Shea Cox
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Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine
The Eastern approach to caring for our pets
Some dogs fall asleep during acupuncture treatments.

Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) is one of the cornerstones of treatment in our referral hospital setting, and I wholeheartedly believe that it is an integral part of an all-embracing approach to therapy. I have observed its remarkable benefits countless times, especially in our surgery, oncology and aging internal medicine patients. I am frequently asked about the overall concept of holistic medicine, and I hope this post will help answer questions regarding this fascinating and emerging area of veterinary medicine, including how these practices can augment a Western approach.

What is it?

TCVM aims to diagnose and treat animals as a whole, rather than focusing on individual organ systems, as with Western medicine. The basic concept is the belief that illness can develop when the body is out of balance. Ultimately, the goal of TCVM is to put the body back into its natural equilibrium, as a way to help to treat and rid the body of disease. This can be achieved with a combination of acupuncture, herbs, nutrition and massage.

Acupuncture is the stimulation of a specific point on the body (acupoint), resulting in a “balancing” effect. Acupuncture has been practiced in both animals and humans for thousands of years in China. The ancient Chinese practitioners have discovered 361 acupoints in humans and 173 acupoints in animals! Stimulation of these acupoints induces the release of natural chemicals such as beta-endorphins, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. These chemicals, in turn, have positive effects on pain control and can generate the feeling of general well-being.

All those needles! Does it hurt?

Acupuncture treatments can cause the sensation of pressure, tingling or aching. For most animals, placing the acupuncture needles is painless. Some animals occasionally feel the initial insertion of the needle, but once in place, there is no pain. In fact, many animals become relaxed and some even fall asleep. This is a desired response and is a representation of Qi (energy) in the body. Acupuncture needles are sterile, single-use needles that are very fine and are not expected to cause discomfort.

How many treatments are needed?

The number of treatments depends on the nature, severity and duration of the disease. One or two treatments may be enough for a suddenly developed condition, whereas chronic conditions will often require 3 to 6 treatments to obtain results. Some degenerative conditions may need monthly treatments over time. Treatments may be given once a week to once every few months, depending on the specific problem. Each treatment can take 20 to 60 minutes, and an average of 10 to 20 acupuncture needles are typically used.

What are Chinese herbs and are they safe?

Chinese herbal therapy is another method of treatment in TCVM, and can be safely used in conjunction with other Western medications. The use of Chinese herbs in conjunction with other modalities (acupuncture and food therapy) can be a very useful and safe method to treat illnesses. Whereas acupuncture affects the movement of Qi, Chinese herbs improve the quality of Qi. This treatment combination can be very effective in bringing the body back to a balanced state. The individual herbs are often derived from portions of plants (root, bark, flower, seed), but they can also be mineral- (such as shell) or animal- (such as earthworm) based.

When is acupuncture indicated?

Acupuncture therapy can be effective with many medical conditions including:

  • Musculoskeletal problems: arthritis, muscle soreness, back problems and degenerative joint disease
  • Gastrointestinal disorders: diarrhea, vomiting and constipation
  • Neurological disorders: seizures and weakness of limbs
  • Chronic conditions: asthma, kidney disease, liver disease, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, skin disease, allergies and heart disease
  • Cancers and immune-mediated diseases: Benefits include improvement in the immune system, decreased symptoms of cancer (loss of appetite, pain, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness), alleviation of side effects of chemotherapy, and primary therapy for the cancer itself.
  • Following surgery: Surgery is considered an “acute trauma” and acupuncture is wonderful at treating associated pain and inflammation.

The marriage of Eastern and Western medicine reflects advancement in care, and I am truly excited to be practicing medicine in a time when so much can be done for our pets to help improve their quality of life!  Feel free to post any questions, comments or just share with us your personal experiences with holistic care.


Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by PageC | October 5 2011 |

I'm considering acupuncture for one of my dogs who has a joint injury and/or arthritis. Her chiropractor also does acupuncture, and felt the dog wasn't the best candidate in the sense that she gets very anxious and spins. If the chiropractic doesn't clear things up, we'll will be willing to give acupuncture a try. I've had it and thought it was very helpful.

