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Pet Acupuncture Expert Explains Why Animals Love Needles

By Sara Calabro

Before she became an acupuncturist, Becca Seitz was an expert in five languages (not including English). Upon realizing she didn’t want to spend her life as a translator, Seitz gave up Russian, German, Spanish, French and Arabic to learn the language of animals. She changed her major to pre-veterinary medicine and started volunteering at a Humane Society. She loved both, but around this time, while lying on the table at her own acupuncture appointment, her acupuncturist said, “Don’t forget about acupuncture for pets.” It was a lightbulb moment that led to Seitz choosing acupuncture school over vet school.

In Oregon, where Seitz practices—on humans as well as animals—acupuncturists do not have to be vets in order to perform animal acupuncture. (The laws around animal acupuncture vary by state.) She learned her trade through an informal apprenticeship with a vet who did acupuncture. There was and still is limited information available for acupuncturists who want to learn how to treat pets, so Seitz is writing a book on animal-acupuncture point location. She’s also developing a seminar for aspiring pet acupuncturists, which she hopes could eventually result in a formal certification for animal acupuncture.

On the day I visited Seitz in her Portland office, she was treating Ely, an 11-year-old Czech-bred German Shepard with degenerative myelopathy. While Ely’s owner raved about the dog’s improved energy level and ability to lift his leg since starting acupuncture, Seitz placed 13 needles in Ely, who promptly relaxed into a state of acu-bliss.

After Ely paid and made his next appointment, Seitz chatted with me about her work as a pet acupuncturist.

AcuTake: What’s the most unusual animal you’ve ever given acupuncture to?

Becca Seitz: When I was working as an apprentice with a vet acupuncturist, I did acupuncture on an iguana. It felt like needling a purse. The iguana had an abscess on her face so the vet was performing surgery. We did acupuncture to help it heal quicker. That was cool, but in my practice I stick to dogs and cats.

How much do you charge, and how many visits are needed?

I charge the same rate for pets that I charge my human patients, $80 per visit. If I’m not seeing any improvement in symptoms after three visits, I start getting suspicious that something else might be going on. After six visits, I’d definitely advise the owner to investigate other modalities. Because cats and dogs respond so quickly to acupuncture, six visits is almost always enough time to determine whether acupuncture is going to be effective.

Are certain ailments in dogs and cats particularly responsive to acupuncture?

Anything you can treat a human for, you can treat a pet for. I see a lot of arthritis. It is very treatable unless the animal is very old. Skin conditions are common in cats and dogs and respond well to acupuncture. Something else I’ve had a lot of success with is spay incontinence, which is urinary leaking typically in female dogs. I’ve had really good results with treating that.

One of my favorite cases was a cat with chronic constipation. This cat had been to vets for years ever since she was a kitten. It always involved lots of enemas and stool softeners, and her condition never fully let up. She started seeing me for acupuncture, and after two weeks her constipation completely resolved.

I haven’t had much luck with treating behavioral issues, such as anxiety, in dogs and cats.

Do animals experience any pain from acupuncture?

A lot of people ask me if I anesthetize pets before giving them acupuncture. The answer is no. Firstly, that is not within my scope of practice. Also, anesthetizing cats and dogs before acupuncture is completely unnecessary. Acupuncture does not hurt animals. They feel something, recognize that they are experiencing a sensation that feels unfamiliar—often they’ll look around, with an expression like, “Hey, what are you doing?” But they do not experience any pain.

In many vet offices that perform acupuncture, an assistant fully restrains the animal while needles are inserted. My feeling is that restraining an animal like that undoes many of the benefits of acupuncture. Animals are very sensitive. When they are restrained, they know something’s up and it causes them to tense, or what we call “qi stagnate” in Chinese medicine.

For animals that are a little skittish, I’ll have the owner hook a thumb through the collar and gently pet while I insert needles. For rowdier dogs, I might have the owner feed them treats during the treatment. I stay in the room with the animal throughout the entire visit, so they’re never left alone with needles.

Are there any adverse reactions to pet acupuncture that owners should be aware of?

The most common bad reaction, if you can even call it that, is that a dog or cat might feel tired or lethargic the next day. They might seem a little sleepy and wiped out. Occasionally, a dog might react with more energy, almost acting like a puppy again. I’ve had owners tell me that after acupuncture, their typically anti-social dog is very eager to play with other dogs. With cats, sometimes too many needles can cause them to get anxious and fidgety during the treatment. As soon as you take them out, they calm right down.

How long do you keep the needles in?

Pet visits are much shorter than human acupuncture sessions. Pets are so sensitive to acupuncture, it really doesn’t take much for them to experience a shift in symptoms. I tend to leave in needles anywhere from 5-10 minutes, depending on how the animal is reacting. They usually let you know when they are ready to have the needles taken out. Often, dogs will stop panting, which lets me know they’re done. I have had cats start taking out their own needles with their mouths. The entire appointment for a pet is usually just 20-30 minutes.

