The History of Veterinary Acupuncture: It’s Not What You Think

One of the most common arguments made in support of using acupuncture on animals is that veterinary acupuncture is an ancient art practiced and refined in China for thousands of years. On one website providing referrals for acupuncturists, the claim is made that,

Acupuncture has been used on animals for over 4000 years. Legend has it that veterinary acupuncture was discovered when lame horses used in battle were found to become sound after being hit by arrows at distinct points. In any event, there is evidence that Chinese “horse priests”, the caretakers of the army’s horses, practiced acupuncture during the Zang and Chow Dynasties around 2000-3000 BC.

Similarly, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) website claims,

Acupuncture may be defined as the insertion of needles into specific points on the body to cause a desired healing effect. This technique has been used in veterinary practice in China for at least 3000 years to treat many ailments. The Chinese also use acupuncture as preventive medicine against such problems as founder and colic in horse.

Of course, the notion that the length of time a methods has been in use is somehow proof of its safety or efficacy is fundamentally unsound. Unsafe and ineffective treatments (bloodletting, various forms of burning or “cauterization,” faith healing and, I would argue, acupuncture) often endure for centuries, even millennia despite having no benefits and even being harmful, due to the many, many reasons people are prone to making inaccurate judgments about such things. Even if acupuncture has endured for thousands of years, it has failed in all that time to extend our life expectancy, reduce infant and childbirth mortality, eliminate any infectious disease, or accomplish any of the other dramatic improvements in human and animal health scientific medicine has given us in the last 200 years.

Still, it is understandable why people might find the tenacity of a method to be a strong argument for it being effective. Unfortunately, in the case of veterinary acupuncture, the appeal to longevity argument is not only misleading, it doesn’t happen to even be true!

A recent article in the German science history journal Sudhoffs Archiv makes a strong and detailed case that most of the sources cited to support the argument that the Chinese have practiced acupuncture on animals for thousands of years are actually describing bloodletting and cauterization practices that have no meaningful relationship to what is considered to be acupuncture today. The authors also argue that many of the veterinary techniques these Chinese sources describe using on horses correspond closely to techniques found at the same time or even earlier in Greek, Egyptian, Arabic, and Indian sources, and that they may have derived originally from Western practices or had common sources. The article’s authors include two professors of East Asian history and an equine veterinarian, Dr. David Ramey, who has written extensively on equine medicine in generally and on complementary and alternative veterinary medicine.

Buell PD, May T, Ramey D. Greek and Chinese Horse Medicine: Déjà vu All Over Again. Sudhoffs Archiv. 94(1);2010:31.

According to the authors, the earliest written records of Chinese veterinary medicine, from the 3rd century BC, concern primarily herbal treatments. By the 6th century recommendations concerning bleeding and cauterization are found, though herbal therapies are still the primary treatments recommended for animals. The earliest surviving Chinese text specifically devoted to veterinary medicine dates from 1384, though much of the material it contains appears to have originated in the 11th and 12th centuries. none of these early texts refer to anything that could be considered acupuncture in the modern sense. The IVAS defines acupuncture as, “the insertion of needles into specific points on the body to cause a desired healing effect.” Though there are a variety of techniques, including using heat, laser light, and electricity on supposed acupuncture points, most commonly veterinary acupuncture takes the form described by the Australian Veterinary Acupuncture Group: “Acupuncture is the technique of using very fine needles that pierce the skin at specific points in order to treat or prevent disease.”

There is no evidence for such techniques in the early Chinese veterinary texts. Though the term “zhen” used in such texts is often incorrectly translated as “acupuncture,” it is clear from a thorough reading of these texts that the term was used to refer to bleeding, cauterization, and even surgical interventions, not acupuncture as applied to people and animals today. Such interventions become more prominent in later Chinese veterinary texts, however these texts also do not describe anything that can be reasonably called acupuncture. Methods resembling modern veterinary acupuncture apparently were not widely practiced in China until the 1960s.

The historical Chinese texts do describe specific interventions at specific points on the body of the horse, and they include detailed charts and diagrams to guide these interventions. Such charts are often presented in modern works, without translation of labels or inclusion of accompanying text from the original works, as evidence of historical acupuncture point designations. Actually reading the text associated with such diagrams makes it clear that these are not charts showing acupuncture points or meridians. In reality, most such charts for animals date back no further than the 1970s. (For a more detailed look at the history of veterinary acupuncture, see Dr. Ramey’s book Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine Considered).

The authors of the Sudhoff Archiv article also describe some of  the remarkable similarities between Chinese veterinary practices and those described in Greek, Roman, and other Western cultures. I don’t have the expertise to judge the plausibility of their suggestion that some of this similarity may be due to the spread of ideas from the West into China via Arab or Indian sources. Though I would not be at all surprised if disparate cultures came up with very similar theories about unseen forces responsible for disease and methods of manipulating these forces, it is an interesting hypothesis that the similarities are more direct.