Submitted by Anonymous | October 6 2011 |

Hi Page! Thank you for your comments! I think any approach is always worth investigating, especially since different modalities (as well as different combinations of modalities) work differently for each patient. An example I always think of in my brain is Tylenol vs. Advil... these two medications are essentially doing the same thing, but for some, Advil works amazing better than Tylenol at helping headaches. The body is so dynamic, and for as much as we know about medicine, there are just as many mysteries. Good luck with your baby! :)

Submitted by Jaime | October 6 2011 |

I usually love your articles and recommendations, but making an article on acupuncture is not really science based reporting.
I do clicker training because it is an actually proven method. There is nothing proven about acupuncture, and the fact that you are recommending it for any illness (take a look at the list) is also a shame.
Could you also set up a series of articles about science based medicine?

Submitted by lvdogs | October 6 2011 |


UC Davis is offering acupuncture in the large animal hospital. The problem with clinical trials for dog medical research is that there is not a lot of money to support it. So no, there is no peer based review on Canine Acupuncture. Are some of the best Vet schools in the country offering Acupuncture? Yes. If a major Veterinary School and hospital is offering acupuncture, does that legitimize it, or at least put acupuncture in the conversation? Of course it does!

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | October 11 2011 |

Hi lvdogs! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and for providing this link for others to see and check out. UCD is just one of the many veterinary schools that are integrating TCVM into the curriculum; it truly is exciting to see the growth of this area! Shea

Submitted by shirleyAnonymous | December 1 2011 |

this might be off the subject, but i would like to know if there is any cure for annal fisiua? we used atopica to control since iv been told there isnt a cure, and it shut down his ammune system and he now is being treated for phemonia. i took him off the atopica, and will never use it again, there is a web sight that sales a healing cream called zymox, it says it even heals mrsa, since this drains like mrsa i hadthem send my vet a sample to see what he thinks of it, my dog is a 11 yr old english bulldog and they say he wont recover from surgery, so im looking for any ideas i can get at this point, he had his tail removed 5 yrs ago, and this has started where his tail used to be, any ideas from anyone please, he is on cephelexein and pred for being sick from the atopica, thank you very much.

Submitted by Shea Cox | October 6 2011 |

First off, let me say thank you for starting off with a compliment, and I am glad to hear that you have enjoyed the topics I have covered so far.

Now let me elaborate a little more on your point that acupuncture is not “really science-based reporting.” I have to say that I respectfully disagree with this.

The biochemistry and neurochemistry is well scientifically documented; this is an area that has been extensively investigated and is actually quite well understood with the use of infra-red technology and other tools such as functional MRI. There is a great deal of respected scientific study and research with regards to how acupuncture affects neurotransmitters, cytokines, and overall neurophysiology, as well as countless studies (in highly respected medical journals) where the results are not based upon subjective data like, "How did it feel?" but upon objective results of measurable test values (for example, how the immunomodulation of acupuncture can reduce inflammation, elevate WBC, and increase interleukin-2 production).

Let me try to summarize the science of how acupuncture works and I’ll take the angle of pain control, which is one of the major utilizations. At the basics, acupuncture represents a form of nerve stimulation. Local counter-irritation, caused by a needle, leads to microtrauma of the tissues and what follows is a complex and integrated series of reactions that leads to events in the nervous system.

The nerdy explanation: there is a sequential and simultaneous activation of local, segmental and super-segmental neural pathways and these changes lead to altered blood flow and altered humeral responses within the immune system. Acupuncture stimulates nerve endings, which in turn alters the segmental and super-segmental spinal pathways. This leads to changes within the brainstem and the cortical regions and eventually affects the entire neural axis. The stimulation of mixed sensory nerves results in transmission of proprioceptive information that arrives at the spinal cord before the pain information can be received due to the difference in their respective nerve conduction velocities. The proprioceptive information, then, through pre-synaptic inhibition, blocks the transmission of the pain information at the local level. In acupuncture, the A delta fibers and type II proprioceptive fibers are responsible for local analgesia.

I know this isn’t the place for a technical neurophysiology discussion, so I’d be more than happy to answer any questions for you at my personal email address below.

