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Alternative Treatments in Veterinary Medicine

As veterinary medicine continues to evolve and change, so do veterinary treatment methods. It is important for veterinary professionals to familiarize themselves with new and emerging forms of treatment and to understand the science, or lack thereof, behind them. Alternative forms of treatment, if well executed and researched, could prove invaluable in many difficult cases.


The practice of acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago and has now spread all over the globe. It is often used in conjunction with modern Western treatment methods. The Association of Veterinary Acupuncturists of Canada (AVAC) defines acupuncture as “the insertion of needles into specific points of the body to produce a healing response.”

In theory, acupuncture works by aiding the body in the healing process. It affects physiological changes, such as nerve stimulation, increased blood circulation, and the release of hormones. Stimulating different acupuncture points is said to have different effects, and which points are stimulated, how deep the needles are inserted, and the duration of the treatment session depends on a variety of factors: Patient tolerance, practitioner skill, and treated condition.

The treatment method is said to be painless and safe for animals, with a low chance of side effects. Reported side effects per the AVAC include lethargy or sleepiness for 24 hours, and the appearance of an animal’s condition worsening for up to 48 hours. The AVAC has provided the following list of conditions for which they recommend acupuncture, in small and large animals:

  • Musculoskeletal problems
  • Respiratory problems
  • Skin problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Selected reproductive problems

Could a single treatment method effectively combat or assist in combatting such a wide range of ailments? A 2016 review of veterinary acupuncture clinical trials by Huisheng Xie DVM, MS, PhD, and Neal Sivula DVM, PhD, aimed to answer such a question. The review had the following selection criteria for paper selection: “1) randomized controlled trials with adequate numbers of patients, 2) non-randomized clinical trials with adequate numbers of patients under similar conditions, and 3) more limited studies which shed light on therapeutic mechanisms at work in the clinical trials… to augment the scientific evidence.”

A large sample of the reviewed studies focused on pain control. Studies were chosen that focused on both large and small animal ailments, such as: Musculoskeletal and rectal pain in horses, hip dysplasia in dogs, and surgical pain in dogs, cats, and cattle. One controlled, double-blinded clinical trial evaluated gold bead implantation as a pain relieving treatment for hip dysplasia in 78 dogs. Gold bead implantation is considered a permanent form of acupuncture, in which gold beads are implanted on acupuncture points. 36 dogs received the treatment in acupuncture points, and 42 had skin penetrated on nonacupuncture points. The improvement in mobility and greater reduction of pain in the treatment group was considered statistically significant.

Acupuncture also appeared to be effective in the realm of neurology, with success in the treatment of intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in both dogs and cats. Some of the reviewed studies concluded that electro-acupuncture, a form of acupuncture that uses two needles and a mild electric current, combined with traditional treatment was more effective than traditional treatment alone. Traditional needle acupuncture and ear acupuncture were both shown to reduce frequency and severity of seizure activity.

In the realm of gastrointestinal issues, five acupuncture points were found that appeared to be effective in the treatment of vomiting in canines: PC-6, ST-36, BL-20, BL-21, and SP-6. Two of these acupuncture points, ST-36 and BL-20, were also implicated in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.

Xie and Sivula concluded that acupuncture demonstrated safety and efficacy in the treatment of a wide range of conditions. However, future studies are still needed; the strength of the reviewed clinical trials varied, and evidence-based research is essential to validating a treatment method and assuring its safety.


Chiropractic manipulation, or spinal manipulation, has been used to treat human disease for centuries. In veterinary medicine, it is a new and emerging treatment method. Theoretically, it can be performed on any vertebrate species.

Drs. Marsden, Messonier, and Yuill of VCA Hospitals have noted chiropractic manipulation as a viable treatment for conditions with a neurologic or biomechanical origin. Such conditions include degenerative joint disease, cervical instability, IVDD, autonomic nervous system problems, musculoskeletal weakness or pain, and chronic back and neck pain.

Results in chiropractic are typically immediate, but chiropractic manipulation can be unsurprisingly risky; manipulation of the spine, if done incorrectly, can lead to serious and possibly irreversible damage to a patient. It is for that reason that veterinary chiropractors in North America are expected to be certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA).

Like acupuncture, veterinary chiropractic manipulation is typically combined with traditional medicine. Unlike acupuncture, however, it has been challenging to find research and clinical trials supporting this treatment method. For this reason, and the risk associated, veterinary chiropractic manipulation can be controversial.

Pursuing Alternative Treatment Methods

Prior to pursuing alternative treatment methods, a veterinarian should examine an animal and establish a preliminary diagnosis. Following an acupuncture treatment, for example, a patient’s clinical signs could be masked, making it difficult to properly diagnose a condition.

The cost of alternative treatment methods varies greatly depending on condition treated, patient response, and practitioner skillset. When referring a client to a veterinary chiropractor or acupuncturist, it is imperative to be sure they are properly trained veterinarians to avoid risk to the patient. In present day, it is far too easy for non-professionals to market themselves as such.

New and emerging treatment methods are undeniably exciting, but thorough research is crucial to ensuring their safety and efficacy. As time passes, we will surely accumulate more research through clinical trials and case studies and be able to recommend alternative treatment methods with more confidence.


AVAC.org - AVAC: About. (n.d.). Retrieved February 7, 2020, from www.avacanada.org/whatis.htm

Marsden, S., Messonnier, S., & Yuill, C. (2009). Veterinary Chiropractic Care. Retrieved February 7, 2020, from vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/veterinary- chiropractic-care

Marsden, S., Messonnier, S., & Yuill, C. (2009). Veterinary Acupuncture. Retrieved February 7, 2020, from vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/veterinaryacupuncture ~

Xie, H., & Sivula, N. (2016). Review of Veterinary Acupuncture Clinical Trials . Retrieved February 7, 2020, from www.veterinairepetcare.com/wp-content/ uploads/2018/10/vet-acupuncture-research-review.pdf

About the Author

Mara DePena has been working as a veterinary assistant in a number of hospitals and vaccine clinics since 2016. She obtained her B.S. in Animal and Poultry Sciences from Virginia Tech in 2018 with a companion and laboratory animal emphasis. She currently works at Morris Animal Foundation as a Veterinary Research Associate.