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Healthy pets are important, too

Sophie thanks her vet, Dr. Kim Luikart, for helping her feel much better. Note the acupuncture needles in her head, back, and side. Photo by Linda Satchwell

Wellness, preventive care and holistic treatments aren’t just for humans, as most of my animal loving friends know. As with humans, pets are getting better care — food, medical care, exercise, mental stimulation and emotional connectivity. As a result, they’re living longer and better lives. But, as with humans, that means a lot more pets need elder-age care. And, that almost always includes pain management in my experience.    

Medical acupuncture, and cold laser are non-invasive, scientifically tested treatment methods that, combined with more standard pain medications, and sometimes physical therapy, can markedly improve the length of your pet’s life, and also the joy she/he finds in it. Acupuncture likely gave my “spirit dog” Marley an additional three years of quality life. She had stenosis of the spine and arthritis. That means, of course, she not only got to enjoy three more years, but we had three additional years together. And, those are times I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life.

My Labrador retriever, Sophie, is a special case. She has cerebral palsy, which affects her balance and also her tolerance of traditional medications. Recently, she had a bad autoimmune reaction to a medication that resulted in what looked like third degree burns over her entire chest. Cold laser is helping her skin to heal at what the vets are calling an amazing rate. She also gets acupuncture for her arthritis. Sophie has the most amazing attitude; she’s never met a human, animal, or day she didn’t love.

It’s a social media joke to say, “I don’t take vacations, I take care of my animals.” But, for some of us, that’s true. Read on if you think you might be one of the afflicted.

Our vet, Kim Luikart, DVM and Certified Veterinary Medical Acupuncturist, has given me information on the science behind acupuncture treatments. She’s skeptical of anything that doesn’t have legitimate scientific research to back it up. I mention this to dispel the notion that acupuncture’s success might be more imagined than medically accurate.


What it is

Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body by inserting very small, sterile needles into superficial tissues.

Your pet’s treatment plan

Your vet (medical acupuncturist) will do a thorough medical history review, and a careful physical exam (looking at the musculoskeletal and neurological systems). She’ll order any additional diagnostics needed. According to Dr. Luikart, she “incorporates the cutting edge of neuroscience to provide a treatment that is a powerful adjunct” to other, more traditional, treatment. In addition, she states that “one of medical acupuncture’s main tenets is that appropriate treatment stems only from appropriate diagnosis.” Dr. Luikart is trained to identify fascia (connective tissue) and trigger point (knots or taut muscle) pain by feel. She’ll be able to identify specific joints or body parts that need acupuncture treatment.

In addition, she’ll listen to what you have to say about your pet; it pays to be a keen observer. I’ve come to an appointment and told Dr. Luikart about changes I’ve observed since the last visit (especially with Marley in the last stages of her life) and Dr. Luikart adjusts or adds needles accordingly. In Marley’s case, she was starting to have anxiety and head pain near the end of her life that was helped by adding needles in that area.

How does it work?

Acupuncture stimulates nerve endings, which enhances blood and lymph flow at the local level, relieves tight muscles (knots), causes release of anti-pain and anti-inflammatory responses, and much more. Anatomic and physiologic studies confirm that the nerve endings at acupuncture points, when stimulated, cause “improved circulation and organ function, analgesia (pain reduction), muscle relaxation, and normalized immune function,” writes Dr. Luikart. Acupuncture sites are chosen depending on the desired effects.

Effects of acupuncture

Improved nerve function

Relaxation of muscles and connective tissue

Improved circulation and faster healing

Control of pain and inflammation

Most common conditions in your pet that are treated with acupuncture


Neurologic injury (such as invertebral disc disease)

Digestive problems (gastroenteritis, pancreatitis, colitis, diarrhea, constipation)

Allergies (itching, ear infections, chronic licking)

Urinary dysfunction (cystitis, incontinence)

Post operative/trauma recovery

Chronic pain (from injury, surgery, or disease process)

Behavioral problems

Does acupuncture hurt? How well will my pet tolerate it?

Most pets enjoy, or at least tolerate, acupuncture. Some pets (including Sophie) fall asleep during treatment, because it’s so relaxing. Typically, and it’s very true with Dr. Luikart’s practice, the acupuncture room is a very relaxing and inviting place to be.