Next statement: “the fact that you are recommending it for any illness is also a shame.” Yes, I do recommend it, but lets not loose the context of the topic. I do not recommend it as a replacement for, BUT as a supplement to, Western medicine.

I am not a practitioner of TCVM, but I cannot dispute the benefits I have personally seen, and I would not hesitate to add this modality to my own babies medical management plan to augment overall treatment. This is not a “one or the other” or an “all or none,” but a beneficial marriage of the two. Now, let me broach the subject of the placebo effect. I know that the placebo effect is absolutely real. With that said, it cannot account for some of the results I have personally seen in animal patients (and I do consider myself a rational, scientifically-based person ☺). I'm not talking about improved comfort for joint disease – because this can certainly be subjective in the client's eye. What I'm talking about is improvement on lab results, weight gain in emaciated animals, measurable shrinkage of tumors, cessation of cluster seizures, resolution of profound skin lesions, and control of inflammatory bowel disease to name a few. I just can’t dispute that on a personal level.

Next topic: “Could you also set up a series of articles about science based medicine?” I’m the new kid on the blogging block, and my first 5 postings have been science-based medicine, and (now), what I would find “shameful,” would be to ignore other aspects of medicine that have the potential to help people and their pets.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what topics you would like covered; what I write about is generally triggered by what I have experienced over my work week, but it would be great to discuss a topic that I know someone is very interested in hearing about.

So! Thank you for your comments; I very much enjoyed the opportunity to elaborate and discuss this topic with you, as well as hearing what you think. I look forward to your suggestions!

Submitted by Nancy J | October 6 2011 |

As far as we are concerned, acupuncture is a proven alternative treatment. Our Doberman has been treated with acupuncture and spinal manipulation for the past 5 years. She suffers from Wobblers. She could barely walk when we took her to our holistic vet. It took several months of regular treatments, but she recovered at least 85% of her mobility because of those treatments. She is 13 years old now and still gets around pretty good. We are not advocating giving up on "mainstream" vets, but the two methods can and do work together well. Our oldest beagle boy was treated for a herniated disc. Our "regular" vet urged us to take him to our holistic vet for acupuncture in addition to his mainstream treatment. We did and Dexter is back to his usual self. I urge everyone to consider alternative treatments--they can mean less invasive procedures, less discomfort, and a more affordable treatment plan in many cases.

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | October 11 2011 |

Hi Nancy! I am so happy to hear of your wonderful successes with acupuncture! Being a fellow Dobie mom of 2, it makes me extra excited to hear how much it has helped her Wobblers (and to hear she is 13! :), as well as your little Dexter and his disk. I feel your comment sums it up perfectly, "the two methods can and do work together well." Thank you so much for your comments and feedback! Shea

Submitted by MVMeehan | October 6 2011 |

Thank you very much for this excellent topic.

I took Traditional Chinese Medicine (herbs) and found it an excellent experience, one I would highly recommend for anyone. AND...
Although when I was treated with Acupuncture for pain, I did not get the results I hoped for, I would definitely consider it for anyone, especially my animals. Why?
Because I know that people have been noting the use of traditional methods for thousands of years, much longer than any drug company has been in existance.
I also know how effective "folk" medicine can be.

Keep up the good work--
I LOVE The Bark!

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | October 11 2011 |

MVMeehan~ You are very welcome! :) I am glad you enjoyed the topic and thank you for the feedback and sharing your experiences. And please feel free to offer up any suggestions of other topics you'd be interested in! Shea

Submitted by Shirley C. | January 18 2013 |

Thank you so much for this interesting article and the shout-out for the equine acupuncture service at UC Davis. Sorry I'm rather late to this posting, but I wanted to mention that Davis also offers acupucture for "exotic" pets, as well as dogs and cats with Dr. Marilyn Koski.

Additionally, the student-run Holistic Vet Medicine Club at Davis is offering a symposium (at Davis and online!) on April 27, 2013, titled An Integrative Approach to Chronic Disease and Pain Management, which will include talks on TCVM *and* other modalities -- it'll highlight a blending of East and West with wonderfully engaging speakers. More details are available on our website. (proceeds benefit the students!)

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