupuncture is typically recommended in conjunction with other treatments, such as medication, rehabilitation, or a procedure. Conditions that benefit the most from acupuncture include:

  • Orthopedic disease and musculoskeletal problems — These include arthritis, hip or elbow dysplasia, cruciate ligament rupture, and luxating patellas. Acupuncture can be used postoperatively or as part of non-surgical management. 
  • Nervous system conditions or dysfunction — Acupuncture can relieve pain and promote nerve regeneration and function following nerve or spinal injury, intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), and degenerative myelopathy. Acupuncture may also help vestibular disease and cognitive dysfunction syndrome in senior pets. 
  • Cancer — Acupuncture complements Western oncological treatments (e.g., chemotherapy, radiation) and is used to support immune health and manage treatment-related side effects (i.e., nausea, pain). 
  • Skin conditions — Acupuncture can improve allergies, lick granulomas, and hot spots by stimulating the immune system and increasing blood flow. 
  • Respiratory problems — Acupuncture can help treat allergic bronchitis and asthma. 
  • Gastrointestinal disorders — Acupuncture can help regulate digestive processes and improve chronic and acute disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, pancreatitis, and acute gastritis or colitis (i.e., vomiting, diarrhea).

Q: How frequently will my pet need acupuncture treatments?

A: The duration and frequency of your pet’s acupuncture sessions will depend on their health and treatment response. Sessions typically range from 20 to 30 minutes. Minor issues and injuries may respond in two to three visits, while chronic conditions usually require long-term management (e.g., monthly visits after a more frequent induction phase).  

Minor injuries and illnesses may respond quickly and resolve after a few treatments, while chronic conditions often require regular visits (e.g., every three to four weeks after the initial induction phase). 

Q: When can we determine that acupuncture is helping my pet?

A: Like any veterinary treatment or therapy, acupuncture is not guaranteed to help every pet or every condition. Typically, we expect positive improvement in pets who respond to acupuncture after three or four sessions. If your pet’s condition does not appreciably improve or becomes worse, we will reevaluate your pet and discuss potential alternative therapies.

Acupuncture is a relatively safe treatment option for pets, but is contraindicated in some conditions and with specific medications. If you’re interested in learning whether acupuncture can help your pet, schedule a consultation at Central Houston Animal Hospital