Neat as a Pin: How Acupuncture Heals from the Outside In


At 13 years old, both arthritis and cognitive decline were taking a toll on Lucy. The sweet pit bull mix was weak in her hind legs and experiencing periods of mental fogginess that worried her family. But after a few months of an unconventional treatment, Lucy’s legs have strengthened and her family reports fewer time periods during the day when she seems distant. What state-of-the-art medical device brought about this result? As it turns out: the humble needle.

Acupuncture has played a role in the treatment of human ailments  for thousands of years, but as a veterinary therapy it is relatively new.

The treatment involves inserting tiny needles into specific points mapped throughout a pet’s body—areas where there’s a high density of free nerve endings, immune cells and small blood vessels. Stimulating these acupoints has been shown to have a variety of affects, including increased production of the body’s natural painkillers, increased blood flow, decreased inflammation and regulation of the immune system.

As for how it works, Dr. Kate Vickery, a board certified medical oncologist and acupuncturist for Hope Veterinary Specialists in Malvern, Pa., says there are two schools of thought.

“The explanation from traditional western medicine is that placing needles at the acupoint creates a small amount of inflammation within the tissues, which sends signals to chemical mediators within that area, these chemicals then communicate with local nerves and eventually signal the brain,” Vickery says.

“The brain then releases powerful chemicals to help heal that area of inflammation, such as serotonin, beta-endorphin or cortisol. This is why acupuncture helps with many indications—it taps into the body’s natural opioids that help with pain. The release of these powerful chemicals from the brain is much like a runner’s high.”

“The eastern Chinese medicine belief is that the needles create a shift in energy,” says Vickery. “That in a healthy state, energy circles around one part of the body (or channel) to the next. A disease state is like a traffic jam where the energy signals can’t get through. The idea is that acupuncture unblocks that jam.”

threading the needle
When pet parents are presented with the idea of acupuncture for their furry loved ones, their first question is always, “does it hurt?”

“A lot of people see needles and fear getting stuck,” says Vickery, “but it’s not the same type of needle. A needle used to draw blood is typically a larger diameter, hollow needle with a cutting edge—that’s why you feel it. The standard acupuncture needle is solid and very small in diameter so it doesn’t typically cause pain. Usually there’s not much of a reaction at all.”

“Occasionally you see a brief skin or muscle twitch in the area [where the needle’s inserted], sometimes the pet looks around to see what you are doing, but most of the time, there’s no reaction except relaxing,” Vickery says. “After placement of just one or two needles many patients will start to fall asleep.”

When Vickery administers acupuncture, the majority of her patients are awake, and set up in a comfortable, cozy environment that promotes relaxation. She also uses a white noise machine and a lavender essential oil diffuser and encourages the client to stay with their pet during treatment. Sedation or anesthesia is not necessary for 99% of pets. “It amazes pet parents that their pets stay still for the duration of treatment”, says Vickery, “this has to do with the stress free environment and the treatment itself promoting relaxation.”

Canine treatments are about 20-30 minutes, depending on the dog. Cats tolerate the needles well but typically prefer that the needles be removed sooner than what we see in dogs typically 10-20 minutes in cats. “You know when patient is finished because they start to fidget and give subtle cues that they want to leave,” says Vickery.

patching up patients
As veterinary acupuncture has gained traction in recent decades, its many applications are being revealed. “For many medical conditions acupuncture is an excellent adjunct, to be used in addition to the standard of care traditional treatments recommended by the veterinarian” Vickery says.

How long it takes for acupuncture to begin working depends on the nature of the condition it is being used to treat, and individual results can vary. Vickery says that patients with acute issues, like acute pain, vomiting or pancreatitis tend to see results happen quickly, with improvement after just 1-2 treatments. For severe acute conditions, daily treatments may be recommended for an average of 5-7 days.

For pets with chronic pain, chronic illnesses or internal conditions, it can take several treatments before they  start to see improvement.

