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Posted on Sat, Nov 20, 2010 : 8:27 a.m.

Ann Arbor veterinarian uses acupuncture to address health issues with companion animals

By Lorrie Shaw


flickr photo courtesy of zivpu

Not so long ago, canines didn't have a lot of choices available to them in the way of pain management. With dogs living longer and healthier in other respects, tender joints resulting from arthritis made life difficult.

Veterinary doctors commonly prescribed aspirin, Tylenol and intravenous Fentanyl  — the latter albeit effective, but not entirely practical as its method of delivery requires that it be done in a vets office — as the only choices available.

Dr. Jess Franklin, DVM, of Ann Arbor Animal Hospital was all too aware of this dilemma. In the days before Rimadyl — a 24-hour, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that is used to manage pain — was introduced on the market, Franklin started searching for a safe alternative to give dogs relief. 

"I saw these great old dogs who were otherwise generally healthy, but in pain," notes Franklin, whose search led her to start studying veterinary acupuncture in 2000.

An ancient practice gaining a foothold in the mainstream

Although it's an ancient practice that originated in China, acupuncture wasn't a widely practiced avenue of treatment in veterinary medicine when Franklin began studying it. Now, in many colleges of veterinary medicine, it's a topic that's offered at an introductory level to veterinary medicine students. In fact, the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and Colorado State University both have programs in-house to teach the acupuncture.

Used within a veterinary application in China for thousands of years, acupuncture is part of a larger picture of a Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM, that includes herbal medicine, Tui-na (therapeutic massage), and dietary therapy.

How it works and different methods

Despite the fact that it has been practiced for so long, researchers today have a better grasp of how it works.

But to get to the core of acupuncture, Dr. Roger M. Clemmons, DVM, PhD, a veterinary acupuncture practitioner, offers a brief explanation of it in the book Xie's Veterinary Acupuncture:

"From a modern perspective, acupuncture represents a form of nerve stimulation."

It works by modulating the peripheral, autonomic and central nervous systems, stimulating nerve fibers and, as a result, releasing neurochemicals and endorphins. The pathways of the nervous system are quite vast, so positioning acupuncture needles in the correct points is key in order for a therapeutic effect to take hold.

The ancient Chinese believed that there is a universal life energy called Qi (pronounced chi) present in every living creature.  This energy is thought to flow throughout the body along specific pathways, called meridians.  As long as this energy flows freely along the meridians, health is balanced — but once the flow of energy is blocked, there is a disruption and pain or illness can occur. 

There are many forms of acupuncture, including dry needle (traditional), electro-puncture (a micro-current connected from one needle to another) and moxibustion. This last method involves the burning/smoldering of Chinese herbs — usually mugwort — to warm a region and acupuncture points to stimulate circulation and promote a smoother flow of Qi and blood.

When to consider acupuncture

Although the approach is indicated for a lot of conditions, Franklin notes that conditions that she primarily uses acupuncture for are in pain management, especially with respect to joint pain like arthritis, and when there is spinal or neck pain. When range-of-motion and mobility are limited, it's a great choice. Older pets comprise the largest group of pets in this case, and it's a logical next-step when medication isn't working anymore, or when, say, a cat has kidney disease and cannot tolerate medication.

"Dry needling" is Franklin's preferred type — which is what most people have seen in photographs and video before. Dry needle acupuncture uses long, thin needles, placed in the proper points, and sessions usually last 20 minutes or so. Of course, the session is carried out in a comfortable, quiet area where the animal can lie quietly.

Typically, some sort of resolution is seen within three or four visits. If improvement is not seen, the doctor says that acupuncture probably won't work. 

Franklin uses other types, of course, and talked about Cruiser, an 11-year-old beagle who had a disc pressing on his spine and had obvious mobility problems. For Cruiser, it was decided that electro-acupuncture would be optimal. The basis of dry-needle and electro-acupuncture are the same — with the exception that there is an electric pulse moving back and forth between one needle to another in the latter, via a device that emits the pulses.

Encouraging findings

At a basic level, Franklin remarked that, for example, a group of older dogs who had mobility problems and pain, no magic formula exists, really, to facilitate a positive change. In one third of the dogs, things improve simply because other things have been employed to address more ease of mobility, like a simple ramp at the proper elevation or booties to offer a little more grip on slippery floors— things like that to aid a pet in getting around more easily. The other two-thirds improved markedly because of acupuncture.

