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When a four-legged family member doesn't feel well, we'll do just about anything to help. And if your dog suffers from arthritis or some other painful ailment that doesn't respond to traditional treatments, it can be especially frustrating. Which might mean it's time to consider trying acupuncture for dogs.
That's how lots of canine patients of Christine Horne, DVM, CCRP, CVA, CIVCA, arrive under her care at the BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital's Georgia Veterinary Rehabilitation in Marietta: Nothing else worked.
Acupuncture might be a last resort, but it can be an effective one, Horne tells Daily Paws. There's a good chance that acupuncture can improve your dog's quality of life, even if it can't render her pain-free.
Acupuncture for Dogs: Does It Work?
In many cases, yeah, it does. Horne has one thing she'll tell the more-than-a-few skeptical dog owners she consults with: "Give me a month." 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 (usually in about a month, not coincidentally).
"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.
Here's how it works: Horne will get your dog to lie down using positive reinforcement (aka many treats). Before placing one of the acupuncture points, she'll give the dog scratches around where she plans to place it. That way, it won't be a surprise.
"It feels almost like a little mosquito bite," Horne says.
Most dogs don't care about the tiny sticks—some even nap—during the 15- to 20-minute session. Some will react if Horne hits a painful spot with one of the teensy pricks, but that's helpful to her. She knows where to avoid and where the dog is in pain.
What Does Dog Acupuncture Cost?
Well, that'll depend, Horne says. If it's only an acupuncture session, the cost might fall between $60 and $100. If the appointment also includes an exam, which it does when Horne oversees sessions, then it might run between $100 and $150.
What Acupuncture for Dogs Does
The tiny acupuncture points do two things mainly, Horne says. First, they stimulate your dog's nerves and her pain fibers that send information to the brain. It's kind of a neurological trick that limits pain and allows the body and brain to communicate better.
"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.
Acupuncture also causes your dog to release dopamine and other catecholamines hormones, which makes dogs feel better and also controls pain, Horne says. The catecholamine release is the secret weapon. Even if your dog doesn't respond to the neurologic stimulation, the hormone release will cause your dog to feel better and have more energy, Horne says. Then, if your dog is moving around, her muscles and joints will strengthen, saving the problematic joints from having to do too much painful work.
What Can Dog Acupuncture Treat?
First, a reminder: Acupuncture is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always start with your vet if you observe a problem with your pet. He or she can diagnose the situation and recommend the best courses of treatment.
As a vet who's certified in acupuncture, Horne says there are many problems she'll address with acupuncture treatments. These are some of the primary reasons people bring their dogs to her:
Inflammatory bowel disease
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
Other joint or body pain
For example, acupuncture will increase blood flow to the kidneys, which then eases their pain, Horne says. It's probably too much to expect that acupuncture will heal your dog, but it can really improve their quality of life.
In many cases, Horne says she's been able to wean dogs off pain-relieving drugs through acupuncture because the dogs' nervous systems are less "hyper-active" to pain fibers. Instead of your dog spending most of her time lying down watching you, she might be up, following you from room to room.
There is one situation Horne mentioned that might be a bad idea for acupuncture treatment: a spinal cord tumor. Acupuncture stimulation increases blood flow, Horne says, and that's how cancerous tumors can grow. No one wants to cause tumors to increase in size, though there are ways to deliver an acupuncture treatment to a dog with such a tumor, Horne says.
Should You Try Acupuncture for Your Dog?
You should always discuss a major treatment plan like this with your veterinarian, but acupuncture might be the missing element that helps your pup feel better. After consulting with your vet, look for an acupuncturist who is also a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) and who is certified in veterinary acupuncture treatments (often indicated with the credentials CVA).
Your vet and your potential acupuncturist can help you decide whether acupuncture is the right path forward for your individual dog.