We asked integrative vet Dr Sarah Priggen to tell us about her pioneering work using Laser Acupuncture. Here she explains how it works and highlights the first of a series of case studies demonstrating its success with Max the spaniel who faced an uncertain future. A testimonial from his owner is also included.

Laser acupuncture (or, more accurately, laser ‘puncture’ as ‘acu’ translates as ‘needle’) combines the therapeutic effects of both ACUPUNCTURE and PHOTOBIOMODULATION (PBM) which is the most up-to-date term for laser/LED/light therapy. Both modalities are explained elsewhere on this website so I will focus on building upon that information here.

Cutting edge combination

Laser acupuncture is an exciting development in the ancient skill of acupuncture but requires the treating vet to have taken an interest in and studied both PBM and acupuncture and so there are currently very few practitioners in the UK.

Use of a laser

In laser acupuncture, a laser is used in place of needles to stimulate each acupuncture point selected. Although needles are, on the whole, very well tolerated, there are always some animals who find it difficult. I have found that even very fractious (and to be fair, usually painful) patients can have points comfortably lasered and I find cats and rabbits easier to treat than I did when placing needles.

The selection of points is similar to needle acupuncture and will depend on the acupuncturist’s background and training.

Not just pain relief……

The availability of Introductory Western Acupuncture courses to vets has led to an increased acceptance of acupuncture within the profession which is good and widens the options available to animal owners and guardians.

Unfortunately, this has also perpetuated the myth that acupuncture can only be used for musculoskeletal conditions and pain control. A more comprehensively trained acupuncturist can help manage a broad range of medical conditions. For example, I also treat endocrine conditions, renal failure, palliative cancer care, travel sickness and anxiety on a regular basis.

Many patients are referred to me for a specific problem such as arthritis, but the owner often reports back much wider benefits to appetite, sleep, playfulness and so on.

17-year-old Lily had a bad back and is now able to leap up and over the fence again

How does it work?

The laser component uses a focused beam of a single wavelength, of recognised therapeutic red or infrared wavelengths, on the acupuncture point, stimulating the point similar to the effect of a needle. The point is activated, as in acupuncture, but the benefits of PBM are also introduced.

The main biological actions of therapeutic light on the target area are on the mitochondria in the cells, reversing the negative effects of oxidative stress and increasing the availability of energy to the cells. There are also secondary effects such as vasodilation (bringing increased blood supply to the area), an altered haemoglobin dissociation curve (releasing more oxygen) and reduced action potentials in pain neurones in the nervous system.

The use of acupuncture points ‘channels’ the effects of laser to deep target organs and enables lower power (and safer) laser to be used than if laser therapy alone were used.

Elderly patients

Both acupuncture, by stimulating the release of ‘positive brain chemistry’ in the form of endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin AND photobiomodulation, by combating oxidative stress, the major cause of age degeneration, are highly effective in improving the quality of life of elderly patients. When combined in laser acupuncture, the results for patients are truly outstanding.

Case study: Max Farrell 

Max came to me in a very sad state. He looked just that. SAD. He was up six or seven times in the night to drink or pass urine and so his owners were sleep-deprived as well as heartbroken by his condition and the lack of available treatment. He was anorexic, losing muscle mass and going downhill quickly. His veterinary history was a confusing mixture of acute onset renal failure and Cushing’s Disease. The Cushings responded partially to Trilostane but Max stopped eating when on this drug so the owners had already withdrawn medication when I saw him. 

I was confident that I could improve Max’s immediate quality of life (at least his appetite and sleep) and was careful not to promise any more than this. I assessed Max from a Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) perspective. This took into account not only his clinical symptoms but also his background, a rescue dog who had just been left (albeit only for a few days and with people he knew and liked) and his personality, which was sensitive and vulnerable to emotional strain. As well as targeting his kidneys I worked on his heart meridian as the heart and the mind are intrinsically linked in TCM. This is where Traditional Chinese Acupuncture can offer another dimension beyond Western acupuncture. 

Max drank obsessively through his first laser acupuncture session. Following that, he never arrived needing a drink and only exhibited a normal level of thirst when with me. He went home that evening and ate and continued to eat well. Initially, he stopped waking up in the night. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks after starting treatment he suffered some trauma, a dog attack, and in the same few days got shocked by an electric fence, so suffered some setbacks as a result. Following that he was waking up two or three times a night. However, this was still better than he had been and he was nowhere near as poorly as when we started with his treatment. Overall, Max became much brighter and more interested in his surroundings and back to enjoying walks.

