Animal acupuncture

Periodically, one sees newspaper articles extolling the virtues of acupuncture for animals. To those familiar with the practice of acupuncture, the tag lines are nauseatingly familiar, e.g., acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, it works to stimulate the animal’s natural energies, etc., etc. Ditto the testimonials; Fluffy wasn’t helped by anything else; now, after a few months of treatment (and plenty of time), Fluffy is running around happily. Some may even take such testimony further, asserting, for example, with some rather tortured logic, that since acupuncture “works” in animals, and animals aren’t thought to be susceptible to placebo effects, then acupuncture must therefore work in people.

In fact, other than testimonials, there’s really no good evidence that acupuncture does work in animals. In fact, acupuncture isn’t much practiced in veterinary medicine – a distinct (but very vocal) minority of veterinarians may practice it. In fact, the most recent review on the management of canine arthritis concluded, “There was weak or no evidence in support of the use of” various modalities, including electrostimulated acupuncture and gold wire acupuncture,”1 and a recent study of electroacupuncture for postoperative pain after back surgery in dogs concluded that there was “equivocal evidence” for an effect, even though there was no difference in analgesics used between treatment and control groups.2

So, what’s with the newspaper articles? Most scientifically minded people are familiar with the problems that beset testimonial evidence, so there’s little reason to repeat them here. But I don’t think that most people – and especially newspaper reporters – have any idea of the distortions, half-truths, and flat out lies that have been advanced in support of animal acupuncture.

First off, acupuncture has not been used in animals for thousands of years; at least if one defines acupuncture as involving the use of fine needles at specific points, and surely if one is interested in written evidence (Chinese writing is about 2500 years old). That’s not to say that the Chinese didn’t do things at points on the animal’s body; they certainly did, just like most every other ancient culture from which there are records. But such interventions were bleeding and cautery, and if one includes lancets to cause bleeding as acupuncture, then while acupunture is an ancient practice, it didn’t start in China, and it didn’t involve “qi” and all of the other metaphysical trappings of the practice. In fact, there’s absolutely no history at all of anyone – including the Chinese – using fine needles to treat animals until well into the 20th century.

Acupuncture points also haven’t been shown to exist in animals (or people, for that matter). In fact, the acupuncture charts devised for animals are inventions of the 20th century, made by “transposing” one of the myriad human charts directly onto animals. That’s one reason why horses have a “gall bladder” meridian (putative channels which connect acupuncture points, which also haven’t been shown to exist), even though they don’t have a gall bladder. But, when it comes to animal acupuncture, there’s apparently no absurdity sufficiently large to cause practitioners any embarrassment.

Although not nearly as extensively as in human medicine, acupuncture has been studied in animals. Looking over the results, one can occasionally find positive studies, especially if the studies have been poorly designed. There have been two reviews on veterinary acupuncture. One, looking at the evidence across all animal species, concluded that there wasn’t enough compelling evidence to either support or refute the practice3; the other, in horses, concluded that there wasn’t good evidence to support the practice, and that the best studies were uniformly negative.4

In spite of the fact that no good evidence to support the practice of animal acupuncture has emerged in the several decades in which it has been proposed (roughly coinciding with the emergence of interest in human medicine in the early 1970s), there are for profit ventures that will “certify” veterinarians to practice acupuncture, such as the “Chi Institute” in Florida, or the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. None of the certifications offered by these organizations is recognized by the Board of Specialities of the American Veterinary Medical Association, presumably because such recognition depends on the ability to demonstrate a body of scientific support.

Veterinary acupuncture is a triumph of style over substance. Fortunately, most veterinarians haven’t succumbed to offering needless needles to animals, in spite of the fact that there are apparently some people eager for such “options.” But when you read the next article extolling the virtues of the practice, keep in mind that you’re reading a level of journalism commensurate with what’s seen on the entertainment pages, information that has essentially nothing to do with good science.


