Taking The 'Whole Animal Approach' In Treating Equine Diease Or Injury

California equine veterinarian Joanna L. Robson, DVM, knows she will never use acupuncture needles to fix a fracture.


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California equine veterinarian Joanna L. Robson, DVM, knows she will never use acupuncture needles to fix a fracture.

“But acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapy, nutritional support and other noninvasive modalities may provide a faster recovery, prevent or treat compensatory problems in other parts of the body, and improve quality of life during [a horse’s] rehabilitation,” says Dr. Robson the president of Inspiritus Equine Inc. in Napa, Calif.

Known as integrative, complementary or holistic medicine, this segment of veterinary medicine considers a “whole animal approach” in treating equine disease or injury. Teamed with conventional veterinary treatments, these non-traditional modalities are providing good outcomes for equine practitioners throughout the globe, proponents say.

Client demand is instrumental in holistic medicine’s growing popularity.

“As people look for less invasive, more natural approaches to healing, are better educated about nutrition and food processing, and become aware of the potential negative side effects of particular medications—just listen to the latest ad on TV followed by a list of 20 potentially undesirable side effects—they seek the same alternatives for their horses and pets,” Robson says.

Mixing It Up

Andris J. Kaneps, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVS Dipl., Dipl. ACVSMR, treats horses in all physical and traditional modalities.

“Equine practitioners are showing a tremendous amount of interest in trying different approaches,” he says. “Traditional methods don’t always end up with complete resolution.”

Dr. Kaneps owns Kaneps Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery in Beverly, Mass. Most of his practice addresses equine lameness. He has been an educator, teaching equine surgery, for 20 years.

Ed Boldt, DVM, owner of Performance Horse Complementary Medicine of Fort Collins, Colo., also says that more veterinarians are seeing the benefits of complementary medicine. 

“This encourages them to look at other cases to see if they may also benefit,” he says. “It also encourages other veterinarians who aren’t using complementary medicine to consider it as a possible treatment.” 

He says he has noticed that more colleagues are becoming interested in learning complementary modalities.

“More research is being done and they are seeing benefits,” he adds. “A combination of conventional and complementary medicine working together is giving complementary medicine more validity.” 

His conventional colleagues regularly call him for consultation on lameness issues, he says, and the result is often a treatment plan that combines conventional and complementary practices.

“The idea of holistic medicine is to look at the whole horse,” Dr. Boldt says. “After conventional medicine has been used to treat the horse, often complementary medicine continues the treatment.”

He says, for instance, that pain relief medication should not be considered a long-term solution to a horse’s lameness. Adding acupuncture, he says, helps relieve the pain without  drugs or surgery.

The Whole Horse

Boldt has had plenty of patients go back to show careers after “whole horse” treatment. Sometimes, though, more than one modality is required, and he adds another or different treatment until something works.

Boldt once checked a horse suffering from hind-limb lameness that had been “adjusted” several times by an nonveterinarian. He watched the horse move for a few minutes, then opened up an abcess in the hoof. His veterinary training enabled him to observe the entire horse and make the right diagnosis.

He also recalls examining a cutting horse that “was not moving right in the rear end.” Again, because he is a licensed veterinarian, he examined the horse and did a brief neuro exam. He told the owners to load him back in the trailer and take him to their regular veterinarian because the horse presented with all the symptoms of West Nile disease, definitely not a problem that chiropractic adjustment would cure.

Added Modalities

Boldt diagnosed a barrel horse as needing sacroiliac injections. The main veterinarian concurred. After this conventional therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture treatments were added and the horse soon went back to work.

Robson, who is certified in veterinary spinal manipulative therapy, veterinary acupuncture, massage, saddle-fitting and infrared thermography, has been asked to consult on a case of severe equine dermatitis.

“The patient was appropriately prescribed medications to treat his symptoms,” she says, “but after four weeks of antibiotics and steroids, he had developed other issues, such as a reluctance to move forward, irritability, red, runny eyes and apparent gastric pain.”

She treated him with veterinary chiropractic and acupuncture and a prescription Chinese herbal medicine.

“Within seven days he was back to work, his attitude had resolved, his eyes had cleared and his skin condition was markedly better,” she says. “While Western medicine improved his skin, Eastern medicine returned him to a state of balance. It was a win-win for integrative medicine.”

Kaneps says he can give phenylbuterol to a horse with joint pain for two weeks, or see if other modalities resolve the issue. Or a certified veterinary acupuncturist can treat the horse without medication and get a good outcome.

He says bruises 20 years ago were treated with such methods as cold water to decrease inflammation.

“Now, research and experience have shown that intense levels of cold therapy give not only pain relief and decreased inflammation but promote faster healing,” he says.

Horses injured on the racetrack, in the show ring or on the ranch can benefit from a holistic approach to treatment, proponents report.

As a surgeon, Kaneps has been trained to diagnose, operate on and medicate horses. By taking “a whole body approach, performing a whole animal evaluation,” he can determine when surgery is indicated and when medication is specified. He can treat the whole athletic horse, not just the part that is injured.

Pain relief doesn’t always involve medicating the horse. It can include hot and cold therapy and other therapeutic methods including laser therapy, not any one thing alone. Kaneps likes having “a couple of more tools” to treat horses’ injuries.

“Veterinarians look at the animal as a whole,” Boldt says. “There are too many possibilities to consider in assessing disease or injury that nonveterinarians are not trained to find.”

“The majority of our clients can be educated that there is no substitute for eight years of education, ongoing continuing education and current licensing,” Robson says. “The client may seek to avoid the veterinarian because of perceived high-cost issues, or the vet doesn’t offer the therapy they desire, which is where professional networking between Eastern and Western practitioners is important.

“But if a client has the same lay practitioner out once a week for 10 treatments with no resolution versus a veterinary practitioner who has the ability to also diagnose and treat the underlying issue, we can help to build consumer confidence in the veterinary practitioner.”

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