Is Acupuncture Effective in Pets?


Acupuncture has been used in humans for at least 1000 years. It now is widely used in animals as well.

Some of my acquaintances from veterinary school perform acupuncture on animals. They are convinced it is effective. They also make a tidy profit from performing the procedure.

To this day, nobody can prove, nor disprove, that acupuncture truly works. Some studies have shown significant effects when acupuncture is used in specific circumstances. Others have shown no effect whatsoever. Many studies have been equivocal: they provide some evidence that acupuncture might be effective, but they don’t prove it conclusively.

Acupuncture therefore is perennially controversial.

The theory behind the traditional practice of acupuncture involves the flow of energy through the body. Our current understanding of anatomy and physiology does not back that theory up. Other theories of acupuncture state that the procedure leads to the release of endorphins (morphine-like chemicals that occur naturally in the body).

Plenty of people are willing to offer testimonials in favor of the effects of acupuncture in humans and animals. Many such people may comment on this post. But, as any student of science or medicine knows, personal testimonials are notoriously unreliable sources of information. They are highly subject to bias and confounding factors. Honest-to-goodness scientific studies are needed to verify clinical claims. When it comes to acupuncture, such studies generally have yielded conflicting results.

Some experts believe that acupuncture works mainly through the placebo effect. Acupuncture is not alone in this regard: some recent studies have suggested that Prozac’s effect in many people may be spurious.

Other experts point to some well run clinical studies that show significant effects from acupuncture when it is used to treat specific syndromes. In all, neither side can prove conclusively that it is right.

I personally don’t care why or how a treatment such as acupuncture may work. I care only whether it works. The information I have seen to date is equivocal.

I was therefore excited by a grippingly titled article in the May 1, 2009 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA): “Effects of adjunct electroacupuncture on severity of postoperative pain in dogs undergoing hemilaminectomy because of acute thoracolumbar intervertebral disc disease.”

The paper discusses the study of a special form of acupuncture used to treat pain in dogs recovering from back surgery. From the article:

Conclusions and Clinical Relevance–Results provided equivocal evidence that [acupuncture] might provide some mild benefit in severity of postoperative pain in dogs undergoing [back surgery] because of [slipped discs]. (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2009;234:1141-1146)

In other words, the study determined that acupuncture might have sort of worked to reduce pain after back surgery. But the study authors weren’t sure.

Suffice it to say that I was disappointed by the results of the study. I have been waiting my entire career for some hard science to back up or refute the practice of acupuncture. This study, like so many before it, did neither.

At this point, the only answer I can give to the question posed in this post’s title is I don’t know.

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