The Qi of Pets

Contributed By Dr. Matthew Merriman, Town & Country Veterinary Hospital

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture (for people and animals) has been practiced in China and Asia for thousands of years. It is a very useful modality for treating some common veterinary problems, and has been used in veterinary practice in China for at least 3,000 years. Nonetheless, its utility has not been widely publicized.

As part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a method of encouraging the body to promote natural healing and improve function. The modern practice of acupuncture involves the stimulation of precise anatomical locations (acupoints), most often with needles. Stimulation may also be accomplished with injections, electricity and laser or infrared light.

The Basis of Acupuncture:

The theory of traditional Chinese medicine believes that the body has an energy force running throughout it, called qi (pronounced chee). Qi consists of all essential life activities and travels throughout the body along meridians. Meridians are energy channels that run in regular patterns through the body and over its surface connecting all of the body’s major organs.

It is believed that a being’s health is influenced by the flow of qi in the body, in combination with the balance of the universal forces of yin and yang. Yin and yang are opposite forces that cannot exist without each other. Yin represents cold, slow or passive principles, while yang represents hot, excited or active principles.

Energy constantly flows up and down the body’s meridians. When a being is healthy, there is a strong and even circulation of energy. Disease/illness is due to an internal imbalance of yin and yang. This imbalance leads to blockage in the flow of qi along the body’s meridians.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Acupoints are anatomical locations distributed along the body’s meridians. Most acupoints are located along nerves or blood vessels and have distinctive histological and electrical characteristics.

The meridians can be influenced by needling the acupuncture points. From the traditional Chinese medicine perspective, the acupuncture needles will unblock the obstruction of energy flow, and re-establish regular flow through the meridians.

The modern scientific explanation is that needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord and brain. These chemicals will either change the experience of pain, or they will trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones which influence the body’s own internal regulating system.

What Conditions Can Be Treated with Acupuncture?

Acupuncture and traditional Chinese Medicine complement conventional medicine. They are not substitutes for any conventional medical advice, medications or treatments. It is important to understand when acupuncture is the best primary therapy, and when other modalities, such as surgery or antibiotics, are needed. For this and for legal reasons, only veterinarians are permitted to perform acupuncture on animals. It is also strongly recommended that veterinary acupuncturists have advanced formal training and credentialing.

Acupuncture is known to have therapeutic effects in a wide variety of animal diseases. Pain modification is an important application of veterinary acupuncture.

Acupuncture is also most commonly used for:

  • musculoskeletal conditions (like soft tissue injuries, arthritis and back problems)
  • skin problems (e.g., lick granuloma or ear inflammation)
  • respiratory issues (like asthma or coughing)
  • metabolic or organ dysfunctions

Is It Safe?

When properly administered by a trained professional, acupuncture is extremely safe. Side effects are rare, although some animals may act lethargic for up to 24 hours, or the treated condition may worsen for a couple of days.

Is It Painful?

Modern acupuncture needles used on small animals are virtually painless. They are solid, extremely fine and flexible, and do not have a cutting edge. Depending on your pet’s sensitivity and the points treated, there may be some irritation as the needle passes through the skin. Once the needles are in place, many patients will become relaxed.

What is the Usual Course of Treatment?

Before acupuncture treatment is performed on your pet, your veterinarian will perform a comprehensive physical medical and acupuncture examination. During this time it is important for you to inform your veterinarian with pertinent details such as:

  • Complete dietary history: regular food, amount consumed, any people food, treats, etc.
  • Usual activity level and accommodations during the daytime and night time
  • Complete medical history of allergies, major surgeries, illnesses requiring hospitalization, traumatic incidents, etc.

For most conditions, expect a 20- to 60-minute appointment, returning once or twice weekly for 4–8 treatments. Treatment of a single point may take 10 seconds or 30 minutes, and multiple points can be treated at the same time.

The length and frequency of treatments depend on the problem and condition of your pet. Sometimes, a single treatment will result in a cure, but for most conditions, it is important to plan on at least 6 treatments before evaluating efficacy. For chronic problems, maintenance treatments may be given monthly to a few times a year.

If you have questions regarding pet acupuncture or would like to inquire about services, contact Town & Country Veterinary Hospital at (919) 363-6363 or visit

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