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Benefits of Veterinary Acupuncture for Pets

We spoke to Dr Alison Shen, The Acupuncture Vet 
about what motivated her to open her new clinic which focuses on natural, non-medicated pain relief provided by Traditional Chinese Medicine; acupuncture as well as other rehabilitation physical therapies (such as laser, therapeutic ultrasound and electro therapy).

"I launched this clinic to focus on what I’m most passionate about. Whilst I have been a certified veterinary acupuncturist for some time, the interest in rehabilitation and pain came after years of practice in the mobile vet space. Visiting our most vulnerable patients and listening to their owners, I felt there was a huge requirement and gap in our industry to help these patients and owners." 
explains Dr Alison.

"I got to witness the struggles many pet owners face during the recovery period and the need for reassurance, guidance and help they desperately required to get them through this challenging time." 

Our patients are mainly dogs and cats but we also treat guinea pigs, koalas, kangaroos and wombats!

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture may be defined as the insertion of needles into specific points on the body for the purpose of therapy, disease prevention and maintenance of health. This technique has been used in veterinary practice in China for at least 3,000 years to treat many ailments. The term acupuncture is derived from its Latin words acus for needle and punctura for penetrate. 

Acupuncture is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM aims to regulate the flow of Qi and Blood throughout the body to maintain health, enable the body to heal and restore balance. Based on the concept that all body parts as being interconnected by channels known as meridians, and the acupuncture points are found on these meridians.

Acupuncture points and meridians in the dog - Janssens and Still (2nd ed.)

There are 12 major bilateral meridians and each meridian is linked to an organ. There are eight extra meridians which are not associated with organs, the most important of these are the Conception vessel, which runs down the centre of the front of the body and the Governing vessel, which runs up the centre of the back.

According to ancient Chinese medical philosophy, disease is the result of an imbalance of energy in the body. Acupuncture is believed to balance this energy and, thereby, assist the body to heal disease and maintain health.

In Western terms, acupuncture can assist the body to heal itself by affecting certain physiological changes. 

For example, acupuncture can stimulate nerves, increase blood circulation, relieve muscle spasm, modulate and “switches off” pain signals and cause the release of hormones, such as endorphins (one of the body’s pain control chemicals) and cortisol (a natural steroid).

How does Acupuncture work?

The specific effects of acupuncture occur through stimulation of the peripheral nervous system and neuro-modulation within the central nervous system.

Some acupuncture points are closely correlated with:

✔️ Nerve bundles
✔️ Nerves emerging through deep fascia
✔️ Perivascular plexuses of nervi vasorum
✔️ Motor points of muscle
✔️ Myofascial trigger points
✔️ Nerves in ligaments and joint capsules

How does Acupuncture help pain?

Pain singles are sent to the brain via 2 pathways:
  • A delta fibres and
  • C fibres 

Veterinary laser therapy in small animals - Maria Suarez Redondo, Bryan J Stephens

A-delta fibres transmit acute pain signals fast so that we can react, recognise that damage is about to be done and react to limit the damage (for example of we touch something hot, we quickly move our hand away). The stimulation of A-delta fibres is not aversely painful or unpleasant but can give a feeling of heaviness and numbness.

In contrast, C fibres stimulation transmits pain signals slower and is painful. They connect with many nerves throughout the body and our emotions. Stimulation of these fibres can lead to negative feelings, depression and nausea. This is the component of pain that causes suffering. The aim is to teach us not to experience that sensation again, so we can survive.

Acupuncture stimulates A-delta fibres essentially tricking the brain and body that there is the potential for tissue damage. Because this new potential damage is more important to the body than the pain from a chronic condition, the A-delta fibres stimulation takes priority.

A-delta fibres stimulation causes the body to produce “enkephalins” which are responsible for switching off the C fibre pain – stopping the body’s chronic pain. The A-delta fibres also release other neurotransmitters to provide general pain relief thought the body:

✔️ Endorphins
✔️ Noradrenaline
✔️ Serotonin
✔️ Oxytocin
✔️ Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone (ACTH)

What are trigger points?

A myofascial trigger point is defined as a hyper-irritable and tender point within a taut band of skeletal muscle. It is painful on compression and cause referred pain.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) there are points known as ah shi points

Interestingly the location of trigger points often correlates to acupuncture points and their associated referral patterns / pain follow a similar path to the meridian. 

Is Acupuncture painful for my pet?

For most animals the insertion of fine acupuncture needles is virtually painless. We use Japanese Seirin needles which are fine, non-cutting and rounded tip. Instead of cutting though tissue, the needle “separates” tissue fibres. Most animals become very relaxed and even sleepy. 

Acupuncture treatment may cause some sensation, such as tingles, cramps, or numbness.

Is Acupuncture safe for animals?