Overall, the article is a detailed scholarly look at the truth about early Chinese equine medicine, and veterinary medicine more generally. It is particularly helpful in challenging the many inaccurate claims about the antiquity of veterinary acupuncture. While I do not believe the antiquity of a medical practice is useful in assessing its validity, it is a compelling argument for some, so knowing the truth about this particular practice is of more than just academic interest.

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9 Responses to The History of Veterinary Acupuncture: It’s Not What You Think

  1. Rita says:

    … all we have to do is keep those danged horses still whilst we aim our arrows at the acupuncture points and voilá! sound horses………

  2. v.t. says:

    Thank you, skeptvet, for addressing this age-old problem (no pun intended). Another excellent piece on the history of acupuncture (including veterinary), done by the late Robert Imrie, DVM, “Acupuncture: The Facts”:

  3. Jana Rade says:

    All I have to add to this is that acupuncture does work. I’ve seen it work. To me that is all that matters.

  4. skeptvet says:


    From your several comments on various arthritis-related posts, it is clear that you regard testimonials and individual experiences as reliable evidence for what works and what doesn’t in medicine. I wish this were true since it would make my job a lot easier and we wouldn’t need to do research at all. Sadly, we are more likely to do harm than good by trusting our personal experience, as the history of medicine illustrates. If you really are open-minded, I hope you will take the time to browse the arrticles here, and at my main site, which discuss why we are so often wrong when we think we know what works and what doesn’t. Our lives are all so much bettter because science-based medicine has learned to compensate for our individual weaknesses in making such judgements, and there is a lot we can all learn about how to make the best choices for our pets.

  5. Jana Rade says:

    My own believes aside, there are many vets who believe in the benefits of acupuncture as well. My friend, who is a vet (DVM) has a dog who cannot tolerated NSAIDs. She’s been successfully using acupuncture for some time now and her dog is doing great.

    These vets have formal education and yet turned to using these techniques. And the dogs are doing well and are able to enjoy their lives.

    Isn’t that what it is all about? Helping the dogs and allowing them to live our their lives?

    How do you explain that these veterinary professionals do believe in the benefits of acupuncture as well?

    Most of the time people turn to alternatives when the traditional is not their option or has failed them. And the alternatives then often are what saves their dogs.

    Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but it does … so how do we wrap our heads around that?

  6. skeptvet says:

    Thanks for making the effort to continue the discussion.

    The key question is how do we figure out what really works and what doesn’t. Vets make judgements in the same ways, using the same kinds of brains, as everyone else, and so we get fooled by the same things. An example:

    For 10 years we gave young cats with bloody urine antibiotics for their UTIs, and they almost always got better a few days later. Then someone did a study which showed these cats really didn’t have UTIs, there was no bacteria in their urine, and if not treated at all they almost all got better in a few days. Meanwhile, about 15% of them experienced diarrhea or vomiting from the antibiotics, which actually weren’t doing anything even though the owners and the vets thought they were.

    Stories like this are examples of why we have to be careful in trusting what we think we see happening, vets as much or more than pet owners. The evidence is not definitive concerning acupuncture in animals, though when good studies with appropriate controls and objective measures (such as how much weight the pet puts on an arthritic leg, NOT whether they look better to the owner or vet) are done, it doesn’t seem to work very well. And the voluminous research in humans over decades shows it to be moderately effective for pain and nausea as a placebo, but no better than “fake” acupuncture.

    So it worries me that we may be doing something which seems to help but that we’re actually being fooled and the pet, who can’t speak for his or herself, may still be in pain. I’m not at all saying we shouldn’t study such methods, I’m just saying we shouldn’t be as trusting as we usually are about what looks like it works or doesn’t work.

  7. Jana Rade says:

    That is a very interesting point about the cat pseudo UTI. I do agree that drugs are often dispensed without enough investigation.

    Acupuncture however is much more benign.

    I believe that while dogs cannot tell us whether or not they are in pain, their actions can. An arthritic dog will often be reluctant to jump in the car, on furniture, use stairs … if this suddenly changes, isn’t that a sign that the dog indeed is feeling better?

    I agree that muscle mass should be used as an indication. For example with Jasmine (we used stem cell treatment for her) she also goes to a physio therapist for underwater treadmill on a maintenance basis, her muscle mass on rear legs was deemed perfect for her breed and size. You can see the muscles rippling. More over, her shoulders were disproportionately wide as she was compensating for her rear. Now her shoulders are the right proportion and some loose skin is evidence of how wide they used to be.

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