Alternative therapies are in. Herbs for your horse's skin rash, acupuncture for his sore back—no matter what ails him, someone is sure to tell you about a fantastic treatment that can fix it. Silver bullet, snake oil or something in between? Getting answers can be a challenge. Unlike conventional treatments, most of these therapies haven't been thoroughly researched.
In this article, practitioners familiar with some popular alternatives explain their uses and help sift through the claims, cautions and costs. We'll also tell you which treatments have been tested in clinical trials, the gold standard of "evidence-based" medicine. Armed with that information, you'll be able to decide what's right for your horse.
Some alternative treatments should be done only by trained and licensed professionals, notes Joyce Harman, DVM, a holistic veterinarian who has used acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbal medicine alongside conventional treatments in her Virginia practice. Others are safe to try on your own. But never forget that, while some of these therapies may complement conventional veterinary care, none can replace it. If your horse is sick or seriously injured, he needs a veterinarian first.
Acupuncture, used in China (on horses and humans) for more than 3,000 years, is based on the idea that stimulating specific points on the body can have beneficial effects. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that currents of energy (qi, or chi) flow through the body along pathways called meridians. "Points on the pathways act like dimmer switches," says Dr. Harman. "If they're partly blocked, the flow of energy is disrupted and the body doesn't function properly. Acupuncture is like turning the switch on."
Conventional Western science offers a different rationale—acupuncture stimulates the nervous system and prompts the release of body chemicals, including endorphins, which ease pain, improve circulation and relax muscle spasms.
Treatment: In traditional "dry needle" treatment, the acupuncturist inserts thin sterile needles at selected points, sometimes twirling the needles to increase stimulation, for 5 to 30 minutes. Variations include:
- Biopuncture: A sterile solution (usually vitamin, saline or homeopathic) is injected at the acupuncture points, providing lingering stimulation.
- Electroacupuncture: Mild electric current passes through needles at specific acupuncture points to stimulate a larger area and to provide more pain relief.
- Cold (low-intensity) laser stimulation: This doesn't break the skin.
- Acupressure: This massage technique focuses on acupuncture points.
"There are a lot of people selling treatments with all kinds of things, shining lights on acupuncture points and so on," says Dr. Harman. "Many are less effective because the stimulation isn't strong or the practitioner isn't skilled—but most are not harmful, except maybe to your checkbook."
What it does: Acupuncture is best known in the West as a method of drug-free pain relief, and that's mainly how it's used in horses. Behavior improvement can be a benefit, whether directly from treatment or from pain relief. Some practitioners use acupuncture in diagnosing and treating certain illnesses, but in most cases pain relief is what you should expect.
Evidence: Several small clinical studies have shown that acupuncture and electroacupuncture help relieve equine pain, including back and foot pain. Some studies found evidence of endorphin release. Researchers haven't found clear evidence of distinct meridians or qi.
Red lights: If needles aren't sterile, infection can develop at insertion points. There's also a risk of overlooking, and perhaps masking, an underlying problem that needs conventional treatment. Avoid both risks by working with your veterinarian and choosing a certified veterinary acupuncturist.
Where to find it: By law, only veterinarians (or, in a few states, trained acupuncturists under veterinary supervision) can administer acupuncture. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society certifies veterinarians; its Web site (www.ivas.org) is a good source for finding a practitioner.
What to expect: Look for some improvement in two to four sessions. If you don't see it, you may be working with the wrong diagnosis, the wrong treatment or the wrong practitioner.
Cost: Anywhere from $90 to $200 per treatment, depending on the practitioner. An experienced practitioner may charge $250 for a session that combines acupuncture and chiropractic treatment.