Another interesting finding that the doctor talked about: if a dog has a spinal injury, for example, and surgery is done within the first couple of days, the success rate of resolving pain long-term is much higher than that of acupuncture. Comparatively, if a dog has the same type of injury and the two-day window has passed, acupuncture has been shown to be more effective in resolving pain long-term than surgery.

It's not for everyone

Actually acupuncture is indicated for both large and small animals, but the treatment is not for everyone. Bunnies are poor candidates, as they tend to be nervous animals. Coming into the vet, on top of not being well, is challenging for a bunny. Additionally, if your pet tends to be high-strung, or if your dog is growly or needs a muzzle to go to the vet, they're not going to respond well to acupuncture.

Deciding when the time is right for your pet

So you're thinking, "I'm open to acupuncture for my pet." That's great, but not so fast. If your veterinarian isn't a veterinary acupuncturist, you'll need to ask for a referral. To assess if acupuncture is right for your companion animal, Franklin will ask if  NSAIDS and other avenues of addressing pain have worked. If those have not been employed, she suggests trying that first, because they do work really well. However, if the medication and and other options have been exhausted, then she'll give acupuncture a go.

In addition to Dr. Franklin, Dr. Taryn Clark also utilizes acupuncture at Ann Arbor Animal Hospital to help pets. The facility is located at 2150 W. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor.

For more resources on this and other complementary veterinary medicine topics, read Four Paws, Five Directions by Cheryl Schwartz, DVM and The Whole Dog Journal.

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, and a regular contributor to's pet section. She wrote the popular piece "No, not everyone loves my dogs as I do." Reach her via e-mail and follow her pet adventures on Twitter.



Sun, Nov 21, 2010 : 7:22 p.m.

Acupuncture is not painful. It does not feel like a needle going in to your skin. It works - it really does. It looks bad, I can see where you are coming from, but honestly, you literally can't even feel them.


Sun, Nov 21, 2010 : 3:56 p.m.

Yeah, too many haters are barking. Atnaap suggests a link run by practicing M.D.s, who certainly seem to have their own agenda to push. If acupuncture offers relief to a suffering person or pet, even if it's via a "placebo effect", then it seems to have a place as a treatment option. Now when exactly are they going to let us dogs use medical marijuana?


Sun, Nov 21, 2010 : 9:58 a.m.

It would be interesting to hear more from people who have actually tried this procedure with their pets, as opposed to the comments here which mostly of the anonymous "hater" variety who lurk on just about every comment thread regarding dogs.


Sun, Nov 21, 2010 : 8:35 a.m.

Both of my dogs received acupuncture treatments for back problems. Most recently, my older dog was in a lot of pain and was having problems getting comfortable and moving around. The acupuncture helped her. I don't know how and I don't know why, but she visibly experienced relief. After her session, she was able to move more naturally and lie down comfortably. The session didn't solve the problem, but it did bring her enough relief (even temporarily allowed everyone to get some sleep that night) that I was satisfied. I'm not sure that I believe in acupuncture for animals, but based on what I've seen, I also don't believe that it is useless or any kind of torture. Dr. Franklin and other vets are trying to find ways to ease suffering in pets when normal pain meds won't work or to use in conjunction with normal pain meds. I applaud that effort. I care about my dog and her quality of life, and I see no reason to eliminate consideration of a treatment simply because there are naysayers. Thanks for the article, Lorrie.


Sat, Nov 20, 2010 : 9:13 p.m.

This is kind of sad. If people want to take their chances with such remedies then fine. But animals? This is borderline torture IMO.


Sat, Nov 20, 2010 : 1:55 p.m.

This treatment may be plausible in the contexts described...or not. Certainly the animal is in no position to tell us ( unless its a parrot!). More generally, humans who impose their own voluntary medical and health fads on pets ( e.g. vegetarian diets on hardwired carnivores)are practicing the worst and silliest kind of anthropomorphism.


Sat, Nov 20, 2010 : 11:09 a.m.

only in ann arbor. if you tried this on my dog, you'd probably lose a few fingers.


Sat, Nov 20, 2010 : 10:05 a.m.

This is disgusting. I always got in trouble for poking animals with pins. It would take too long to go through this and debunk all the malarkey. Suffice it to say that as studies of acupuncture have gotten larger and better designed, the evidence for its efficacy has dwindled. It hasn't been shown to work better than sham treatments in humans, and I doubt there's better evidence in dogs. Placebo effects aren't limited to humans. After forking out a hundred bucks to have someone needle your dog, you'll probably 'see' some improvement. Before you do this, go read everything at and decide for yourself whether you want to subject your pet to this.