Sticking it to Pain

Veterinary-based acupuncture might be your horse’s ticket to greater quality of life.

By Lyssette Williams

When Marissa Kannan’s Paint Horse, Classy Cotton Tuxedo, was diagnosed with equine protozoal myeloencephalitis three years ago, the neurological disease progressed, atrophying muscles and causing imbalances across the gelding’s system. After diagnosis, Marissa planned with her primary veterinarian to not only treat “Batman” with medication and an exercise program, but to also incorporate acupuncture into his routine care.
“A lot of tension built up in his system,” Marissa said. “Acupuncture really helps get all his neurological pathways firing.”
Keeping a horse happy, healthy and comfortable is a team effort. While many therapies can help to support our equine friends, veterinary-based acupuncture might be another avenue to pursue.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that uses insertion of ultra-fine, stainless-steel needles to provide pain relief. Depending on the condition being treated, five to 30 needles will be inserted and left in place up to 30 minutes. Extra stimulation of acupoints can be achieved by rotating the needles or attaching electrodes to send a weak electrical current through the needles.
A documented modality since 100 BC, acupuncture proponents claim it’s a powerful tool to fight common ailments like gastrointestinal diseases and headaches, as well as increasingly serious issues like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Many of the health benefits of acupuncture could be chalked up to the placebo effect, but thousands of studies and research papers have shown that acupuncture is beneficial for treating musculoskeletal disorders and pain management, according to the article “Mechanisms of Acupuncture-Electroacupuncture on Persistent Pain,” published in the February 2014 Anesthesiology.
A Holistic Approach
Offered for both humans and animals, acupuncture is often used in conjunction with other pain relief and biomechanical support modalities, like massage, chiropractic and physical-therapy programs. Work with your veterinarian to determine if acupuncture can help your horse and to find a qualified practitioner.
Two schools of thought generally surround acupuncture: Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians and Traditional Chinese Medicine acupuncture. TCM practitioners follow the historical belief that acupuncture will balance the body’s energies, or ‘Qi’ (pronounced “chee”). MAV practitioners follow a science-based approach, complemented with modern medicine to help balance the body’s neurotransmitters and inflammation.
Acupuncture points are often found in areas dense with nerve endings, mast cells, small arterioles and lymphatic vessels, as well as near motor points where nerves enter and exit the muscles and the connective tissue that covers those muscle layers. Stimulating these points releases beta-endorphins, serotonin and other neurotransmitters, which produce pain relief locally at the needle insertion point.
Mariko Pillitteri, D.V.M., c.V.M.A, of Topline Therapeutics in Sacramento, California has seen acupuncture work wonders on horses and dogs.
“During treatments, most horses tend to relax, although some points may cause more stimulation than others,” Mariko said. “You may observe their eyes softening, body becoming less tense, sometimes they lick, chew, sneeze, yawn. Some horses hang their heads and reach a state of near sleep, particularly when electrostimulation is added to acupuncture points. Studies have shown that animals receiving electroacupuncture have higher blood levels of endorphins—the chemicals responsible for ‘runner’s high’—enkephalins—your body’s own opioids or ‘pain killers’—and other neurotransmitters such as serotonins, which explains some of these reactions.”
For Marissa, acupuncture helped pull Batman from a catastrophic diagnosis to being relaxed and rideable again.
“Acupuncture gave me my horse back,” Marissa said. “Batman gets quarterly sessions now to support all the initial work we did. He’s happy in his work now!”


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2023 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.