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The Debate Over Alternative Therapies for Horses

By: Aneeta Brown

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The debate over acupuncture, chiropractic therapy and alternative medicines for American pets has moved from Internet chat rooms and low-budget newsletters to the forum of the powerful American Veterinary Medical Association.

At the AVMA's July 2000 convention in Salt Lake City, Dr. Lynn S. Peck reported that 60 percent of veterinary medical schools now offer some classes in alternative medical therapies. Peck, a research associate at the University of Florida, also suggested that alternative therapies are rising in popularity because they are affordable and sometimes more effective than traditional medicine. The vast majority of veterinarians practice "traditional western medicine," and many would argue that there is little impartial evidence to support most "alternative" treatments. Nevertheless, it is clear that more consumers want and receive alternative treatments for their pets. Two of these emerging treatments are acupuncture and chiropractic.

Acupuncture

Historians say acupuncture on humans was practiced more than 3,000 years ago in China, and that chiropractic (from Greek words meaning "done by hand") was documented in China about 2700 B.C. It is only in recent years that both therapies have been applied in the United States by licensed veterinarians. Even then - as the AVMA sternly reminds its members - definitions, applications and regulations of alternative therapies vary broadly.

Acupuncture is a process of inserting needles into the skin to relieve pain or to treat a variety of diseases. Chinese acupuncturists believe the procedure restores the natural balance of yin and yang in the body. Scientists believe acupuncture is partially successful because the needles increase the body's production of natural painkillers called endorphins.

According to the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAC), acupuncture in animals can be used to treat arthritis, lick granuloma, feline asthma and facial nerve paralysis. Treatment can last under 1 minute or as long as 30 minutes and, done properly, is seldom painful once the needles have been inserted.

Dr. Sherrie Russell is a practicing veterinarian who applies both traditional medical techniques and acupuncture in her practice. "If I'm practicing only western medicine, I have just one choice of treatment. But let's say that I also offer my client an alternative therapy such as acupuncture, which would be a true scenario for me. Examining an animal that's a possible candidate for acupuncture requires a very complete assessment by the doctor. That exam may take longer than when I'm considering traditional treatment."

Russell has performed acupuncture therapy on animals for almost 10 years and has treated dogs, cats, horses, rabbits and birds. Originally resistant to the therapy, she began researching acupuncture when an adult friend responded remarkably well to acupuncture treatments. "My friend was a physical therapist, and an athlete, who had multiple sclerosis. Acupuncture gave her more relief than anything she tried," Russell says. "That's when I started going to workshops to learn more about it."

Currently, there is no official AVMA listing for specialty certification in acupuncture. Thus, if you are interested in this treatment alternative for your pet, you may need to do some research to find a skilled and experienced acupuncture practitioner. While many veterinarians believe acupuncture can provide relief for specific disorders, few have received formal training about this ancient procedure.

Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic therapy is another alternative and complementary therapy that has received resistance in the past from traditional medical and veterinary communities. Now it is gaining acceptance by consumers and some veterinary practitioners. Chiropractic care is based on the relationship between the spine and the central nervous system, and doctors of chiropractic believe that a normal alignment of the body's parts is necessary for good health. By manipulating the spine, chiropractic care is said to be able to alleviate headaches, joint pain and various other problems. It is also used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments.

Chiropractic care for people is regulated in the United States and Canada, and all U.S. states prohibit chiropractors from prescribing drugs or performing major surgery. For animals, however, chiropractic care is not regulated under a single source, either federally or by state. There is no AVMA recognized specialty status for veterinary chiropractic at this time.

The American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) in Hillsdale, Ill., is one of the major teaching organizations promoting veterinary chiropractic. Membership requires that enrollees must be either licensed doctors of chiropractic or veterinary medicine. Graduates complete 150 hours of course work. If you are contemplating this form of alternative treatment for your pet, be certain to inquire about the practitioner's training and experience.

The issues regarding veterinary chiropractic medicine are similar to those expressed above for acupuncture. Again, you must be certain of the diagnosis. For example, chiropractic isn't appropriate therapy for a broken leg.

Who Can Practice Alternative Therapy?

There are unresolved issues when it comes to these forms of alternative therapy. Who can legally perform acupuncture and chiropractic therapy in pets? There are clear disagreements about this in a number of states (see www.avma.org/onlnews/javma/jun97/s061597a.html). Remember that only veterinarians are qualified and licensed to diagnose and treat diseases in pets. Furthermore, in most states, acupuncture is considered surgery so only vets can perform it. Regulations surrounding veterinary chiropractic therapy are even more vague.

Does It Work?

Practitioners of acupuncture and chiropractic undoubtedly believe in the merits of these treatments, as their swelling ranks will attest. But how do traditional veterinary practitioners view them? The jury is still out.

John Bonagura, DVM, DACVIM, Editor of Kirk's Current Veterinary Therapy, one of the leading "western medicine" veterinary textbooks, suggests that before you embark on alternative treatments like acupuncture or chiropractic that you should "first be certain you understand the diagnosis."

In Bonagura's opinion, "using acupuncture or chiropractic to treat your pet for a serious infection, for an acute asthmatic attack, for heart or kidney failure or for uncontrolled seizures is both incorrect and dangerous, and most practitioners of alternative methods would not recommend such therapy."

Bonagura also advises that you "inquire about the evidence that objectively recommends an alternative treatment." While Bonagura believes that a number of alternative and complementary treatments will prove valuable, he says, "it is very difficult to find objective, properly conducted studies that assess the safety and effectiveness of these treatments in pets with naturally occurring diseases." He adds, "because many conditions improve with 'tincture of time,' the burden for all treatments - whether for traditional medicine or an alternative therapy - should not be our individual testimony, but carefully designed and unbiased clinical studies."

While veterinarians and pet owners await such information, there is no doubt that complementary and alternative treatments will continue to increase.

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