In Shanghai, a modern twist on a traditional therapy: acupuncture for pets

Society & Culture

An animal hospital utilizes traditional Chinese medicine to treat pets with debilitating ailments.

SHANGHAI — After suffering a herniated disc, King Kong, a two-year-old French bulldog, was unable to walk or properly control his bladder. But four months of acupuncture sessions later, involving needles repeatedly being stuck in his back, he can now stand unaided.

“He can even go to the toilet by himself now,” says King Kong’s proud and delighted owner, 26-year-old bakery shop owner Miss Jin. She strokes her pet as he’s strapped to a wooden rack at the Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Neurology and Acupuncture Animal Health Center, located in a leafy neighborhood in the city’s southwest.

Chief veterinarian Jin Rishan says the clinic is the only pet acupuncture facility to specialize in treating neurological conditions for animals. Acupuncture, of course, is an ancient alternative Chinese therapy purported to treat everything from arthritis to infertility. It involves the insertion of needles into the body, nowadays sometimes with electrical currents running through them. It is based on the belief that doing so helps the body’s qi, or energy, flow better, thereby healing ailments.

Pet acupuncture
Jin Rishan, owner, founder, and veterinarian, with a patient of his (photo by David Hogsholt)

It’s usually done on humans, often with a panpipe soundtrack. But Jin says pet owners from all over China have flocked to his clinic since it opened five years ago, bringing their crippled canines, cats, and occasionally rabbits. “We even had a dog here smuggled through customs from Hong Kong,” he says proudly.

Jin first discovered that acupuncture could be used on animals during a visit to a pet hospital in South Korea. The practice of sticking needles into animals, especially horses, is thought to have originated as far back as 950 B.C. Bo Le, a legendary horse tamer during the Spring and Autumn period, is credited with using acupuncture on horses in the Tang dynasty text Bo Le Zhen Jing (Bo Le’s canon of veterinary acupuncture).

According to Dr. Xie Huisheng, who teaches veterinary acupuncture at the University of Florida and at his private center, the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, it wasn’t until the 1980s when acupuncture was widely used on animals smaller than horses in China. Mao Zedong banned the public from having pets because they were “too bourgeois,” but after his death, veterinary practices in China, including “alternative” methods such as acupuncture, developed rapidly.

Jin claims that demand is becoming bigger as the country’s penchant for small pets grows apace — according to Euromonitor, China’s pet industry will be the biggest in the world by 2019, worth 15.8 billion yuan ($2.3 billion). Jin treats around 500 animals a year, with pets having up to five acupuncture sessions a week, usually for between one and three months. “Demand is getting bigger and bigger — we’ll definitely expand next year,” he says. “I never socialize — I’m in the clinic until late every night.”

But is pet acupuncture as straightforward as sticking animals with needles? “It borrows the techniques and principles of human acupuncture, but it’s something that requires patience,” Jin says as he delicately inserts a needle through King Kong’s thick black fur. “Few people can master it.”

Xie adds: “A lot of the fundamental principles [for acupuncture on humans and animals] are the same, but there are obviously differences in anatomy. For instance, humans have 12 ribs on each side of the chest, while horses have 18, so the location of the acupuncture points is different.”

Song Song, 28, with her dog Nan Nan (photo by David Hogsholt)

Some critics of acupuncture call the practice a pseudoscience, and there is debate about whether it has any effect beyond placebo — a factor unlikely to be significant for dogs and cats. Xie says that even though patients such as King Kong have no idea what the needles are for, other factors related to the experience could benefit them. “They might feel relaxed because the body releases endorphins [when receiving acupuncture],” he says.

It should be noted that the pet patients at Jin’s clinic also receive physical therapy. During my visit, a staffer patiently used her hands to “walk” the hind legs of a curly-haired brown dog on a treadmill.

“Ideally, you should integrate everything together,” says Xie. “One of my students pointed out that when dogs return to my clinic, they wag their tails. For other [veterinary] procedures, they may have anxiety and stress, but acupuncture seems to make them feel better, creating some kind of memory for them. Also, if a dog owner is willing to spend money on acupuncture, they’re likely to take great care of the pet generally.”

Whatever the reasons for the successes, the human visitors of the Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Neurology and Acupuncture Animal Health Center seem mostly happy with the results. Zai Na, a 38-year-old housewife, says that her French bulldog Niu Niu was able to run after being treated by Jin for four months, having previously been paralyzed.

Lian Yifan, a 20-year-old student, was hoping for similar success for his cat Oreo. “She’s so dumb, she’d hit the same glass door twice,” he says, adding that Oreo injured her spine after falling from a fifth-floor window and couldn’t move her hind legs.

Each acupuncture session costs between 220 and 260 yuan ($33 to $40), and Lian was optimistic about getting a positive result for his money. “I’ve seen successful examples of treatment,” he says as he gently massages Oreo’s face. “I really hope she can get better.”