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Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine for Horse Owners

Feb 8, 2013

Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine for Horse Owners

Advances in veterinary medicine have come a long way.  New and developing technologies and research ensure our horses can have the best possible preventative medicine, diagnostic procedures and treatments possible.  In addition to traditional veterinary medicine owners can pursue other options that can either support or work with traditional medicine or have been used in place of traditional veterinary medicine.

In 2001 the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defined and grouped these practices into what is now called “Complimentary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine (CAVM).  AVMA identifies CAVM as “ a heterogeneous group of preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic philosphies and practices…:”.  The AVMA also noted “… the theoretical bases and techniques of CAVM may diverge from veterinary medicine routinely taught in North American veterinary medical schools or may differ from current scientific knowledge or both”.  The range of CAVM can span time and date back thousands of years (e.g acupuncture) to more recent time (e.g nutraceuticals), and range from “evidence based research to absolute absurdity”.  As veterinarians our responsibility is to protect and treat veterinary patients.  Much of our traditional practices are based on scientifically proven practices and standard of care.  When new (or old) CAVM principles are considered it is veterinarians’ responsibility to ensure owners are aware and educated in considering these principles.  In addition, states and the various organizations themselves currently have regulations and guidelines for the public and professionals on these practices in order to set practice standards that will limit risks and ensure as close to evidence based modalities as possible.

In this article I will discuss a few modalities to help you in becoming a more informed owner should you consider these ideally in discussion with your veterinarian.

One of the oldest and most popularly used principles is that of acupuncture.  Dating back at least to the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) acupuncture itself has also evolved from first traditional Chinese medicine and then as introduced and marketed to the western doctors (MD’s and veterinarians) into a more “energy medicine”.  Acupuncture options today include electro acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion (herbs and needles), and laser-puncture.  Acupuncture theory is believed to work by moving invisible energies through various pathways (called meridians or channels).  Modern scientific explanation suggest that acupuncture works by influencing neuronal impulses such as pain pathway and although there is no conclusive consensus or complete research support on its pain relieving effects there is mounting evidence to its clinical benefits.  Acupuncture has been used in a variety of ailments that include treatment for acute/chronic pain (e.g back pain), certain GI motility and cardiovascular disorders.  Acupuncture however has limitations and should not be used for immune compromised animals or those with bleeding disorders because of the risk of potential infections or bleeding.  It should also not be used to treat certain conditions such as infectious diseases, fractures, or torn ligaments or used in animals that demonstrate fear, anxiety or are difficult to handle (safety concerns).

Herbal medicines and other dietary supplements (e.g. nutraeuticals) vary in their effectiveness and can range from beneficial to risky and ineffective.  Herbal or botanical medicine has its roots (no pun intended) in ancient history.  Many cultures (Chinese, European, and Indian) have studied the effects of herbal medicine.  Many of our modern day pharmaceuticals were derived from these plants.  Like acupuncture the use of these plants should be based on scientific evidence.  Plants/herbs vary in purity, mechanisms of action and preparation methods.  Nutraceuticals are a growing market and once again it is best to base decisions on their use to companies that promote scientific evidence since there is no current FDA approval oversight process for veterinary (or even some human) use of these compounds (remember this still includes joint supplements).  In other words “buyer beware”.  As in human medicine caution should be given to their use in conjunction with traditional pharmaceuticals as many times herbs can have adverse or toxic effects when used with our traditional drugs.

Massage (e.g. Swedish, Chinese-“Tui Na”) and chiropactice include treatments that focus on altering soft tissue elements (muscle, skin) aiming to increase blood circulation, nervous system stimulation and/or pain alleviation.  Manual therapy frequently targets the back (spine) and neck and are often referred to as “adjusting”.  Many of these techniques were borrowed from human chiropractic.  Massage therapies vary from stroking/gliding to strong deep tissue massage.  It is often used for neck/back pain or stiffness.  Massage and chiropractic is contraindicated in animals that have weakened bones (e.g fractures, osteopenia), inflammation/infections, burns or tumors as well as fractious animals.  Although many owners feel these modalities are helpful (and we humans certainly enjoy a good massage) there currently is considerable controversy whether or not enough force can be generated on large animals (e.g. horses) to benefit from chiropractice.  As in acupuncture there may be limited scientific based evidence that there is long term benefit from these approaches.

In conclusion these are only a few of the most popular CAVM approaches we as horse owners have to consider.  Veterinary medicine (and of course all medicine) is continually evolving and standards of care are regulated and we should expect this from our medical professionals.  Each modality often has organizations offering veterinarians certification/accreditation towards competency and expertise.  For example the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society offers an extensive course (practical and web based) towards accreditation for veterinarians.  There is a similar accreditation program for veterinary chiropractice through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.  If you decide to use any of the above methods or any other modality not mentioned in this article I would advise you to discuss this first with your veterinarian.  There have been many cases of nonveterinarians treating animals using CAVM modalities only to find the animal had an underlying problem not recognized resulting in delay of proper treatment(s).  Your veterinarian can work with you in recommending good sources or information specific for your horses needs.  While traditional medicine  still remains the standard of care rooted in years of scientific research and proven methods, CAVM is a consideration that you as an owner can incorporate in your horses overall health and welfare.

  1. Merck Veterinary Manual, 10th edition, 2010
  2. JAVMA, vol 241; Aug 2012
  3. https://www.avma.org/Search/results.aspx?k=cavm
  4. Vet Practice News, Sept 2012
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