You’ve heard of acupuncture as a treatment for human ailments, but did you know that it can also benefit dogs? Veterinarian Dr. Ruth West, owner of Karma K9 Mobile Acupuncture, provides key information on canine acupuncture in the below Q&A interview! Dr. West graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2011, obtained her Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist in 2010 from the Chi Institute of Chinese Medicine, and is also a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CCRP).
What is acupuncture?
Dr. West: Acupuncture is an age-old healing practice of traditional Chinese medicine in which sterile needles are placed in specific points in the body. It is often used as a potential alternative to pain medications, which is great for dogs who cannot tolerate pain medication. While using acupuncture, some owners are also able to reduce pain medication provided to their dogs.
Acupuncture is often part of a multi-modal treatment plan – a plan that uses multiple medical treatments. For example, to treat arthritis, a veterinarian may use every option they have – weight loss, lasering, the Assisi Loop, acupuncture, pain medication, and low impact exercise.
Does it hurt?
Dr. West: Generally, no. The acupuncture needles are tiny - a fraction of the size of a normal hypodermic needle! Over 95% of canine patients are comfortable with acupuncture, including most of those whose owners do not initially believe their dogs will accept the acupuncture. Many dogs fall asleep during or after acupuncture sessions!
How does acupuncture work?
Dr. West: The points used in acupuncture are "biologically" active, meaning there are more blood vessels, nerve endings and immune cells in these areas. The needles cause increased blood flow and immune response - they stimulate the body to heal itself - bringing muscle relaxation and healing to the area. A dog receiving acupuncture also experiences the release of endorphins, or "feel good" hormones, which allows the dog to relax and rest.
What is the normal duration of a treatment session (how long are the needles in a dog)?
Dr. West: This is case dependent. Normally the sessions are 20-40 minutes.
What are the most common reasons or conditions that owners decide to get acupuncture for their dogs?
Dr. West: Acupuncture is often used to treat canine osteoarthritis; hip, elbow or shoulder dysplasia; ligament and tendon issues; intravertebral disc disease (IVDD) and other spinal issues; laryngeal difficulties; neurological problems; performance issues from sports injuries in canine athletes; and general geriatric issues. Most of my clients are owners of geriatric dogs with mobility issues. Some of those seniors also have incontinence, dementia, and depression – those conditions can also benefit from acupuncture.
What are some of the less common reasons or conditions that you treat with acupuncture?
Dr. West: Anxious dogs of any age may benefit from acupuncture. Sometimes I treat dogs with systemic diseases – Cushing’s disease, kidney disease, liver issues, allergies, skin issues, or obesity – in conjunction with the conventional treatment that the dog patient receives from his primary care veterinarian. Some veterinarian acupuncturists are also certified in herbal, food and massage. Those individuals may also use those treatments in combination with acupuncture to treat conditions, too.
How do you handle an antsy or excited dog?
Dr. West: Usually the dogs calm down after a few moments. If needed, I’ll use treats to reward calm behavior or distract with a filled Kong.
How often do you need to see patients? Weekly? Monthly? What drives the frequency of the treatments?
Dr. West: Usually I start out with sessions once a week for three weeks and then evaluate if the patient can switch to treatments every other week. If I do not see results after three sessions, the owner and I discuss using a different modality, such as lasering, massage, or going to a veterinary rehabilitation clinic for other types of treatment.
Some certified acupuncture providers, like you, provide in-home acupuncture for dogs. What are the benefits of having it performed in-home?
Dr. West: Dogs are more relaxed in their own homes and do not have to worry about the stress of a car ride or visiting the clinic. This also saves the owner time. In addition, if the dog is large, it can be difficult to load a dog with mobility problems into a vehicle.
Under what conditions do you use “electroacupuncture?”
Dr. West: After placing dry needles in the dog, electroacupuncture involves attaching electrodes to the needles. These electrodes carry a small pulse of electricity through the needle and across the treated area. The electricity helps stop pain messages from reaching the brain and gives the patient instant relief from discomfort. Electroacupuncture also stimulates nerves to transmit signals to the brain more effectively; thus, it’s often used in dogs with neurological problems (their brains are no longer talking well to their nervous systems.)
What evidence suggests that acupuncture is helpful?
Dr. West: A study by Schoen was done with 65 arthritic dogs that were no longer responding to pain medicines. After a course of acupuncture treatments, 70% of the dogs had improvement or greater than 50% increase in comfort and mobility! Many other studies exist to demonstrate the effectiveness, too. Dogs have no expectations about acupuncture so there is no placebo effect – we will either see results or not!
Acupuncture is a specialized skill that requires training. What type of certification should a dog owner look for when looking for an acupuncture provider?
Dr. West: They should be a licensed veterinarian. I know of three schools that provide veterinary acupuncture certification. Research the practitioner that you found to learn about his or her experience and visit the link to his or her acupuncture school.
If a dog owner is interested in exploring acupuncture treatment for her dog, what should she do to find a practitioner?
Dr. West: Talk to your primary care or rehab veterinarian – often your primary care vet or rehab vet may know a good local, certified veterinary acupuncturist. In addition, you can look online. Schools that certify veterinarians in acupuncture have listings of practitioners on their websites. For example, the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture and the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine have listings.
What else should dog owners know about acupuncture?
Dr. West: First, don’t wait too long! Don’t wait until your dog can’t walk or has mobility issues. I wish dog owners would reach out for help sooner. Second, I’d like pet owners to consider non-conventional treatments – they can be so helpful!
What do some of the dogs’ owners say about acupuncture and how your treatments have helped their dogs?
“Dr. West is currently treating my sweet baby boy, Tumble, who suffered a spinal injury on May 25th and was left paralyzed in his hind legs. Tumble is very cooperative with Dr. West and he really enjoys her visits (he usually sleeps the afternoon away after a treatment). Tumble has only had 3 treatments, but I've already seen steady progress.” - Tumble’s owner Sandy
“My dog is 16 and gets acupuncture once a month following some more intense sessions to help her get over the inflammatory phase of her arthritis. It is a cornerstone to her quality of life in her elderly years. It has been far more successful as regular maintenance than episodic therapy when there is a fall. As a fellow Veterinarian, I always recommend it (and Ruth) as a component to chronic pain management.” Khandi’s owner Sarah
“Dr. West treated my sweet dog with acupuncture and compassion for about 18 months. We were able to keep Sheba mobile and active well past her 16th birthday, despite an ACL tear. It was amazing to see post-treatment improvements in movement and strength.” – Linda
“Dr. West has been treating my Dane with wobblers for many years now. This has made a huge difference! My dog was able to come off her pain meds which she was having to take 6-12 per day for her size. Paisley is able to live a much more comfortable life because of Dr. West without destroying her organs with pain meds.” – Paisley’s owner Sara