Acupuncture is one of the safest forms of medical treatment for animals when it is administered by a properly trained veterinarian

Side effects of acupuncture are rare, but they do exist. An animal’s condition may seem worse for up to 48 hours after a treatment. Other animals may become sleepy or lethargic for 24 hours after acupuncture. 

These effects are an indication that some physiological changes are developing, and they are most often followed by an improvement in the animal’s condition. Care must be taken in pregnant animals or those with cancer.

How long do Acupuncture treatments last and how often are they given?

The length and frequency of acupuncture treatments depends on the condition of the patient and the method of stimulation that is used by the veterinary acupuncturist. 

Stimulation of an individual acupuncture point may take as little as 10 seconds or as much as 20 minutes. A simple acute problem, such as a sprain, may require only one treatment, whereas more severe or chronic ailments may need several or several dozen treatments.

When multipl
e treatments are necessary, they usually begin intensively and are tapered to maximum efficiency. Patients often start with 1-3 treatments per week for 4-6 weeks. 

A positive response is usually seen after the first to third treatments. Once a maximum positive response is achieved (usually after 4-8 treatments), treatments are tapered off so that the greatest amount of symptom free time elapses between them. Many animals with chronic conditions can taper off to 2-4 treatments per year

Acupuncture treatment should be used to maintain the health of your pet and prevent disease. Hence a regular, routine appointment may be recommended especially in our older patients or those with chronic disease.

How should I choose an acupuncturist for my animals?

There are two important criteria you should look for in a veterinary acupuncturist:

1. Your veterinary acupuncturist must be a licensed veterinarian.

2. Your veterinary acupuncturist should have formal training in the practice of acupuncture for animals. (For example, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society offers a certification program for veterinary acupuncturists.)

A veterinarian is in the best position to diagnose an animal’s health problem and then to determine whether an animal is likely to benefit from an acupuncture treatment, or whether its problem requires chemical, surgical, or no intervention. In the USA, the American Veterinary Medical Association considers veterinary acupuncture a valid modality within the practice of veterinary medicine and surgery, but extensive educational programs should be undertaken before a veterinarian is considered competent to practice acupuncture.

Needless Acupuncture options

#1. Moxibustion Moxa 

Produced from Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort), it is used in different forms. 

In veterinary medicine, the preferred form is as pressed moxa cigars with or without smoke, or as loose moxa (dried or paste). The Moxa is lit and releases a very slow burning heat with a distinct smell!

This property activates yang and disperses cold and dampness. The heat penetrates into the channels, to move qi and blood to these areas. Moxa is effective for conditions such as cold and qi stagnation in the channels, painful joints, numbness, infertility, and paralysis. 

For dogs and cats, it is easiest to light moxa in cigar form and then hold it or wave it back and forth at a distance of approximately 2 cm above the relevant acupuncture point or acupuncture needle. With the other hand, check the developing heat. Moxa transfers energy into the body. 

Please Note: Moxa is contraindicated during pregnancy and in inflammatory processes.

#2. Laser Acupuncture Lasers 

These are used to stimulate body cells or acupuncture points with light energy. Laser acupuncture is painless and therefore bearable even for patients with needle phobia. Different frequencies cause specific effects.

#3. Electrostimulation 

By attaching the ends of small charged wires to inserted acupuncture needles, we can conduct electricity and hence yang energy into the acupuncture points.

 Electroacupuncture causes the release of a greater range of neurotransmitters to enhance the effects of manual acupuncture.

Electroacupuncture treatment (at low frequency and high intensity) is beneficial for chronic pain and produces long lasting relief and is cumulative. It is also beneficial for preventing muscle atrophy (wasting/ loss) due to its neuromuscular electrical stimulation.

Especially for treating wei syndrome, herniated disk, paralyses, or other neurological deficits.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) differs in that the electrodes are carbon-impregnated rubber pads, which are applied to the surface of the skin. These have to be used for a longer duration of time and the effects are shorter lasting.

Therapeutic Ultrasound

Therapeutic ultrasound is often used for the treatment of connective tissue such as tendon and ligament injuries or scar tissue. 

The transmission of the pressure of ultrasonic waves from the skin to deeper layers of tissue improves blood flow, muscle relaxation, collagen production, and tissue remodelling through thermal and non-thermal mechanisms.

How Ultrasound Physical Therapy Works

The ultrasound machine works by sending an electric current through crystals found in the ultrasound probe — also known as the ultrasound wand. The probe vibrates, causing waves to travel through the skin to the body underneath. 

The waves transfer energy to the tissues to cause the desired effects. Ultrasound can also be focused on tissues deep within your body without affecting other tissues close to the surface.‌

The frequency and intensity of the ultrasound, the duration of the procedure, and the area of its application all determine how ultrasound physical therapy is done.

