Animal acupuncture: Come one, come all?

There’s a trend on the rise: human practitioners are discovering ways to work with animals … without a veterinary license

By Narda Robinson, DO, DVM

Most animal lovers, at some point in their lives, have thought about becoming a veterinarian. Only a small fraction of these folks ever realize their dream. Still, though, who wouldn’t want to work with animals and the dedicated, compassionate clients we find ourselves so fortunate to serve?

In the not so distant past, however, one needed to complete a rigorous program in veterinary medicine and attain a veterinary license before setting out a shingle advertising animal practice.

Nowadays, other ways have surfaced.

From anesthesia-free dentistry to chiropractic to massage therapy, physical therapy and now acupuncture, human practitioners are discovering ways to access animals, with or without license. In fact, if they are challenged, they may seek legal representation to defend their rights to work on animals against the “elitist veterinary cartels.”[i]

As an overview of state laws, the American Veterinary Medical Association publishes a list of key provisions within state veterinary practice acts related to complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM).[ii]

As the AVMA indicates, “A handful of states do not have provisions specifically addressing CAVM … About 20 states follow the AVMA Model Veterinary Practice Act by including CAVM in the definition of veterinary medicine, while another 20 states or so have enacted specific or general exemptions for regulated therapies, generally requiring some type of veterinary input such as supervision or referral.”

Word appears to have spread that state regulations concerning what does and does not constitute veterinary medicine contain large enough loopholes. Some non-veterinarians are realizing that they can jump through these avenues with little recourse.

In other cases, the laws have changed in favor of non-veterinarians. In Maryland, for example, by simply dropping the term “human” before “body” in the human acupuncture practice acts, a whole new world of animal care opened up, requiring only a small amount of additional training.[iii]

According to the Maryland attorney general, the Maryland Acupuncture Board “has the authority to adopt a regulation that would identify animal acupuncture as within the scope of practice of its licensees. Acting in accordance with such a regulation, an acupuncturist licensed by the Acupuncture Board may perform acupuncture on an animal without a license from the Vet Board.”[iv]


This view reportedly contradicted the opinions of both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association, which maintained that only veterinarians should perform animal acupuncture.

To make matters worse, the Maryland acupuncture practice act specifically defined acupuncture as: “The use of oriental medical therapies for the purpose of normalizing energetic physiologic functions including pain control, and for the promotion, maintenance, and restoration of health” and “includes i) stimulation of points of the body by the insertion of acupuncture needles; ii) the application of moxibustion; and iii) manual, mechanical, thermal or electrical therapies only when performed in accordance with the principles of oriental acupuncture medical theories.[v]

These irrational ideas (i.e., “energetic physiologic functions”) frequently contradict modern views of medicine. The act places animals in the hands of acupuncturists who are more likely to miss serious illness, zoonotic disease and emergent issues because they are likely relying on folkloric, unreliable methods of diagnosis and metaphorical, arcane descriptions of illness.

Non-veterinarian animal acupuncturists in Maryland must complete at least “90 hours in diagnosis of energy dynamics and treatment of animals; 15 hours in comparative functional anatomy and physiology of animals; 15 hours in animal handling, restraints, and emergencies, and 20 hours in introduction to animal diseases and zoonotics that require the immediate attention of a veterinary practitioner.”

This equates to about a week’s worth of classes during which animal acupuncturists learn about topics that veterinary students spend full semesters studying. They also invest the bulk of their time learning notions about physiology that arose out of a pre-scientific era.

Increasing the Availability

The increased availability of animal acupuncture courses to human practitioners is cause for concern. A six-weekend course reportedly approved by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine claims that “Licensed Acupuncturists will be fully trained in the treatment of small and large animal with acupuncture and Chinese medicine” and that completion “will qualify you to sit for certification by the American Board of Animal Acupuncture.”[vi]

With no long hours spent in the veterinary anatomy lab, no final exams in pharmacodynamics, pharmacokinetics or renal physiology, who wouldn’t be tempted?

Ideally, those making legislative determinations on scope of practice would be grounded in science, informed by evidence and familiar with what practicing medicine on animals entails, but they often are not. Whether elected or appointed, state officials typically lack a background in veterinary medicine.

The more that veterinary acupuncturists rely on scientifically based methods informed by modern science, the more clearly we can distinguish ourselves from our non-veterinarian counterparts, not only to consumers but also to state officials and professional licensing boards.

This isn’t turf protection; this is about protecting animal, human and public health.


[i] Osborne M.  Scope-of-practice laws draw attacks – Oct. 15, 2008. Laypersons challenge veterinary state boards in court. October 1, 2008. JAVMA News. Accessed at on 12-15-14.

[ii] AVMA. Scope of practice: Complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM) and other practice act exemptions. October 2014. Accessed at on 12-15-14.

[iii] Riley LR. Health Occupations – Acupuncturists – Veterinary Medicine – Administrative Law – Rulemaking – Practice of Acupuncture on Animals. Sept. 26, 1995. Accessed at on 12-15-14. See page 184.

[v] Gansler DF and McDonald RN. Opinion on dry needling by physical therapists, written to Tyme Gigliotti at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Aug. 17, 2010. Accessed at on 12-15-14.

[vi] International Academy of Animal Acupuncture. Accessed at on 12-15-14.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News

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7 thoughts on “Animal acupuncture: Come one, come all?

  1. Surely as long as the animal is not harmed during the acupuncture there should be no issue here. No acupuncturist should be diagnosing veterinary issues and if the owner feels that the animal is ill it should be under the care of a vet.

  2. Agreed! This article does seem ridiculous. Any responsible pet owner will be seeking the care of a vet and obtaining recommendation for acupuncture. Either that or acupuncture is being used for something routine i.e joint alleviation in an older animal or muscle relaxation in sporting animals.

