Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What Is the Point of Veterinary Acupuncture?

By Tanya Stephens

While some misguided people try ineffective “therapies”, at least they can seek out other treatments if they don’t work. Not so the hapless pet.

There is no scientific evidence for the use of acupuncture in any animal, including humans. We know that the powerful placebo effect tricks human patients into thinking acupuncture works, but why do some people (including some veterinarians who should know better) think that it’s curing animals? Is this an extreme example of cognitive bias or the caregiver placebo effect, in which the caregiver believes their animal has responded to a “treatment”? It’s a well-known phenomenon in animal care, but who is being treated: the owner or their pet?

The caregiver placebo effect means that the owner not only thinks that their animal has improved but will tell the acupuncturist so. Caregiver placebo effects are the result of using inconsistent subjective measures of response instead of objective measures. As in the human field, veterinarians using ineffective therapies will often target lucrative chronic disease conditions such as arthritis, which can wax and wane, and owners may not expect much improvement anyway.

The use of ineffective “therapies” on animals is a serious animal welfare and ethical issue. Acts and codes of conduct require veterinarians to base their decisions on scientific evidence and current knowledge, have the animal as the first priority, and alleviate suffering – certainly not add to it by sticking needles into non-consenting pets.

It’s easy to understand why some pet owners are misled. Would veterinarians carry out this treatment if it’s no good? Doesn’t that give it credibility? The claims for using acupuncture on your pet to cure just about any disease are seductive, especially if it’s not really clear what is wrong.

The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society runs continuing education courses and accreditation delivered in Australia by the Australian Veterinary Acupuncture Group (AVAG, a special interest group of the Australian Veterinary Association) through the Australian College of Veterinary Acupuncture (ACVA). Courses teach the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), in which acupuncture is an integral part. According to AVAG, acupuncture can be used as a sole therapy although graduates are encouraged to use it as an adjunct ‘to provide a better outcome for their patients’.

ACVA states: “Acupuncture is an important part of a system of TCM developed over a period of 3000 years... Drug-free, it stimulates the body’s innate capacity to heal itself... In China, horses, cows and pigs have been treated for well over 3000 years” with acupuncture. The idea that the Chinese have used acupuncture on animals for thousands of years can be dispelled with minimal research.

There is no evidence the ancient Chinese did any more to “treat” their animals than any other culture, and certainly didn’t do so for domestic animals. An early chart supposedly showing acupuncture points on horses (https://goo.gl/aTtfnr) has been revealed as a chart with pointers to different parts of the body. Acupuncture points have never been shown to exist in animals; acupuncture for animals is a 1970s invention.

The AVAG website claims that acupuncture is in the process of being awarded speciality status in the USA. In fact, and not surprisingly, specialist status was soundly rejected in May 2016 by the American Veterinary Medical Association on the recommendation of the American Board of Veterinary Specialties.

Veterinarians who have as their first priority the health and welfare of animals and who act as advocates for them should be the first professionals to shun, and certainly not embrace, any aspect of TCM, associated as it is with animal welfare concerns; from bear biling to the use of rhino horns; from decimation of the pangolin and ejiao made out of donkey skins to boost well-being and libido (https://goo.gl/nCovcd).

The use of homeopathy on animals has been shown up as a load of ineffective nonsense so it is hard to understand why, given the lack of evidence, the use of TCM and acupuncture persists. What is the point?


Tanya Stephens is a small animal practitioner, wildlife researcher and published author and presenter on veterinary ethics. Her previous contribution to Australasian Science, “Needless Treatment of Pets”, was published in Australasian Science in July/August 2014 (https://goo.gl/FZ7SFQ).