A decade ago, the mere mention of alternative therapies was enough to make most animal owners—and many veterinarians—roll their eyes with skepticism. Believed to offer most animals no true benefit, the conversation around acupuncture and chiropractic care generally stopped before it ever got going. And massage, laser and pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) machines barely even got a mention.
Thankfully, these modalities, and many more, have become more mainstream. Today’s farm owners seek nonmedication means to help their horses, cows, dogs, cats and other barnyard beasts remain comfortable.
Many of the modalities listed in this article are considered complementary. That means they’re often used in conjunction with Western medical practices, which treat symptoms and any problem as isolated from the rest of the body.
Alternative therapies take a whole-body approach in an effort to heal the whole person (or animal) instead of simply treating symptoms.
Chiropractic manipulation on horses—and any other vertebrate species—addresses problems in the back, neck and pelvis. Keepers can use chiropractic care to treat injuries, restore mobility and relieve pain in a plethora of animals, including horses and dogs.
A chiropractor will complete a hands-on exam looking for soreness, restricted motion and tight muscles. Once the provider locates problem areas, they apply controlled force to release the restriction or soreness. This restores range of motion, alleviating inflammation and pressure on nerves.
Chiropractic care often helps in animals with biomechanical or neurologic issues. Dogs with hip dysplasia, neck pain, urinary and fecal incontinence often see improvement. Chiropractors can also help with muscle weakness, and chronic neck and back pain.
In horses, chiropractors often assist with back and neck pain. They also help with joint stiffness and gait abnormalities that aren’t associated with an obvious lameness and poor performance. You’ll often see results immediately.
Acupuncture originated in China more than 3,000 years ago. It promotes healing by triggering specific points on the skin with thin, flexible needles. The needles produce tiny injuries that stimulate the body to respond. This influences tissues, organs, glands and body functions.
In traditional dry needling, the acupuncturist inserts thin, flexible needles into specific points on the body that correspond with issues such as allergies to osteoarthritis to chronic pain and everything in between. These needles enhance circulation to the area and increase the release of pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory substances in the body.
This especially benefits animals receiving pain medication, which can have unwanted side effects. Acupuncture can reduce the amount of medication needed to control the pain.
In addition to pain relief, equine acupuncture can also address:
- back soreness
- nerve paralysis
- anhidrosis (the inability to sweat)
Though it can help with many things, acupuncture can’t assist with healing open wounds, fractures or infectious conditions.
Acupuncture can help dogs and cats with everything from allergies to degenerative joint disease. It also helps in treating asthma, allergies and kidney and liver problems, as well as easing the effects of cancer treatment.
Most farm animals become more relaxed throughout the course of the treatment. Acute conditions generally see relief with three to five acupuncture sessions. However, degenerative conditions may require acupuncture treatment at regular intervals.
There are additional methods of acupuncture:
- electroacupuncture, where a mild electrical current passes through the needles
- moxibustion, where a spongy herb called mugwort is burned to the needles
- aqua-acupuncture, where a liquid (typically a B12 solution) is injected into the acupuncture points
If you’ve ever seen a MagnaWave or a Pulse machine, it’s easy to understand why there was so much suspicion surrounding its use. The machine uses long, flexible tubes to deliver a noninvasive, pulsed electromagnetic field to the treated animal.
As unusual as it may look, science does back the modality. NASA actually uses PEMF to help astronauts stay healthy while in space.
PEMF stimulates cell repair. It interacts with body tissues to speed up regeneration—particularly helpful after an injury. PEMF also increases bone density and speeds healing, as well as decreases pain and inflammation.
Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1979, it was first used by veterinarians on fractures in racehorses. PEMF is now used for a variety of reasons. It has helped horses with arthritis, kissing spine, suspensory tears, hoof injuries and open wounds. It can also benefit dogs with hip dysplasia.
There are no adverse effects to using PEMF. You’ll see benefits immediately, but lasting effects depend on the frequency of sessions administered (i.e., the more sessions given in the beginning, the fewer treatments needed later). Furthermore, acute issues do best with multiple sessions per week for a few weeks, then re-evaluated.
It’s important to note that no modality should replace recommended veterinary care. Additionally, not every veterinarian possesses skills with alternative therapies.
If you use a person other than the animal’s primary veterinarian to administer alternative therapies, you should give all findings to the treating veterinarian as well. Our animals benefit when everyone works together as a team.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.