  3. “This equates to about a week’s worth of classes during which animal acupuncturists learn about topics that veterinary students spend full semesters studying.” This is exactly the complaint that licensed acupuncturists have about veterinarians treating animals with acupuncture, which they do after attending just a weekend course or two. Veterinarians cannot be licensed acupuncturists unless they go to acupuncture school like everybody else. Therefore, they are practicing acupuncture without a license The only reason they get away with it is because state laws concerning veterinary medicine are very protective of the veterinarian’s right to claim as their own any treatment that touches an animal’s body. Acupuncture school is medical school, Eastern not Western. It requires four years of full-time year-round study and passing a national credentialing exam as well as being granted state licensure, the same as a human physician (or a veterinarian). There exist many, many excellent clinical trials demonstrating the effectiveness of acupuncture. This author is completely out of touch with the current state of the science of acupuncture (yes, I said science). Her inflammatory language certainly doesn’t hide her disdain toward those she believes usurp some of her profession’s turf. Never mind that for some species, in particular felines, western veterinary medicine has very little to offer with regard to pain, which is a primary reason acupuncture treatment is sought by pet owners. If veterinary science dedicated more resources to finding their own solution to pain and dysfunction she might have a better leg to stand on. Until then, she should get out of the way and let people who are skilled in providing a treatment that actually works do what they are educated and trained to do. She would be doing clients and animal patients a better service if she worked collaboratively instead of defensively to facilitate the alleviation of suffering in areas where veterinary medicine is sorely lacking.

    1. My thoughts exactly T.L. Thank you for taking the time to clarify a thing or two… The author of this article is clearly out of the loop. I’m very thankful that my two pitties have a licensed acupuncturist handy… Due to the multiple negative side effects of drugs they had been given in the past, natural medicine has been our go to… Both boys happily get acupuncture and moxibustion treatments… and as needed they get supplements of turmeric & cold pressed virgin coconut oil, etc.. to treat their pain related issues, amongst other things… It works wonders! And of course they see their Vet regularly (which we utilize for diagnosis… for which I’m grateful!) however the drugs they often prescribe, wreaks havoc on their organs and digestive system… Unfortunately most Western Medical Doctors- Vets included, are taught only one way which is mainly influenced by the Pharmaceutical Industry…

  4. My girlfriend’s cat has been in a lot of pain recently but the vets can’t really figure out the source. Her vet recommended acupuncture- neither of us had ever heard of acupuncture being used on animals, so we had some questions. We were of course concerned that it would be painful for the cat, so we appreciate this article explaining to us the needles are small and flexible and won’t hurt.

  5. If you or your veterinarian think that your animal may benefit from acupuncture, please see a certified veterinary acupuncturist. In order to be certified (CVA- certified veterinary acupuncturist), veterinarians have to complete over 100 hours of lecture, 54 hours of hands on instruction, and need to pass a rigorous exam, in addition to having their veterinary medicine degree. The entire process takes about a year or more to complete. This is less time than human acupuncturist, however, a human acupuncturist undergoes 3 years of training, whereas CVA’s compete 4 years of vet school + ~1 year of acupunture studies. Animals have very different physiology in some respects from humans, and very different anatomy. Because an adept acupuncturist needs to understand both, it is BEST that veterinarians treat animals, and human medical acupuncturists treat people. Because acupuncture generally has few side effects and acupuncture meridians/principles can be transposed it is conceivable for human acupuncturists to work on animals and for veterinarians to work on people, but it is certainly not best practice.

    1. Hannah, I’m sorry but I have to disagree here, and with the author’s clear lack of understanding of the medicine they’re writing about. Acupuncture school is medical school – it takes 4 years, not 3 (some accelerated programs can be finished in 3 years, but the course load is unimaginable. I often take 10 courses at a time plus clinic in the standard 4 year program), thousands of hours of hands-on practice, a full biomedical and A&P education (including physics, microbiology, organic chemistry, etc.), and the passing of 3-4 licensure exams, including biomedicine (the 4th that is optional in some states is Herbal Medicine, which is more extensive than you can fathom until you’ve been through one of these programs). Keep in mind I’m examining this training as someone nearing completion of it and with a background in western medicine as an RN for over a decade – an acupuncturist’s training is extensive (which is why I’m still blown away when I meet people who really are quacks – how did they get through school?! I guess in the same way piss-poor doctors graduated and obtained licensure). I agree whole heartedly that no acupuncturist should be working on animals without training in the anatomy and physiology of the animals they’ll be working on – nerves, blood vessels, the location of vital organs (particularly the lungs), animal handling, and medical red flags are essential for an acupuncturist to safely work on animals. They should also be working by referral from a vet (who can differentiate their general state of health). But if an acupuncturist obtains the necessary knowledge to perform their medicine SAFELY on animals, which is much easier to obtain in a week/year/CEU course than it is to learn the entire ridiculously complex system of Chinese Medicine (yes, it’s far more than “energy” and “meridians”, and yes, 4 years of study is still only scratching the surface), they should be the practitioners performing acupuncture. It’s like dry needling (aka acupuncture) and PT’s – they see benefit, so they want to perform the skill, but studies show their outcomes are not as successful at those from a licensed acupuncturist. In other words – it’s more than just putting needles into tissue, and to best serve your patients, it should be done by someone who has a full understanding of the myriad interplays you’re affecting. That year long course and “certification” for vets is just not enough. But yes, acupuncturists need specific training before they can work with vets to provide this care. I hope the future of veterinary medicine is collaborative, same with human medicine, and that vets and acupuncturists and work together to provide the best care possible to their patients.