Laser Therapy

What is Photobiomodulation? 
How are cells and metabolic processes in our body affected by light?

Already we are aware that our body relies on UV light to make Vitamin D, that the cells in the retina of our eye transform light into electrical impulses to our brain so we can see. Certain compounds and medications can make us photosensitive (i.e. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and tetracyclines).

So how can we use light to help us heal?

Specific wavelength of light (700-1100nm) can:

Veterinary laser therapy in small animals. Maria Suarez Redondo, Bryan J Stephens

✔️ Speed up the inflammatory process so tissue healing can start sooner.

✔️ Stimulates production of macrophages, fibroblasts and lymphocytes which essential for tissue healing.

✔️ Increases fibroblastic activity for collagen synthesis.

✔️ Increases protein synthesis.

Veterinary laser therapy in small animals. Maria Suarez Redondo, Bryan J Stephens

✔️ Promotes revascularisation (blood supply) of wounds.

✔️ Increases ATP (energy carrying cells) production essential for metabolic pathways involved for tissues repair.

✔️ Increases the tensile strength of collagen.

✔️ Reduces pain by stimulating the body’s own opiates, nitric oxide and serotonin.

What pets will benefit the most from using Acupuncture?

We have a focus on those pets that can benefit from help between their usual vet visits, during recovery from injury, after musculoskeletal surgery, older patients, chronic disease and those that need regular and routine treatment to help with rehabilitation, pain and to maintain health, muscle strength/core and condition until their older years.

Eddy's story: IVDD & separation anxiety 

Eddy, is a 6-year old Dachshund with IVDD (Grade 1) who also suffers from separation anxiety. Eddy has had acupuncture and other therapies to help manage his IVDD flare ups for the last 3 years.

As he suffers from separation anxiety, he is also on behaviour modification medications. His behaviour and pain are very linked. During a flare-up, his separation anxiety becomes worse and he cannot be left alone. 

As he is on a few medications and has a sensitive stomach we try to manage his pain more naturally (and avoid NSAID) with veterinary acupuncture and laser therapyHe also has Therapeutic Ultrasound on his sore right hip and hind leg which seems to become tense with trigger points. 

After each treatment session and some rest, both his pain, anxiety and back resolve quickly. 

He has a very vigilant pet owner who can read his behaviour and pain very well. Rehabilitation exercises for him include strengthening, flexibility, balance and proprioception.

Gustave's story 

Gustave has had a recent diagnosis of wobblers (cervical spondylomyelopathy) and hip OA (osteoarthritis). Gus has always been an active dog and resting him has been difficult.

His lower back and hip pain are managed weekly by laser and electro acupuncture and acupuncture (plus heat during cold days). This often flares up when he becomes ataxic in his hind legs. 

Gus is also storm phobic and the recent storms and lightening triggered a flare up.

We have recent started acupuncture, heat and laser therapy in his cervical and neck area as well.

Rehabilitation exercises focus on passive range of motion, core stability as well as balance and proprioception. Gus has good muscles as he used to be very active. Maintaining this as best we can (electrotherapy and rehab exercises are useful for this) is key.

written by Dr Alison ShenThe Acupuncture VetMay 2023 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

About Dr. Alison Shen:
Dr Alison graduated as a Veterinarian in 2005 from the University of Sydney. With a keen interest in complementary therapies, acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, Alison completed her Certificate in Veterinary Acupuncture through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 2008. Alison has also received her Certificate in Clinical Integrative Canine Rehabilitation from the College of Integrative Veterinary Therapies.

As a Fear​-Free Certified Veterinarian, Dr Alison ensures that all her patients are stress and fear-free. Veterinary procedures and practices are performed in a way to reduce anxiety and to build a positive association with vet visits.

Alison practices in Brisbane, Queensland and once a month in Sydney, New South Wales. She is also involved in the wildlife rehabilitation at the Possumwood Wildlife Hospital that was set up after the 2020 devastating bushfires.

Alison and her identical twin sister (also a veterinarian) run the popular Future Vet Kids Camp in various locations in Australia​. Dr Alison and Dr Audrey Shen are also part of Channel Nine’s Bondi Vet TV show featuring their lives as veterinarians in Sydney and Brisbane.

You can contact Dr Alison at The Acupuncture Vet (Paddington, QLD) on 0457 517 474 or by booking online at
You can follow her on Facebook: and @dralisonshen or  @the.acupuncturevet on Instagram.


1. Essentials of western veterinary acupuncture. Lindley S & Cummings TM
2. Veterinary laser therapy in small animal practice Redondo MS & Stephens BJ
3. Canine Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy, 2nd ed. 2014, Elsevier Inc. Millis DL and Levine D. 


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