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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Dog Cancer Pain: Acupuncture?

Updated: May 7th, 2019


Dog cancer pain: acupuncture? Even if your vet dismisses it, it is more than just a placebo!

Let’s look at another way to help with dog cancer pain: acupuncture. Those in the alternative medicine community would expect a discussion of acupuncture to help with pain control.  Those who are strictly conventional will likely poo poo it as baseless hocus-pocus.

But pain management is an essential part of treating dogs with cancer. Since life quality is a central issue, we look for ways to make sure it is maintained.  Pain is a huge life quality negative.

Pain is usually controlled with medications.  However, sometimes the medications are not tolerated, or they are just not enough.  What to do?

In the spirit of the Full Spectrum Approach strategy used in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, let’s take a closer look at acupuncture, one of the most debated topics in Western medicine.

Just the facts, folks — no dogma.

Studies Back Up Acupuncture’s Use

A very interesting study showed that auricular acupuncture (in the ear flap) decreased cancer pain significantly.  Check it out for yourself here. Another article showed that electroacupuncture decreased the need for pain medication after surgery where the chest cavity was opened.  Acupuncture with massage was shown in another publication to help a bit with mood, nausea and pain in cancer patients recovering from surgery.

Clearly it seems to be doing something!

Placebo Effect? Nope.

An argument that acupuncture may not be a direct way to reduce pain is the good old placebo effect.  Turns out that when pain medications were given to humans out of sight (when the patients did not know they were receiving them), the medications were far less effective than when they were visible.  So the knowledge that a pain med was being given explained a lot of the pain control.

The same article also pointed out that the placebo effect of pain medication is explained by the body releasing it’s own pain killing hormones (endorphins).  When a medication that blocks these endorphins was given, the placebo effect went away and the pain went up.  Pretty crazy!

One of the problems with the argument that acupuncture is due to placebo effect is that it decreases pain in animals.  Here is a study that gives abundant evidence of this fact. Animal experimentation ethics aside, the information is clear:  since animals have a low probability of expecting that acupuncture will take away their pain, the placebo effect probably did not exist in the experiment.

Verdict: Use It If You Can

Bottom line? In my opinion, acupuncture in no way supplants the use of conventional pain control. However, in conjunction with Western medications, it can lessen the amount of drugs needed.  On top of this, it can be used for mild pain if pharmaceuticals are not tolerated.  Finally, it can help improve general well-being.

So if you can manage it, consider acupuncture to round out your dog’s Full Spectrum cancer care. Here is a post on recruiting a vet that might be able to help.

All my best,

Dr. D

Leave a Comment

  1. Barbara kandel on May 16, 2018 at 2:59 am

    The more we can educate the more pet owners will understand the need to use both western and holistic medicine to treat their beloved pets. I am an animal acupuncturist in MD and love what I do. I see so many owners relief when their animals show improvement, regardless of why it’s happening. It is a process and education is the most important thing we can do to help the two and four legged beings.

  2. Cavalier Health on May 15, 2018 at 1:26 am

    What a relief to read this! Most veterinary artilcles on anything having to do with acupuncture reflect a combination of ignorance compounded by bigotry against this long-proven technique.

  3. Amy on March 9, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Dear Dr. D,

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and opinion. I am troubled and uncertain whether we should continue with acupuncture treatements as this is not being used for pain management for our 15 years old Dachshund. We are trying acupuncture as way to better energy and in hope to enhance her quality of life as we do not have any conventional treatments available to us for her liver tumor. She seems to be more energiezed than before but we uncertain whether this is the results of acupuncture or the many supplements she has been taking both provided by the holistic veterarian. In your opinion, do you think we should continue with acupuncture treatments?
    Your advise and opinion are greatly appreciated.

  4. Amy on March 8, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Dear Dr. D,

    Some readings have suggested that acupuncture should not be performed on a dog who has cancer/tumor because the acupuncture treatment betters the circulation/blood flow which may also accelerate the groth of cancer/tumor. Is there any validity re this? Any information would be greatly appreicated. Thank you for your time.

    • Dr. Dressler on March 8, 2010 at 2:00 pm

      Dear Amy,
      I was just talking to an oncologist about this very thing.
      As of this time we just don’t have the data to compare tumor spread with our without acupuncture. I am of the opinion though that one could argue that increased blood flow to tumors (if it does indeed happen to a measurable extent), in spite of the disorganized way tumor circulation occurs, could enhance oxygenation of the tumor tissue, which raises the oxygen tension in the tissue and decreases the acidity, which could theoretically make it less favorable for tumor cells.
      That’s just another argument, by the way…
      At this moment, if the acupuncture is helping a lot, I am not afraid of it.
      Dr D

  5. franklin mattingly on January 30, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Again about my white german shepard over 14 yrs old with splenic tumor I took her for accupuncture treatments and she got a much stronger with better appitite and decreased pain

    • Dr. Dressler on January 31, 2010 at 9:19 am

      Dear Franklin,
      That is great news. Thank you for giving us this helpful information!
      Dr D

  6. phillip on January 26, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Dr. D

    Thank you for your reply. As you can see by my previous
    email, I have been a good dad to Gibson, and I have fought
    a good fight for him and his survival. I’ve gotten a lot
    of good advice, and have tried quite a few supplements and
    cancer fighters over the last few months. Along this journey,
    I have visited conventional, holistic, alternative, and christian
    vets. I have stayed up many nights, and have suffered health
    issues myself because of my fight for gibson. Along the way,
    I’ve been critisized for not letting Gibson go peacefully, and
    I’ve also been hailed and complimented by many for continuing to
    fight. One day cancer will be defeated. I’m hoping that you are the
    man, who some day comes up with the solution, and cancer will be
    defeated in our precious animals. Keep up the good work DR.D
    God bless Phillip

    • Dr. Dressler on January 31, 2010 at 3:30 pm

      Dear Phillip,
      I know how much you care for Gibson. I know you will arrive at a decision that feels right to you and feels right for Gibson. Don’t forget, there are many who believe that you two will meet again one day, so it may not be good bye, just farewell for now, my friend.
      Dr D

  7. paula penn on January 26, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    My american bulldog had inoperable renal metastatic carcinoma and received acupuncture once a week for 5 months before he passed. Prior to receiving the acupuncture he could not make it up our steep stairs due to pain. After 2 sessions of acupuncture he never showed any pain again, and never needed any pain meds. Of course finding the best acupunturist is a must. While skeptical at first, I would have tried anything to help him. Acupuncture proved to be the best thing I did for him on our cancer journey. I am now a complete believer in acupuncture for animals. The proof was in watching my boy run up the stairs pain free. This totally worked for my beloved and missed bulldog Newman.

    • Dr. Dressler on January 31, 2010 at 3:31 pm

      Dear Paula,
      Thanks for your information! Great work on being your dog’s number one advocate.
      Dr D

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