Testimonial from Max’s owner

Sarah’s words when we first met her were “I’m not sure I can cure him, but I’m sure I can make him feel better“.….

Max was a rescue dog and we enjoyed 12 months of day-to-day joy with him and he settled into our home from day one.  We then went on holiday for a week and left Max with my sister, who he knew very well and had spent a lot of time in their home with.  We came back home to a completely different dog. He ended up in emergency hospital care over the weekend following blood tests that showed off the scale liver and kidney results.  Five months later and almost £7k in vet fees, the vets couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong with him.  He even went to specialist care for a whole day and again there were no conclusive results, only that it was possibly Cushing’s Disease, but definitely not a textbook case and again, inconclusive if it was this.

“Max looked so unwell, he was on medication that was supposed to reduce his cortisol levels and that stopped him drinking and weeing so much (we were up with him around 6 times a night, every 1 to 1.5 hours) but this put him off his food and he lost loads of weight.  I was hand feeding him and it was breaking our hearts.  Then the vets rang us to say that the medication was not working in that it was not reducing his cortisol levels even though it had stopped him drinking so much.

So we took him off the medication and Max started to feel a little better.  His appetite started to come back a little, but I was still having to hand feed him. His frequent drinking and weeing also came back and once again we were up with him every 1 or 2 hours in the night.

We then saw Sarah and after the first session Max came home, went straight to his food bowl and ate all his food straight away.  He then slept all through the night without getting up once.  If somebody told me this, I’m not sure I would have believed it, but it is true.  

Max slowly started to get better and his appetite was so much better and his drinking was under control on most days.  He did still have his bad days, but all in all, he was a much happier dog, enjoying all the love we gave him.

Justyna Farrell

Very sadly, Max took a turn for the worse halfway through May 2022 and his owners decided to put him to sleep. They are devastated but wanted his story to be shared as a tribute to him. He had enjoyed 10 weeks of good quality extra time with his owners thanks to his laser acupuncture treatment.

In honour of Max

Look out for more case studies highlighting the benefits of Laser Acupuncture, including Lily the cat pictured above and Taffy who was about to be put to sleep….

Useful links

More details on Acupuncture (Traditional Chinese and Western) and Photobiomodualtion can be found in our Modalities section

Sarah Priggen

M.Sc., M.A., B. Vet. Med. M.R.C.V.S. Member of ABVA, IVAS and a graduate of the CHI Institute.

Sarah graduated as a vet from The University of Cambridge in 1992 and took a post as a farm vet on Anglesey. She then moved to a mixed practice on the Lancashire/Cumbria border, before moving to Berkhamsted in 1997 in order to commute into London Zoo for a year while studying for a Master of Science in Wild Animal Health.  During that year she developed an interest in animal behaviour as a measure of welfare and in environmental enrichment for all captive animals.  Sarah then went back into veterinary practise around having her two children.

In 2007, whilst working as a small animal vet, Sarah took a Foundation Course in Western Veterinary Acupuncture which she gradually integrated into her work. In 2013 she completed a certificate in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Acupuncture with the Chi Institute of Europe in Madrid and has since attended numerous advanced study courses and conferences in the field of acupuncture.

In 2016 Sarah began incorporating laser into her acupuncture work and is now one of only a handful of practitioners in the UK pioneering this technique. She has a special interest in spinal cases and has helped many patients avoid the need for surgery.

In her free time Sarah would like to be hiking up mountains, but as local opportunities for this are limited, (she did manage to escape to climb  Kilimanjaro for Vetaid in 2008), she settles for walking her dogs in Ashridge Forest, cycling and dancing.

You can find Sarah’s website Laser Acupuncture for Animals here.

Disclaimer – Where blogs have been created by a guest author, CAM4Animals has reproduced this in good faith but cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracies of information in it or any use you make of this information

The veterinary Surgeon’s Act 1966 restricts the treatment of animals (usually other than your own*) by anyone other than a qualified vet. Always consult a veterinary surgeon if you are concerned about your animal’s health. *For full details visit the RCVS website