“For patients with  a chronic condition like arthritis, this is a condition that took years to develop, a gentle treatment like acupuncture is unlikely to provide rapid relief in a few hours. In these cases I usually start with an average of three treatments and then make an assessment,” says Vickery.

“If we are seeing improvement then I recommend continuing with treatment. In my experience, many pets have improvement after just three treatments. It is important to remember that for chronic illness like arthritis, acupuncture will help support the patient and may help reduce pain but this treatment will not erase years from your pet’s life nor make them a puppy again.”

After the initial treatments, pets with chronic conditions may then go on to receive maintenance treatments monthly, every other month, every 3 months or every 6 months, depending on the condition being treated.

One of the most significant benefits of acupuncture is that there are little to no side effects.

“I really haven’t seen any negative effects, and you can pair it with any [traditional Western Medicine treatment]. The only scenarios in which I wouldn’t recommend acupuncture is to not place needles around a cancerous tumor, because you don’t want to increase blood flow to the tumor, or place needles in a  debilitated patient as the acupuncture could push them over the edge—but at that point the same would be true of any medical treatment.”

pinpointing the costs
Though fees will vary among individual practices, you can generally expect to pay a consult fee for the first appointment, followed by a treatment fee for each acupuncture session. Dr. Vickery says outpatient sessions at Hope are typically $75-$125. If a patient is hospitalized or receiving the treatment pre- or post-operatively, there’s an in-house charge of just $50.

the sticking point
According to Dr. Vickery, acupuncture is becoming a more acceptable and sought after treatment by pet parents. “Some clients ask for it, some look at you like you’ve got a tree growing out of your head when you talk about it—but then they try it, their pet responds, and they’re hooked,” says Vickery.

“Hope is a specialty hospital and our oncology clients are extremely committed to doing whatever they can to help their pets.  Acupuncture is another tool in the toolbox that I can provide to potentially reduce nausea and support the patient.  The main goal is quality of life in veterinary oncology, and acupuncture is another tool to support just that.”

Enhancing quality of life makes a big difference for all of Dr. Vickery’s patients—including dogs like Lucy, who feels less physical pain and is more mentally alert after her acupuncture sessions. And those extra weeks and months spent with the dog they know and love can mean everything to a family who doesn’t want to see their pet suffer the full effects of age or disease.

As general veterinary practices become open to holistic approaches to medicine, certified veterinary acupuncturists like Dr. Vickery will soon be in high demand, providing more treatment options, improved outcomes and better quality of life for pets with all kinds of conditions. And THAT is something pet parents and patients alike can pin their hopes on.

Acupuncture can be used in conjunction with traditional western medicine as a therapy for:

  • Pain Control – pre-op and post-op surgical pain; orthopedic pain (ACL tear, luxating patella, etc); arthritis
  • Support for Cancer Patient – potentially reduce side effects of treatment such as gastrointestinal upset and immune suppression; reduce pain associated with the tumor; improve stamina; reduce anxiety associated with frequent vet visits for cancer treatment
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders – vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, poor appetite; ease symptoms assoc with inflammatory bowel disease
  • Neurologic Disorders – nerve or muscle weakness; seizures; intervertebral disc disease
  • Bladder and Kidney Disease – inflammation of bladder (cystitis/feline lower urinary tract disease), , ease symptoms assoc with chronic kidney failure
  • Immune Disorders –promotes restoration of function, ease symptoms of illness
  • Nasal and Respiratory Disorders –sinusitis, chronic rhinitis, allergic bronchitis, asthma, cough, nasal discharge
  • Endocrine Disorders – ease the secondary symptoms of Cushing’s disease, diabetes and others
  • Dental Disorders – control acute dental pain; pain control for chronic dental disease, TMJ, stomatitis (inflammation of mouth)
  • Skin Disorders – control allergy (a major cause of dermatitis), promote healing of chronic wounds
  • Cardiac Conditions – promote improved function of heart, reduce risk of irregular heartbeat

— published in fetch! magazine, the “Inside Out” issue