Acupuncture For Pets: Gaining in Popularity


Acupuncture For Pets

Acupuncture Dates Back 8,000 Years

Acupuncture for pets may seem like a fairly new practice, but human medical acupuncture has been around since the beginning of time – well, at least as far as humans began recording history.  According to, the first documented system of diagnosis and treatment using acupuncture was recorded in the Chinese text The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, though there is evidence that acupuncture (or at least its roots) dates as far back as 8,000 years ago in the Taoist tradition.

While the arrival of Chinese medicine to the United States began as early as the 1800’s with the immigration of Eastern doctors, it was only fairly recently, relatively speaking, that medical acupuncture exploded in popularity here.  In 1972, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s Secretary of State, traveled to China accompanied by a New York Times journalist.  While abroad, the journalist fell ill with appendicitis, and the Chinese doctors used acupuncture to treat his pain.  Impressed with how effective it was, the journalist wrote a story about it in the Times, bringing awareness to millions of Americans about the efficacy of acupuncture.  As a result of the growing popularity, the National Institute of Health (NIH) began a series of studies, and formally recognized acupuncture as a medical healing discipline in 1997.

Once acupuncture gained popularity in humans, the application to animals quickly followed.  Veterinarians pioneering the field were able to draw a “map” between the acupuncture points on humans and the corresponding areas in animals, both neurologically and anatomically.  Hence, the discipline of veterinary acupuncture was born.

Q&A with Veterinary Acupuncture Doctor

Wagbrag had the opportunity to interview Dr. Kim Vanderholm, a distinguished practitioner in the field of veterinary acupuncture.  Dr. Vanderholm is currently on staff at Franktown Animal Clinic in Franktown, CO.  Dr. V grew up showing horses, and became interested in animal acupuncture when she first saw how effectively acupuncture treated a show horse with a very sore neck.  She attended veterinary school at Kansas State University, and later attended Colorado State University to further her knowledge of veterinary acupuncture.  She has been an instructor at the CSU Veterinary Medical Acupuncture course since 1998, and practices veterinary acupuncture on a day-to-day basis with her patients.  Below is a Q&A with Dr. V about how acupuncture is used with animals.

Q:  How does acupuncture work in animals, versus humans?

A:   The main difference would be the added placebo effect in some people. But acupuncture is not merely a placebo as some would like to believe. There are objective, measurable effects that occur within the nervous system, whether one is talking about a human or a non-human animal. These changes help the body restore homeostasis, or balance, in the body, relax muscle tension, and reduce pain.

Q:  Which conditions respond best?

A:  Veterinary acupuncture can work on a variety of conditions.  The most common cases are musculoskeletal problems like osteoarthritis and neural issues like intervertebral disk disease.  That said, there are certainly other diseases it can work for, such as inflammatory bowel disease, where it can decrease inflammation in the intestines.  In addition, it can work to alleviate nausea, post-chemotherapy, similarly to humans.

Q:  Which animals respond best?

A:  Horses, in particular, respond remarkably well to acupuncture, as they have very sensitive neurological systems.  Also, dogs and cats absolutely will respond.  I personally don’t work on exotics, but some of my peers think birds and snakes can benefit.  A colleague of mine works with raptor rescue (i.e. owls and hawks).  If the birds get in an accident or are sick, she will perform acupuncture to help them heal faster.  We can also generally use acupuncture to help birds that feather-pick due to stress.  Rabbits get torticollis, and acupuncture can help with that also.

Q:  How does acupuncture for pets complement traditional veterinary medicine?

A:  We treat with acupuncture in addition to using our Western drugs.  Acupuncture can also be added if we have plateaued with Western medicine.  For example, if an animal has arthritis in his hips, and has been on multiple medicines such that we have maxed out how much we can give to them, and the animal is still uncomfortable, acupuncture can help control pain.  Another example is cats.  They are unique because there are very few pain medications that their livers can tolerate, so acupuncture is a nice way to help control their pain without side effects.  Often times, our clients have become frustrated with Western medicine – they feel they have “hit a wall” in their pet’s treatment and need something else, so we add acupuncture to the traditional remedies.

Q:  What is a typical acupuncture schedule, and the associated fees?  How much of a commitment are people signing up for when they try acupuncture on their pets?

A:  Broadly speaking, the length of time of the treatment depends on a few factors, including the nature of the condition (chronic or acute) and the mentality of the owner, as well as how the animal initially responds.  In general, we usually start an animal once a week for 3-4 weeks, and depending on how they respond, we will then spread it to every other week, and then once a month.  Some older animals come in every week.  If a condition is acute, we may need to see them twice a week or even more, just to get the animals walking or functioning again.  I have some patients who want to keep acupuncture as a part of their treatment into the foreseeable future, so they come at least every 2-3 months for “tune-ups”, and I have other patients who come once a year or even less – just whenever an issue arises.

Fees vary according to where you live.  For small animals, a typical range might be $75 – $125 for the first treatment, and $40 – $75 for follow-ups.  For larger animals, such as horses, the range gets much wider, and the price goes up considerably – it might start at $150 – $250, for example.

Q:  What are some emerging practices or trends with alternative medicine in animals?

A:  Acupuncture for pets is becoming much more based on science.  There are now many more veterinary schools around the US conducting formal research studies about acupuncture, to better understand the physiological basis and why/how it works.  Another up-and-coming practice is the use of laser therapy to treat animals.  Lasers can be used in the treatment of wounds, as well as for treating pain in those animals who do not tolerate acupuncture as well as most.

Q:  Where can I learn more about veterinary acupuncture?  Where can I find a local vet who does it?

A:  There is a ton of information out there, but a few credible sources I would recommend are:


Contributing Expert:  Dr. Kimberly Vanderholm, D.V.M.
Dr. Vanderholm received her undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Kansas State University. She worked at Franktown Animal Clinic from 1997 to 2004, and then 2007 to the present (in between she practiced in South Florida). Dr. Vanderholm is married with one daughter and loves motorcycling, snow boarding and music.
Photo:  Courtesy of acidpix via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Would you try acupuncture for pets?

WagBrag’s co-founder, Russ Boles, has a deep history in animal rescue and welfare. For the past 12 years, Russ has served in various roles with Atlanta-based animal advocacy organizations focused on rescue, training and education. In addition, Russ led a local rescue volunteer team into New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina, assisting in efforts to rescue and care for stranded animals. This experience changed his life, and animal rescue and advocacy will always be a part of everything he does.