The Chinese conceive of illness as being caused by disturbances in an organism’s energy balance. The purpose of acupuncture is to resolve and relieve these imbalances and energy obstructions, and thus effect healing. No distinction is drawn between physical and psychological conditions, rather diagnosis is based on both components as a whole. Obstructions to the flow of energy can be caused by a force acting from outside, overexertion, wrong diet, excess or unequal strain, and insufficient exercise, as well as neural factors. If such energy obstructions remain unrecognised and unresolved for any length of time, they can lead to pathological and anatomical changes for example arthritis.

Acupuncture is a treatment that involves inserting fine, sterile, stainless steel needles into specific points of the body to induce a healing response. The treatment evolved over 3000 years ago in China and it is now being used in veterinary and medical practices throughout the world. In veterinary medicine, acupuncture is increasingly being recognised as a useful treatment for a wide range of conditions.

How does acupuncture work? 

Inserting acupuncture needles stimulates tiny nerve endings that carry impulses to the spinal cord and brain. This results in responses within the nervous and endocrine systems, leading to the release of neurotransmitters and hormones. These influence the function of the body tissues and organ systems.

The effect of an individual needle is determined by where it is placed in the body and which nerves are stimulated – hence the need for a thorough knowledge of veterinary anatomy and physiology.

Initially, acupuncture increases the release of natural painkillers such as endorphins, enkephalins and serotonin which act on the pain pathways in the brain and spinal cord and can block the transmission of incoming pain signals. Then secondly in the mid-brain, acupuncture causes switching and reduced inhibition of the posterior horn cells via non-opiates, the monoamines. The third level comprises the core areas of the hypothalamus, where beta-endorphin is released.

Acupuncture can be used to treat all types of pain; it has been used in particular for pain  affecting the musculoskeletal system. Acupuncture can also be applied in the treatment of chronic internal ailments. A list of ailments for which acupuncture can be effectively employed has been published by the World Health Organisation. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine considers physical ailments and psychological problems as a unit, allowing psychological disorders to be also treated with acupuncture. It is beneficial that a conventional Western medical diagnosis has been obtained prior to the commencement of acupuncture treatment. For example, it is natural for an animal with pain in its front legs and no discernible lameness to develop back pains. In this case, the back is the secondary problem. It is therefore first of all necessary to treat the pain in the front legs and subsequently the pain in the back. A conventional medical diagnosis is required to determine the cause of the lameness. A Traditional Chinese diagnosis is performed supplementally. It is then possible to decide which form of treatment to use or whether to combine the two.

The purpose of an acupuncture treatment is to restore the patient to a state of balance or homeostasis. By influencing part of the brain called the hypothalamus, acupuncture can affect homeostatic regulatory mechanisms such as the control of blood pressure, pulse, respiration, intestinal motility, hormone secretion and white blood cell production.

By law, acupuncture can only be performed by a qualified veterinary surgeon who has undergone special training in the technique. This is because it is an invasive procedure that requires a thorough knowledge of veterinary anatomy and physiology. 

Research is being done about other effects of acupuncture that have been clinically described like immune stimulation, skin ailments, and help with psychological conditions. A list of ailments for which acupuncture can be effectively employed has been published by the World Health Organisation.

Health can be defined as a state of harmony of an animal with its internal environment and within its external environment. There is complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.

Does acupuncture have any limitations or side effects? 

The application of acupuncture is always subject to limitations when mechanical obstructions exist or organs have undergone irreparable change.

In general, the insertion of acupuncture needles into the skin is not painful. Some animals have very sensitive skin and react to the needles nervously or with trembling skin. As a rule, animals react increasingly calmly and trustingly as the treatment progresses. In some cases, a laser can be used to replace the needle.

How safe is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is one of the safest forms of medical treatment for animals when it is administered by a properly trained veterinary surgeon. Side effects of acupuncture do exist but they are rare. An animal’s condition may appear changing for up to 7d after a treatment. Other animals become lethargic or sleepy for 24 hours. These effects are an indication that some physiological changes are developing, and they are most often followed by an improvement in the animal’s condition.

Acupuncture should never be administered without a proper veterinary medical diagnosis and an ongoing assessment of the patient’s condition by a veterinary surgeon. This is very important because acupuncture is capable of masking pain or other clinical signs and therefore could delay proper veterinary medical diagnosis once treatment has begun. Elimination of pain may lead to increased activity on the part of the animal, thus delaying healing or causing the original condition to worsen.

In general, acupuncture can be effectively combined with most conventional and alternative therapies. Certified Veterinary Acupuncturists have the comprehensive training, knowledge and skill to understand the interactions between different forms of treatment and to interpret the patient’s response to therapy.