Vet finds success using acupuncture on horses

Acupuncture may not work for everyone, but when veterinarian Ashley Whitehead uses the ancient Chinese art of healing on her animal patients, she sees results.

Since earning her acupuncture certification nearly 10 years ago, Whitehead has successfully treated horses, cattle and zoo animals.

Acupuncture may be used to prompt healing or relieve pain and inflammation. The therapist needs a sound knowledge of anatomy and must be a trained veterinarian.

“I just have to believe in it. I can’t explain it 100 percent scientifically, but I get really good responses from my patients,” she said as she demonstrated the technique on a horse during a University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine open house held Sept. 29.

She is chair of the clinical skills program at the veterinary school and also works at Moore’s Equine Clinic in Calgary, where her knowledge is used in combination with other treatments.

Five other vets at the clinic also do acupuncture for muscular-skeletal conditions among horses.

“The majority of my cases are adjunctive therapy, the integrated therapy that I am using for my critical cases,” she said.

In her practice, acupuncture is used as complementary therapy. It is a benign treatment and must not do harm. She still explores traditional diagnoses and uses antibiotics for infections but sees acupuncture as a complementary treatment against inflammation.

“I am still skeptical enough, it would never be my first line. I am going to do it as integrated complementary therapy,” she said.

There has not been much scientific study on the therapy, but she and two other practitioners published a case study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal about a horse with a fungal infection that affected the nerves and hindered its swallowing. Along with other treatments they used acupuncture to stimulate nerves and got them functioning faster. The recovery time was shortened compared to traditional therapy.

She recommends three acupuncture treatments.

“It doesn’t work for every patient but after three is when we start to see the strong benefit of it in that time frame,” she said.

She has treated a giraffe, snake, lizard and others at the Calgary Zoo.

She has also worked with cows and bulls.

One particular case was a pregnant dairy cow carrying a valuable calf. Her forelimb had been amputated due to a fracture, and a prosthesis was fitted. The artificial leg affected her gait and resulted in extreme back pain.

“I did acupuncture to relieve pain in her back and she loved it,” Whitehead said.

Working with bulls can be challenging, if not downright dangerous, but once she inserts the needles in the appropriate places, they settle down.

“You would be surprised how they relax,” she said.

Researching the art of acupuncture is difficult using science-based medicine with blind, randomized trials. However, some work is underway to study pain relief for horses suffering with laminitis.

The Calgary veterinary school does not offer acupuncture certification, but students are taught the basics and if they are interested they may pursue further studies.

Acupuncture inserts small, fine needles into specific points to produce a healing response to stimulate nerves, increase blood circulation, relieve muscle spasms and release endorphins, one of the body’s pain control chemicals. For animals it helps with muscle and skeletal problems such as arthritis, lameness and nerve injuries. It has also been used to treat gastrointestinal and neurological problems.

The needles are inserted with a gentle motion, and when Whitehead works with animals she notices relaxation where they lick their lips or pass gas and feces.

Other therapies may include dry needling or an injection of medication or vitamin B12 into the acupuncture point. A technique called Moxa involves using the herb mugwort. It is burned in a roll that looks like a cigar and releases warmth. It can be held close to the sore sport for further pain relief.

The patient may also receive a treatment of electro-stimulation at the needle points using low frequencies to release beta endorphins, a pain relief hormone. Higher frequencies release serotonin.

“If they have a lameness issue or a muscle or skeletal issues, this gives them initial pain relief,” she said.

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