When treating humans, most acupuncturists spend a lot of time asking questions during the intake. Since much of that information is unavailable from animals, how do you diagnose?

I talk to the owners about things like energy level, diet, digestion and urination. But I also get a lot from the pet. I take their pulse—on the femoral artery, located on the inside of the hind legs—and look at their tongue the same way I would with a human. I also pay a lot of attention to body temperature and moistness. It’s hard to describe but it’s almost like the air around a dog can feel moist when there’s an imbalance. Treating pets also requires a lot of intuition, being comfortable around animals and having a sense about what’s ailing them.

Has treating animals influenced your understanding of how humans respond to acupuncture?

Animals respond to acupuncture much quicker than humans. Going between pets and humans, I have to remind myself not to get frustrated by this, that I am not missing something in the humans. It’s just that they are humans!

Pets live in the here and now. They are not thinking about the hole they dug yesterday or the fridge they’re going to break into tomorrow. As humans, that’s what we do. We’re constantly ruminating about the past and the future, letting our minds spin a mile a minute. That clogs things up and takes time to work through. Acupuncture can break through but it takes longer than it does in pets.

A common argument in defense of acupuncture as more than just placebo is its efficacy on animals. Has your work with animals given you any insight on whether acupuncture is placebo?

I personally think that cats and dogs can have a placebo effect. They know when they are going to a doctor. Now, are they truly experiencing what we scientifically define as the placebo effect? Probably not. But they know something therapeutic is happening. Animals are no dummies.

What’s the best way to find an acupuncturist who works on animals?

There is no official training or certification for animal acupuncture, which is a problem. I am actively trying to change that. Until more formal standards are in place for animal acupuncture, pet owners need to use their intuition in the same way they would about any healthcare practitioner. Not all acupuncturists treat pets. You want someone with experience, but it’s equally important that the acupuncturist has a natural affinity for and intuition about animals. Without that, it can be borderline impossible to diagnose and provide effective treatments.

To hear more from Becca, visit her profile in the AcuTake Acupuncturist Directory.

Photos by Sara Calabro

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Comments

Naomi Frank
Reply

Thanks for a great article! Becca, I am an acupuncturist with a very itchy dog (allergies). Are there points that you especially like? He is on the skinny side so I’ve only needle on his head so far.

Becca Seitz, LAc
Reply

Hi Naomi!

Whatever points you would use on your human patients (with the same Chinese medical diagnosis) would be great points to treat your poor, itchy guy! I like to use Bai Chong Wo (100 Insects’ Nest) because it’s great for itching – and maybe a little bit because it has a GREAT name ;)

Alma Myers, LAc
Reply

You can’t really claim placebo effect with animal acupuncture. They don’t know they are supposed to feel better, they do anyways. I’ve seen and heard about great results from patients about their animals receiving acupuncture aid for their little buddies. #safeandeffective

Bonnie
Reply

I am fortunate to live up near Seattle. I am not allowed in WA to treat animals but I have an excellent veterinarian who has trained for decades (yes decades) in the use of complementary care. She’s amazing in every aspect. I know that so many of us know we’ve studied for years to get where we are and think of vets as having to take a weekend course. Many of them, like this woman, have invested a lot of time and effort into learning not just the points but the theory.

In addition to not needing needles as long (although you do often have to explain to cats what you are doing–at least mine require that or they won’t sit still–I have done it and so has my vet), results often last longer than expected. My cousin had an old dog with arthritis in his hips. He wasn’t able to use one of back feet correctly because it “dropped” or turned the wrong direction. She visited and we got him an acupuncture treatment. About four needles. She returned home and reported that it took over a month before the foot drop returned and he acted much more comfortable for closer to two months. It was almost three months before she was able to find someone in her area to treat her dog, so she tended to put off the visits because of his amazing responses. It was against my recommendation and the recommendation of her practitioner but I appreciate the learning case for how long the treatments lasted on this dog.

Becca Seitz, LAc
Reply

I’m so glad you found such a Chinese-medicine dedicated vet! She sounds a lot like the vet I did my informal apprenticeship with. You’re lucky to have found her! :)

The story about your cousin’s dog is a great one. Not all pets respond quite THAT quickly, but some sure do! I’m glad your cousin’s old pup got so much relief!

Sara
Reply

For pet owners and acupuncturists interested in learning more about pet acupuncture, a reader just wrote in recommending this book. Haven’t read it myself but just passing along the recommendation as an FYI.

