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 wrote 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 an animal 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.

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.

How many visits are usually needed?

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.

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.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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