  1. Sanderson RO, Beata C, Flipo RM, Genevois JP, Macias C, Tacke S, Vezzoni A, Innes JF. Systematic Review of the Management of Canine Arthritis. Vet Rec. 2009 Apr 4;164(14):418-24.
  2. Laim A, Jaggy A, Forterre F, et al. Effects of adjunct electroacupuncture on severity of postoperative pain in dogs undergoing hemilaminectomy because of acute thoracolumbar intervertebral disk disease. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 2009; 234(9): 1141-6.
  3. Habacher, G, Pittler, MH, Ernst, E. Effectiveness of acupuncture in veterinary medicine: systematic review. J Vet Intern Med 2006; 20(3):480-8.
  4. Ramey, DW, Lee, M and Messer, NT. “A Review of the Western Veterinary Literature on Equine Acupuncture.” J Eq Vet Sci, 2001; 21(2): 56 – 60.

Posted in: Acupuncture, Veterinary medicine

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22 thoughts on “Animal acupuncture

  1. hatch_xanadu says:

    I’d be very interested to see the methods by which, and the environment in which (on a “nice” table at the vet’s office?), acupuncture is administered to these critters. Humans can be convinved that acupuncture makes them feel better because they’re on a comfy table listening to some Enya in the company of a compassionate practitioner. I’m willing to bet that Fluffy feels much better indeed after the practitioner immobilizing him has finally let him go.

  2. Geek Goddess says:

    My neighbor vet, who attended Texas A&M’s excellent vet school, offers acupuncture. When I found this out, I changed vets.

    I’m sure that the owners feel much better after pet acupuncture.

  3. DarwynJackson says:

    My goldfish got acupuncture for recurrent headaches. He seems to be doing fairly well now.

  4. Wholly Father says:

    This post reminds me of an editorial from a Canadian veterinary journal. It specifically addresses use of CAM in veterinary medicine, but applies perfectly for human medicine as well. It is one of the most articulate, and insightful pieces I have read on the subject, and I think it will be appreciated by many readers of SBM.

  5. Dacks says:

    I believe that’s called catch and release.

  6. Zetetic says:

    Interesting what you say about animal acupuncture being “a triumph of style over substance.” My home state, Oregon, has always had a large population of alternative lifestyle advocates like spiritualists, vegans, anti-Vaxers (my own daughter-in law!), ear candle touters, naturopaths & other CAM promoters. I recently learned of a Lake Oswego, Oregon DVM who offers animal acupuncture. He’s not exactly an obscure advocate, he’s the new president-elect of the American Animal Hospital Association.

  7. mckenzievmd says:

    It’s frustrating how little interest not only most clients, but many veterinarians, have in the scientific problems with acupuncture theory and clinical research. I’m repeatedly told that “I’ve seen it work” as if that somehow trumps all the decades of failure in controlled trials. And we don’t even have the weak excuse of falling back on the “benefit” of the placebo effect at least changing our patients’ perception of their discomfort. Our clients’ perception may be altered, but likely that leaves the animal right where it started clinically. What we need is not more research but more acceptance of the superiority of science and research over intuition and clinical experience.

    Brennen McKenzie, MA, VMD

  8. MBoaz says:

    This just about made my head explode.

    “Medical acupuncture entered the veterinary profession 10 years ago, and has since flourished as a highly respected and popular treatment modality, due in large part to its intelligent and rational foundation.”

    So funny, and yet so disturbing.

  9. DVMKurmes says:

    The veterinary acupuncture claim that I see commonly from some of my local colleagues and from my alma mater is the one that says using acupuncture can reduce the amount of anesthesia needed. This is a claim that would be relatively easy to evaluate, perhaps in a veterinary school spay neuter clinic using the same type of objective behavior-based pain scores used to evaluate analgesic drugs. As far as I know, no such study has ever been done, or not published (perhaps due to negative results?).

