Acupuncture for What Ails Him?

For relief from arthritis, disc disease, nausea, and other conditions, acupuncture gains ground.


Acupuncture treatment, by many accounts, is proving valuable in treating dogs suffering from such ailments as musculoskeletal pain and nausea as well as various side effects of chemotherapy. Tufts veterinary school graduate Karen Fine, DVM, who practices in Massachusetts, describes one dog who was in so much pain from apparent disc disease in his neck that she told his owners if acupuncture didn’t help, and they declined to take him for a workup by veterinary specialists, they should seriously consider putting him down to relieve him of his misery. But within five days of his first treatment — when Dr. Fine inserted a number of thin needles in his skin and left them there for 20 minutes — he was 60 percent better. Today, he is 90 percent improved. Acupuncture literally saved his life.

Linda Shea, a client care specialist and veterinary nurse at Central Animal Hospital in Leominster, Massachusetts, responds “absolutely yes” when asked whether pet insurance companies are offering reimbursement for acupuncture treatments these days.

Yet for all the stories of healing and pain relief, pure scientific proof for acupuncture is lacking. It’s virtually impossible to conduct placebo-controlled studies with some dogs getting real acupuncture and some getting sham acupuncture. Even needles inserted into the “wrong” spots might have some effect. In addition, acupuncture by its very nature is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Two dogs with the same condition might need different types of acupuncture, making an apples-to-apples comparison virtually impossible.

So how might the ancient Eastern practice of acupuncture be providing an effect that can’t be proven by Western methods?

The way acupuncture is thought to work

In traditional Chinese medicine, there are 12 meridians, or channels, in the body that a veterinarian certified in acupuncture tries to influence. “You can’t find these channels by dissecting the body,” says Dr. Fine, who is certified in acupuncture treatment by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. “Western medicine says that’s crazy — they don’t really exist.” Yet studies have found evidence that the channels have different electrical properties and may align with bands of collagen under the skin. Thus, when a doctor places an acupuncture needle into a channel, she is promoting a stimulation response so that nerve impulses travel up to the brain and then back down to the tissues she wants to affect.

Does it really work? Research has been able to show that acupuncture activates brain sites involved in pain, illustrated by brain imaging studies. And scans of blood flow in the brain have shown that acupuncture alters activity in the frontal lobes, brain stem, and thalamus.

Dr. Fine isn’t surprised. “We learn when we study acupuncture that something’s out of balance in the body of a sick dog, and we’re trying to restore that balance by nudging blood flow and nerve impulses in specific directions,” she says. “Acupuncture actually sets off an endorphin release,” she adds. “That helps a dog feel better in itself. And if the pet feels better, he can eat a little better, be a little more active. So even if you haven’t cured the problem, you’ve helped reestablish the dog’s quality of life and helped him fight his disease a little better.”

Choosing a veterinarian with acupuncture certification

Most veterinarians trained in acupuncture receive certification either from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society ( or the Chi Institute ( While neither is equivalent to board-certification by the American Veterinary Medical Association, both require intensive course work along with hands-on, real-life practice.

Any veterinarian who practices acupuncture on your dog should be applying it in conjunction with, not instead of, western medicine — including pain relievers, medicines, and other traditional procedures. No vet worth her salt would say you should use acupuncture to the exclusion of all the proven medical tools at our disposal.

Both the organizations listed above can point you to an acupuncture-trained veterinarian in your area.

Yogi’s Story

Juanita Pignataro

It was in May 2017 that Juanita Pignataro of Worcester, Massachusetts, learned her German shepherd/chow mix Yogi was going into kidney failure. He went from 52 to 42 pounds. “It broke my heart,” Ms. Pignataro says. “He had always loved eating before.”

It was in May 2017 that Juanita Pignataro of Worcester, Massachusetts, learned her German shepherd/chow mix Yogi was going into kidney failure. He went from 52 to 42 pounds. “It broke my heart,” Ms. Pignataro says. “He had always loved eating before.”

She contacted veterinarian Karen Fine, trained in pet acupuncture, who started coming to Ms. Pignataro’s house every week. “Yogi would lie on his bed in the kitchen, and Dr. Fine would put in the needles and leave them there for about 20 minutes. It didn’t hurt him at all,” Ms. Pignataro says. “He kind of dozed and relaxed while Dr. Fine and I gabbed.” Soon after Dr. Fine started coming, she says, “we started to see a little more life in him, just a little bit more oomph.”

From there, Dr. Fine cut back to once every two weeks, then once every three. Today, she is down to once a month, and Yogi’s weight is up to 56 pounds. The 11-year-old dog is expected to live his normal lifespan. While the acupuncture may not have cured him of his kidney disease, it apparently made him well enough to perhaps experience less nausea and eat better, thereby giving his health a fighting chance.

Dr. Fine points out that many of her patients start out with once-a-week sessions and then eventually taper off to once a month, if that much, which dramatically helps to bring down costs (if the treatments are not already covered by insurance). Treatments often cost under $100, although home visits will be higher.


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