Sara

Janet
Reply

There are excellent training programs (not weekend courses) for DVMs to train in TCM and acupuncture (International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, Chi Institute), and there is animal acupuncture certification course (12 credit program, post masters certificate) offered @ Tai Sophia for L.Acs. Whether you can legally practice on animals as an L.Ac. varies from state to state. However, just for the sake of fairness, I would like to pose the question that, if we as LAcs take issue w/ other healthcare practitioners using acupuncture as a modality with 200 or so hours of training, is it right for us to treat animals without training in veterinary medicine? My DVM was trained at the Chi Institute and is one of my most consistent referral sources. She does not treat humans :)

Becca Seitz, LAc
Reply

Your point about not having veterinary training is a good one, which is why having certification programs such as the one (and only one so far!) at Tai Sophia is a step in the right direction.

We do have to remember that as acupuncturists, we’re not using veterinary medicine. We’re still limited in our scope of practice by our licenses. We simply become specialists (in states where it’s legal to treat pets as non-veterinarians). Pets still need to be under the care of their veterinarian.

Karen
Reply

I just finished a masters program in TCM and am interested in extending my education to include animals. Does anyone know about the rules in California for practicing acupuncture on animals? Any good web site(s) for more info about it? I haven’t been able to find much online. Thanks.

Becca Seitz, LAc
Reply

If you’re interested in treating pets, call your state acupuncture board as well as your state veterinary medical board and ask them what the laws are in your state. As Janet mentioned above, Tai Sophia offers a certification program for LAcs to treat pets, but your state laws still apply.

Good luck!

Lisa Schwartz
Reply

Hi Becca,
Thank you for a great article and pics. I practiced acupuncture on animals under a vet’s license years ago and loved it! I stopped because the vet just opened up her own practice and was insecure, therefore not referring animals patients to me. At that time, I decided to treat only humans. Anyway, I just decided to pursue treating animals again and my friend who owns Barkery Lane posted your article. Meant to be! Thanks again. I might call you for some advice.

Lisa

Becca Seitz, LAc
Reply

Thank Sara for the article! She sure is an amazing writer, isn’t she? But I’m glad I could give her something to write about ;) I’m here if you have any questions!

Marc Smith
Reply

Acupuncture should be performed by veterinarians trained in Eastern Medicine or under indirect supervision of a veterinarian.

Becca Seitz, LAc
Reply

I can’t speak to the laws in other states, but in Oregon we are required to have a referral from the pet’s veterinarian. We are working under indirect vet supervision :)

Karen
Reply

Maybe this is a pipe dream, but I’d like to see community acupuncture for animals. From what people are saying here, it sounds like animals respond pretty quickly to needles, which works well with the community acupuncture style. Sliding scales, $15-40 per treatment, just like for people, would mean more frequent treatments for our animal companions — or it might even mean the difference between getting treated or not. As a TCM student (just finished, yay!), I haven’t been able to afford to take my cats for acupuncture, which is kind of ironic — like the fairytale about the shoemaker’s kids who don’t have any shoes.

Of course, there would be differences in how acupuncture would be administered community-style to pets vs. people. For starters, I don’t think group treatments would work! Four to six small, private rooms would probably do the trick. Also, the acupuncturist wouldn’t be able to stay in the room for the entire treatment, but the owners/guardians could.

Personally, I’d like to be able to have this kind of set-up independent of a veterinarian’s office. I doubt I’d be able to find an existing office that would be able to accommodate so many animals being treated at one time. From what I’ve found out so far, in California you have to work under the direct supervision of a vet, which is very limiting and pretty much prohibits a community model for pets.

If L.Ac’s are allowed to practice on humans independent of an MD’s direct supervision, I believe, with the right training, that they should be allowed to practice on animals without the direct (or indirect) supervision of veterinarians. I feel that the direct supervision rule limits access to acupuncture for our animal companions.

Melissa
Reply

Thanks so much for this great article Becca and Sara! Becca, does your malpractice insurance cover you to work on animals?

Becca Seitz, LAc
Reply

I have not found a malpractice that will cover acupuncturists who treat pets. If anyone finds one, I’d love to know!

sam gomez
Reply

As far as “There is no official training or certification for animal acupuncture”
Two schools do exist, they teach Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine,
One is the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, http://www.ivas.org
or The Chi Institute of Chinese Medicine, http://www.TCVM.com, IVAS has been training Veterinarians for over 30 years, the Chi for 10 years. They both also teach Tui-Na, Chinese Veterinary Herbal Medicine.

Julia
Reply

What are the regulations regarding the practice of acupuncture on animals in the state of Oregon. I know in Washington state one has to be “supervised ” by a veterinarian. Do these regulations vary by state?

Becca Seitz, LAc
Reply

Hi Julia!

Every state varies on their laws regarding non-veterinarians treating pets. If in doubt, call your state acupuncture licensing body as well as your state’s veterinary licensing body. Here in Oregon, you simply need a referral or prescription for acupuncture from the pet’s vet.

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