If your pet has arthritis, allergies, digestive issues, hip dysplasia, or certain neurological disorders, your vet may recommend acupuncture.
The ancient Chinese practice is often recommended as a complement to conventional veterinary treatments such as medication and surgery, says Amelia Munsterman, DVM, a veterinary acupuncturist and assistant clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Research shows that acupuncture can help reduce pain and inflammation and improve a pet's quality of life.
During a session, a veterinary acupuncturist will insert thin needles into areas such as muscles, tendons, fascia, and nerve fibers to ease symptoms by altering the perception of pain or stimulating neurotransmitters in the brain.
The alternative therapy, while effective, is not right for every pet. Munsterman doesn't recommend it for acute conditions such as infections and admits that some pets might not cooperate when an acupuncturist wants to insert needles and remain still during the 20-minute sessions.
"We'll actually feel along the meridians to see if the animal is sensitive to touch," says Munsterman. "If they're not even letting you touch them, it's going to be really difficult to get needles into them."
Massaging trigger points -- called acupressure -- can be a good alternative for pets that dislike needles. In addition, laser therapy, a noninvasive treatment that uses light to improve blood circulation and regenerate cells, is an option for pets with significant pain.
Veterinary acupuncturists are licensed veterinarians with extra training in acupuncture. Your vet might do the sessions in the office or give you a referral to another provider. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society maintains a list of certified veterinary acupuncturists.
Although the idea for acupuncture for pets is catching on, many pet owners don’t know much about it. "Keep an open mind," Munsterman says. "Acupuncture can provide another way to help our pets and improve their conditions that complements the treatments we're providing with Western medicine."
Learn more about acupuncture from your vet, says Munsterman.
- Is my pet a good candidate? Acupuncture might not be the best option for older pets or those with serious illnesses or injuries, Munsterman says. It is most effective for pets with orthopedic conditions such as arthritis and back pain.
- What about side effects? While your pet could get an infection at a needle site, "it's very, very rare to see a reaction to acupuncture," she says.
- How long will it take to get results? The number of sessions your pet may need to find relief depends on the diagnosis. In general, improvements come after three to four sessions.
- What other therapies might help? Veterinary acupuncturists might recommend electro-acupuncture, which sends mild electric currents through the needles for more stimulation, or they may suggest herbal supplements to complement acupuncture and speed healing.
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