What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is but one aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which includes, in addition to acupuncture, herbal medicine,nutritional therapies, exercise and meditation (at least in humans). Acupuncture has been used in humans and in animals for thousands of years. It is used as treatment, or as adjunctive treatment (i.e., additional to usual treatment), in almost every aspect of medicine, such as cardiovascular,respiratory, renal (kidney), neurologic, digestive,reproductive, dermatologic, musculoskeletal,allergic, infectious, immunologic, hormonal, and behavioral. TCM is a form of “holistic” medicine. That is, it pertains to the whole body, and not just to the one system that appears to be malfunctioning. Acupuncture and other aspects of TCM are concerned with balance and the interconnections of the body’s organs with each other and the environment. In the state of health, there is “balance” between all aspects of the body; in the state of disease, there is “imbalance.” Acupuncture points are points on the body, most of which are found along meridians. Meridians are the channels along which Qi flows. Qi is like energy, but more, and its flow through the body, along these meridians, keeps the body in balance. There are fourteen meridians, and each is associated with an internal system. Therefore, each acupuncture point along a meridian can have an effect on an internal organ. If Qi flow in a meridian is blocked, it can indicate a problem in the organ or system with which it is associated or the problem may be local to that point or pathway (like an arthritic joint).

How is Acupuncture used in Veterinary Medicine?

At Halifax Veterinary Center we use acupuncture mostly for musculoskeletal, neurological, and behavioral problems and for geriatric well-being, but have also used it for immunologic problems and as adjunctive treatment for cancer. Stimulation of the immune system in chronic infections and hard-to-treat infections can be very rewarding when we see the patient heal. Likewise, while using conventional chemotherapy for cancer treatment, the addition of acupuncture treatment has apparently extended life AND quality of life in many of our patients.


The musculoskeletal problems that we see are usually the degenerative joint disease of the older pet or injuries to any limb or joint at any age. Use of acupuncture can help the dog or cat to heal from an injury, and may allow a decrease in the amount of pain medication necessary in chronic joint disease. Usually in these chronic joint conditions some sort of treatment is necessary lifelong, so decreasing the amount of medication needed is significant to the pet’s health. In these cases we usually start by doing an acupuncture treatment weekly for several weeks and then decrease the frequency to as far apart as possible, in some cases as infrequently as once every three months, in others as often as every week. The neurological problems frequently seen in pets include disc disease (“bad back”), deafness, and nerve injury. Nerve injury can sometimes be treated with acupuncture as opening up those meridians can stimulate healing of peripheral nerves, but not all nerves can heal, so not all neurological injuries are successfully treated. We have successfully treated partial deafness in a few dogs and now consider acupuncture a viable treatment for what we used to think an untreatable condition. Disc disease, with its accompanying muscle spasms and back pain, is very treatable with acupuncture. Every case must be evaluated individually. Some cases are best treated surgically, and some can be treated medically (with medicines) very effectively, but many are treated with acupuncture alone or with acupuncture as an adjunct to medication, and heal very well.

Electroacupuncture (the addition of a mild electric current through the acupuncture needles by way of a specialized machine) is especially useful in the very bad and painful cases. Apparently, stimulation of the acupuncture points opens those meridians and moves the Qi, decreasing pain and promoting healing. Animals with chronic back problems benefit from regular acupuncture treatments just like those with chronic joint disease. The treatment of behavioral problems with acupuncture is very interesting. We typically treat separation anxiety and thunderstorm phobia with a combination of acupuncture and herbal therapy. Many show dogs and obedience and agility dogs come regularly for treatments. From a TCM point of view this makes a lot of sense because these phobias are due to imbalances between the dog and the environment. The treatment of geriatric patients with acupuncture encompasses many aspects of quality of life. It is probably the most rewarding of all the acupuncture treatments that we do. Because the geriatric patient is most prone to musculoskeletal, neurological, immunologic, and behavioral issues, acupuncture is especially useful at alleviating, though not curing, those problems. Geriatric patients that receive acupuncture benefit from decreased pain, increased mobility, decreased anxiety, improved immune function, and improved appetite, among other things. Our geriatric acupuncture patients usually receive treatments weekly to monthly, according to how their owners perceive their needs.