    Colorado State University offers a CE course on “science based” acupuncture, and has at least one veterinary anesthesiologist listed as one of the instructors. I think that they have an obligation to do that kind of study if they are going to make such claims of effectiveness, but they have not.

    The anesthesia claim particularly disturbs me as a veterinarian, because some animals may be receiving inadequate pain relief without the ability to complain if the veterinarian and owner are deluding themselves by thinking the acupuncture is helping.

  10. art malernee dvm says:

    I recently learned of a Lake Oswego, Oregon DVM who offers animal acupuncture. He’s not exactly an obscure advocate, he’s the new president-elect of the American Animal Hospital Association.>>>

    I suspect he does not do chiropractic but even it has been used and charged for on small animal patients at some of the vet schools in the last few years. I would guess that over 50% of the small animal vets i know think acupuncture works at least in humans. Some think it matters where you put the needles so not every “believer” uses it on dogs. I would be interesting to see data on the question nationwide. I bet more horse vets know acupuncture is “bogus” than small animal vets but thirty years ago the horse vets i knew were using acupuncture on horses so there is hope for the small animal guys.

    “Clients are asking for it every day, ” said Kevin Haussler, a lecturer with the department of biomedical sciences at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Ithaca, N.Y. “They are the number one reason why any of us are doing alternative therapies like acupuncture or chiropractic, because they want something more than just drugs or surgery.”

    “Within the greater veterinary medical community, I would say that acupuncture is very well accepted,” says Haussler. “Because we’re always looking for the next thing that is going to make animals feel better and reduce pain.”

    art malernee dvm

  11. mckenzievmd says:

    I was at a regional conference last year where a board-certified critical care specialist recommended nasal philtrum acupuncture to assist in CPR. I scoured the literature for reliable studies, to no avail. One poorly designed study with sheep in Australia in the 70s and that was nearly it. And, not surprisingly, no studies in the human literature comparing survival rates or any other objective measure of efficacy with and without this procedure. I can’t imagine why people aren’t clamoring for this kind of study! ;-) It was irritating to have such nonsense recommended from the podium by an acknowledged “expert” in mainstream critical care medicine with zero evidentiary basis since it makes it that much harder to convince the average “open-minded” vet of the silliness of such approaches when they are endorsed by people who should know better.

    Brennen McKenzie, MA, VMD

  12. TsuDhoNimh says:

    In fact, there’s absolutely no history at all of anyone – including the Chinese – using fine needles to treat animals until well into the 20th century.

    I can date it to the early 1960s. In the “I wish I had bought it” category, I saw an acupuncture manual for farm animals in SF Chinatown. It was printed like a comic book, with illustrations of the points to use.

    Although wrestling a pig so you can needle his ears and nose is not my idea of a fun time.

  13. Laurel says:

    Along similar lines, has anyone heard of horse chiropractors? I visit a very popular horse website and forum, and you can’t mention saddle fit or back pain without someone posting “Chiro” and everyone else falling in line with “Oh yes yes chiro.”

    I can’t get them to answer my questions about why they think this is veterinary treatment. Does anyone know how prevalent this is in the horse world?

    I worked for a vet who tried acupuncture on a cat in the mid-90s. After two treatments, all involved agreed it was having no effect at all, and stopped sticking needles in the cat. So not everyone is convinced that this stuff will/did work.

  14. Mojo says:

    @Geek Goddess

    I’m sure that the owners feel much better after pet acupuncture.

    That’s how the old “but it works in animals and babies” argument works, isn’t it? They completely ignore the fact that an animal or baby who is unable to realise that they have been given a treatment is also unable to report any subsequent change in their condition. Any observation of improvement will be made by the owner.

    And, of course, “Mummy will kiss it better” seems to work pretty well in babies…

  15. Mojo says:

    Along similar lines, has anyone heard of horse chiropractors?

    What about Veterinary Voodoo?

    “Clinical trials are still in their early stages, however we are confident that by performing a sufficient number of small, poorly-controlled investigations we will easily generate enough p<0.05 outcomes to be able to claim with absolute assurance that the method is well proven by properly conducted double-blind research.”