If your pet is sensitive, bothered, or afraid, your vet will never force treatment on them. Dr. Luikart is very in tune with how your pet is feeling. My old dog, Marley, who was shy around people, would look forward to her treatments. When I’d tell her the night before, that we were going to see her “Dr. Kim” in the morning, she would actually wake me up early, because she was excited to go.

Are there any side effects?

Acupuncture is very safe, but occasionally (though it never happened with my dogs), your pet might feel a little tired or a bit worse for a day or two before they start feeling much better.

The beginning of treatment

The first appointment is an hour long with Dr. Luikart. She’ll want to thoroughly understand what is going on with your pet, because every case is different. As mentioned above, she’ll do a thorough exam, and she’ll listen to what you have observed in your pet. As she touches parts of the body or moves your pet’s legs, for example, she’ll note their response, and this will help guide treatment.

After that, she’ll start the acupuncture process, and she’ll likely go very slowly and only use a few needles the first time, so your pet feels comfortable and safe. Follow up appointments will run approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

Dr. Luikart may also recommend cold laser or massage. Sometimes one treatment works better than another on your pet. Again, each animal is different. Marley didn’t respond that well to laser, but she was one of the miracle dogs when it came to acupuncture. And, Sophie’s wound healing and new skin development with cold laser has been called miraculous by her vets.

Length of treatment

At the beginning, your pet might get two to three treatments in the first two weeks, then the frequency is tapered down, depending on your pet’s needs and your own. Your needs likely include time and money. My advice is, just do what you can. If your pet is responding positively to treatment, whatever you can do will help.

After initial treatment, you may go down to one appointment a week, one every two weeks, once per month, or as needed. It depends on your pet. Marley started with every two weeks, and went to every week near the end of her life. Sophie gets acupuncture every two weeks right now. It is helping her to walk, and has improved her balance. She’s also getting cold laser almost every day along with bandage changes.

Cold Laser Treatment

Cold laser therapy or Photobiomodulation Therapy (PMBT), according to my local expert, Chrissy Boyles, “is achieved when a sufficient dose of light energy is delivered to damaged or infected tissues causing a photochemical cascade of positive benefits.” Boyles has been in the veterinary field since 2002, and has been a licensed veterinary technician since 2012. She is quarterbacking the intensive efforts with Sophie when it comes to wound care and laser therapy.

Laser is used to treat acute injury such as wounds, trauma and post-surgical incision sites. It can also treat chronic illness such as chronic pain caused by intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), osteoarthritis, and ligament strains and tears. It helps reduce inflammation and helps tissues heal faster. Treatment with the Class IV laser causes the patient to feel “a gentle massage and warming sensation.”

Boyles trained on the Class IV laser machine at Baring Blvd. Veterinary Hospital. Only certified veterinary technicians are allowed to deliver this treatment, and it is directed by the overseeing veterinarian, though Boyles is extremely knowledgeable herself.

She speaks from years of experience when she says, “since I began using the laser on a regular basis, I have seen incredible results. Elderly, arthritic dogs and cats are living longer, more comfortably, and [are able to maintain] more active lifestyles.” Boyles recalls, in particular, one Great Dane who lived over 13 years — almost unheard of for that very large breed. “My team and I were able to give him almost three extra comfortable years of life after we started regular laser therapy treatments,” she said. “Traumatic wounds heal faster, have less scarring, and pain is decreased dramatically. Truly the uses are nearly endless.”

She noted that the only conditions where it can’t be used are for cancers and eye problems.

Finally, Boyle said that before laser, acupuncture and other holistic treatments were available, people had few options. “When our beloved pets got to a point where the arthritis was too painful, our only option was euthanasia. Now, with the help of multimodal pain management, we can make it possible to have a few more precious years with our beloved pets. To me, that is the ultimate reward.”


Contact information

Finally, I would love to support a local practice that offers these services, but I’m not aware of one. My experience is with Dr. Luikart in Reno, along with Chrissy Boyles and her team. This experience has been overwhelmingly positive. My email is at the beginning of this article, and I’ll be happy to answer questions or give contact information. There’s also a very good vet in Truckee who does acupuncture, cold laser, and more. And, I just Googled “acupuncture Reno,” and there were a surprising number of choices. These services may be offered at the vet where you currently take your pet.

Finally, if you’ve read to the end of this long article, you likely care very much for your animal friends, and they are very lucky to get to share their life’s journey with you.

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