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Acupuncture for dogs with chronic illness could improve their quality of life

Acupuncture for dogs – a dog receiving acupuncture from a vet
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It may sound like a crazy fad, but acupuncture for dogs with chronic illness is showing promising signs when it comes to reducing pain and improving quality of life.

For a long time little was known about the effects of alternative medicine on our canine companions, with pain management focusing largely on pharmacologic options for chronic and persistent pain.

Fast forward to 2021 and acupuncture and other natural therapies are becoming more accepted in veterinary medicine and Dr. Christine Horne, a vet at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital's Georgia Veterinary Rehabilitation in Marietta, is relieved. 

Horne has treated many dogs with arthritis and other painful ailments that didn’t respond to traditional treatments and while she says acupuncture is still a last resort, it’s proving to be an effective one. 

"It can be very successful. It's rare for me to have a case that doesn't respond in some way to the acupuncture," she says.

Dealing with skeptical pet parents is all in a day’s work for Horne and yet she feels it’s the inability of dogs to feel skepticism that helps make acupuncture so effective. “Unlike some of their owners, dogs themselves aren't skeptical. If they feel better after acupuncture sessions, they won't hide it. They'll have more energy and move around more freely.”

So, what exactly does acupuncture for dogs look like in practice? Horne uses positive reinforcement in the form of the best dog treats to get her canine patients to lie down and she makes sure she scratches around where she’s going to place the needle to make sure they don’t get a fright. 

Horne says the acupuncture points stimulate a dog’s nerves and the pain fibers that send information to the brain, allowing the brain and the body to communicate in a way that reduces pain.

"You can basically, almost, teach the brain to listen less to the pain fibers because those pain fibers are sending impulses from the acupuncture, (which don't) really make sense. It's more like static, so you can kind of get the brain to down-regulate its response to pain fibers," Horne says.

And as luck would have it, acupuncture also causes dogs to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls pain and increases pleasure. Horne explains that even if the neurologic stimulation of acupuncture doesn’t have an effect, the release of dopamine will give a boost of energy that can improve a dog’s quality of life.

Using acupuncture has calmed the nervous system of many of Horne’s canine patients, making them less hyper-active to pain fibers and enabling her to wean many of them off the pain-relieving drugs that they’d become dependent on. 

While acupuncture is not a substitute for veterinary care, if your dog is suffering from chronic pain, discussing alternative therapies with your vet can be a great place to start.

Kathryn Rosenberg

Kathryn is a freelance writer with a passion for creating health and wellness, travel and wildlife content. Originally from New Zealand, her nomadic lifestyle has her currently fur baby-less. She scratches her pet parent itch by stealing frequent cuddles with any neighbourhood cat kind enough to indulge her.