  16. Alaskan says:


    In Alaska chiropractors are prohibited from practicing on animals unless under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. I believe most State Practice Acts are set up that way with each having their own exceptions: may practice if no fee collected, own animal, etc. That said, it likely goes on without much enforcement.

    Your horse forum/saddle/chiropractic experiences don’t surprise me. Hmm, horses being A herd species, I wonder if owners have herd mentalities? Sorry if that’s harsh, meant to be clever. Anyway, I don’t question those owners’ love, just their methods. Equine communities can be quite superstitious in their practices. I can’t think of another species that has so many supplements with the words magic in them. :)

    But back to correlations. A scientific poll indicating species preferences among humans and whether a pattern existed among those people correlating science based husbandry versus non-science based care would be very interesting.

    I’m guessing that fish/reptile enthusiasts would have a more scientific approach to care than the average horse owner. But I’m just speculating. Afterall, it’s a bit hard to massage a fish. Fluoride free water perhaps? Whoops, there I go again.

  17. hatch_xanadu says:

    “The anesthesia claim particularly disturbs me as a veterinarian, because some animals may be receiving inadequate pain relief without the ability to complain if the veterinarian and owner are deluding themselves by thinking the acupuncture is helping.”

    Yes. This disturbs me, too.

  18. Karl Withakay says:

    “The anesthesia claim particularly disturbs me as a veterinarian, because some animals may be receiving inadequate pain relief without the ability to complain if the veterinarian and owner are deluding themselves by thinking the acupuncture is helping.”

    Talk about a vulnerable population, animals are right up there after infants and severely mentally disabled.

  19. Laurel says:

    Mojo–lurve that site.

    Alaskan–I suspect you’re right about the fish and reptile people. Herp owners, at least, are too busy getting the science of nutrition, heating and lighting right to do anything stupider than take their boa constrictor to the park to pick up girls.

  20. atomato says:

    after having read many of the articles and comments on this site, and reading about a great deal of research, in general, on acupuncture and some other forms of so-called “alternative” medicine, i begin to wonder…

    it seems that many of the people who publish and comment on this site share the opinion that the practice of science and the scientific method can provide the ultimate explanatory mechanism for any phenomena.

    i have no doubt about the power of this method of inquiry, and its effects on our understanding of the natural world and on the improvement of the human condition are obvious.

    one thing that is also obvious, however, is that humans are definitely not infallible. therefore, it would seem that, like religion, we have “science” as both an ontological worldview, and also as a methodology that is performed by human beings – the latter being inherently subject to error. it is comforting that we have certain branches of science that have been subject to decades of increasingly precise and reproducible experimental verification, such as quantum electrodynamics.

    i don’t feel that we live in a particularly “special” time (why would we?), so why should our current scientific worldview necessarily contain all the answers? it is quite young, and subject to much change. there are still many, many unknowns. our current cosmological models have an “error parameter” called dark energy for which we still have absolutely no experimental evidence. there is much about the body that we do not know – last week the new york times had a story about new research on the spleen showing that it does quite a bit more than we used to believe. the medical profession used to think that the appendix was useless, but now we know that it is part of the immune system and quite possibly the digestive system as well.

    so my honest question is this: why, necessarily, should something like chinese medicine – which has been studied and practiced by humans for thousands of years (humans whose intelligence was probably comparable to ours), be subject to verification by a practice that is arguably much younger? i see the benefits of conducting clinical trials and applying the scientific method to this field of medicine, but i’m not sure if it can (or should) be used as a guiding authority. there are many reasons to suggest that it can provide great benefits. some of these can be found within scientific research, some elsewhere.

    it seems that there is somewhat of lack of application of scientific principles to the worldview produced by scientific research – a “meta” kind of science, if you want to think of it that way. it seems that this kind of skepticism and curiosity should be applied equally, to all human endeavors.

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